Mike Tharp: A tale of two agricultures

Japanese agritourism students visit Merced to observe how our county promotes its most precious commodity

November 12, 2011 

The opening line of "Snow Country," a novel by Nobel-winner Yasunari Kawabata, reads: "The train came out of the long tunnel into snow country."

Anyone who has ever ridden that train knows that you can leave Japan's Gumma Prefecture in fine fall sunshine and appear on the other side of the tunnel in Niigata Prefecture amid snowdrifts. The tunnel bores through a mountain range that creates different weather on each side.

Last weekend, 73 folks from Niigata took a trans-Pacific tunnel from Japan to Merced for the purpose of agritourism. It was the latest visit by students and faculty from Niigata Prefectural Agricultural College to see how Mercedians practice ag. Jean Okuye and her daughter, Sheryl Okuye Sauter, help arrange the visits and place the agritourists with 25 or so local families for home stays.

They and a growing number of others believe that we should lead with our strength, agriculture, in promoting reasons to visit Merced County. The $2 billion annual revenue generated from our farms, fields and orchards powers our local economy. And people like Jean and Sheryl are leveraging that asset to promote agritourism.

"We should put our ag out front," Jean says. She's traveled as far as Italy and Israel to see how other places market their ag to tourists.

The sites visited by the Niigatans -- joined later by a smaller band from Fukuoka Prefecture -- read like a what's-what of successful ag operations: Hilmar Cheese, Merced Ranch Supply, Kellogg's Supply, Merced Fruit Barn, Resendiz Family Fruit Barn, Chance Cattle Ranch, David Silveira's Community Supported Agriculture operation, Blue Diamond in Modesto, Derik Bouker's Flower, Harcksen Bees and Honey, Bob Chad's farm and AV Thomas Sweet Potato.

And many of the host families could simply take their guests outside and show them their own ag achievements. County Supervisor Deidre Kelsey and her family barbecued tri-tip Sunday night for the guests at their Snelling ranch. Jim Cunningham, who seems to play a role in everything worthwhile that happens in Merced, says he's "never seen kids as polite -- everything we did they said, 'Thank you...please.' We learn something. They learn something."

For their part the Japanese tried to absorb an America as far removed from their pop-culture impressions of the U.S. as Livingston is from Hollywood. No Disneyland in Cressey -- but an elegant spread owned by Joe Bettencourt and his family.

A large fish pond crossed by arching foot bridges could have come from a Hiroshige woodblock print. Emily Hashimoto, 19, a high-spirited young woman from the college wearing a bunny hat, posed for pictures with friends on the bridge. Her family farms rice back home. "Very fantastic!" she blurted in English describing her visit.

Hiroshi Yasuda, associate professor of horticulture management at the Niigata college, said he and his students had learned about American farming, history and culture. He was inspired by "your big farms, your life on farms."

Most farms in Japan are small, averaging 25 to 50 acres. Niigata, ringed by mountains on the south and the Japan Sea on the west, is famous for both its rice and its sake, the alcoholic drink made from rice. Japanese rice is the best-tasting in the world. The archipelago is home to some of the highest-tech devices ever created but is also home to some rice farmers who still plant their seedlings in paddies by hand. But most planting and nearly all harvesting have become mechanized.

The Japanese government historically has protected the country's farmers from outside competition, as well as subsidizing certain crops. That's no different in kind from what the U.S. and European governments do for their farmers, and the degree of cosseting rural Japanese has eased in recent years.

Joe Bettencourt, host of Monday's farewell gathering, could have been talking about Japan when he noted that it's harder and harder to count on a younger generation to take the reins from him and his son.

Born in the Azores, he started a dairy in Hilmar in 1970. In 1985 he and his son took over 350 acres outside Cressey. The pond was there, but Joe added "a few rocks and boulders and imaginations." One little house sits near the pond, which Joe built to remind himself of the ranchette his dad had built for his family's summers on the Atlantic islands' beach. "It's been a dream for my wife Mary and me," he says.

Joe's glad that "a lot of young people come to see us" but adds, "During the last five years it's been pretty hard for a young man to hold on."

After eating at outside tables, the Japanese guests demonstrated some countryside tricks -- kendama, catching a wooden ball tethered to an egg-shaped holder, and ayatori, a cat's cradle of string. Ayumi Kainuma of the Japan Travel Bureau said another group will come to Merced next year.

As they started piling on their tour buses, the young Japanese yelled their thanks in English, flourishing two fingers in the universal peace sign. It's clear they'll never forget their brief time in Merced, nor will their hosts forget them.

And that's the whole point of agritourism.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsunstar.com

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