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A trio of passionfruit growers aiming to produce the perfect, 5-star passionfruit (Itoman City)
post : 2021.11.25 20:00
Under the brilliant and nourishing rays of Okinawa’s sunshine, sweet and juicy passionfruits are grown by a trio of farmers, Kiyonori Oshiro, Choshin Okuma, and Kiyohiro Yoshihama, in Itoman City.
The three unique individuals work together by contributing their experiences and knowledge as they tend to the passionfruits. Their farm is situated in an elevated area just a minute or two from the Peace Memorial Park, where the comfortable breeze from the nearby coastline carries rich minerals to help grow nutrient-packed passionfruits.
One of the first things I learned as soon as I started the interview for this article was that passionfruits are very delicate – it takes a lot of care and effort for pollination. In fact, successful pollination is quite difficult. When naturally pollinating crops, farmers seek the assistance of honeybees, but when it comes to passionfruits, things aren’t as easy. Even when utilizing bumblebees, the plump bees that are known for their high pollination activities, the success rate is still not that high.
According to the three men, the flowers of the passionfruits bloom only for a single day. On their farm, the passionfruits flower just twice in their lifespan, once from November to December, and the second and last time from March to April. The flowers bloom only for about 12 hours during the day, and by that evening, the petals close. In the winter months, the flowers tend to bloom later in the afternoon so the chance to see them in full bloom is even shorter. Maybe it’s the fleeting moments of their beauty that enhance the romantic characteristics of these flowers.
After the petals open, they’re not quite yet ready for pollination. It takes several hours for the stamen to mature and are ready for pollination. They for just the right timing and use their fingers to attach the pollen to the pistils. Each of their fields is about 990 hectares, an area of about 600 tatami mats. When in season, the fields are shining with blossoms. “At the height of the bloom, there are over a thousand buds that flower,” says Yoshihama-san. Because pollination doesn’t occur naturally, it has to be all done by hand. With the clock ticking, it’s like Cinderella racing home before the clock strikes the last bell. “On top of that, pollination is greatly affected by the weather. On cloudy days, the success rate of pollination falls by about 20% and on rainy days, it’s even lower,” adds Oshiro-san. “Still, we don’t give up. We keep on going. Why? Because the flowers are blooming, of course,” Yoshihama-san chimes in.
The men harvest the passionfruits twice a year, with their main harvest through March and April, and the other in May to June. “The passionfruit shrubs that grow over the winter months have a longer period of branching as trees. This allows them to absorb more nutrients which increase their sweetness and turns out very delicious.” Oshiro-san says they work very hard especially in the springtime during their first harvest of the year. The blooming season for the first harvest is in the winter months, and during that time, they use the lighting cultivation technique just like in growing chrysanthemums. “Passionfruits need more than 13 hours of light to get the flower buds,” explains Yoshihama-san. During the winter when sunrise is later, they need to light up the farm very early, from around 4:00 in the morning.
There are three things that the men are very careful about in growing delicious passionfruits. First, the soil. Making good soil is a necessity in growing crops, and they do so mainly by fermenting the compost with a blend of cow manure, sawdust, rice husks, straw, and others. “Every year, we request the Japanese Agricultural Association to analyze our soil and we make adjustments to supplement areas that need it and eliminate too much or unnecessary things,” says Oshiro-san. To increase the sugar content of the fruits, liquid fertilizers containing amino acids are added. Generally, fruit trees require more phosphorus, but for the passionfruits, it’s more nitrogen that they need.
“That doesn’t mean that giving them plenty of nitrogen results in a good harvest. With more nitrogen comes more insects. We have to take a close look at each shrub and adjust accordingly. We also look at the condition of each tree to determine how much we want it to flower. Robust trees can handle five or six flowers, whereas those that aren’t as strong, we limit them to three or four. If we let trees that aren’t as healthy to flower a lot, then that makes the trees wilt away. It’s important to not be greedy,” the three men said.
They also said that sometimes, a tree will naturally let its green, unripe fruits fall to the ground. By doing this, the tree gets revitalized and can flower a second time. The green fruits are harvested and hung in the greenhouse to ripen.
Another important thing is to limit the use of agricultural chemicals. Scale insects harm passionfruit trees and they increase in number around harvest time. During that time, the three men prune the trees to let the breeze flow through the branches, then they spray wood vinegar. “In this way, we make it hard for the scale insects to stick around. In other words, we try to make a balance of living with the scale insects,” said the three men with happy expressions.
The third important thing they do is to replant saplings every year. After the second harvest, around the beginning of July, after the rainy season has passed, they knock down the passionfruit trees that blessed them for a full year. The farm is cleared of the bushes and around the end of August, new saplings are replanted. “The younger plants are more robust and so are less prone to disease, and they bless us with lots of fruits, too. This way, we don’t have to use pesticides to get rid of the scale insects. Luckily, we have a very sturdy greenhouse for our passionfruits, so we don’t have to worry about typhoons when we plant the saplings. Then, over the months of winter to spring, the plants grow slowly and produce deliciously sweet passionfruits,” shared the three men, full of confidence and joy.
Passionfruits have come to be a popular ingredient for desserts and as purees, and they have attracted customers who repeatedly buy their harvests, even from as far away as mainland Japan. “That’s why we, as producers, are motivated to produce great passionfruits, and cultivation techniques, in general, are heightened." The wonderful characteristics of passionfruits are found in the fine balance of acidity and sweetness, and of course, the sweet fragrance. They taste especially great on those hot days of summer when your body is exhausted from the heat. Passionfruits were brought to Okinawa in the 1950s via Hawaii, and for a while, they had a strong following but only among a limited population. The nationwide TV drama, Churasan, and the G8 Okinawa Summit put Okinawa in the spotlight and attracted more and more Okinawa fans.
The day that I visited the farm for the interview was just before noon on a bright, sunny day immediately after the rainy season. Even with the heat of the sun intensifying as it approached above our heads, the three men welcomed me with cheerful smiles. “We take it easy around noon on hot days. In the summer months, we rise early to get to work in the mornings, and then from just before sunset into the evening,” Okuma-san, the eldest of the three farmers said, slightly apologetically. He continued, “Farming is freedom. After retiring from my work as a civil servant, I chose farming as my second career. As long as nature will let me, I use my time freely, all based on my own judgement. That’s something that I hadn’t experienced before.”
Oshiro-san grew up in a family of generations of farmers – his grandfather and father were farmers, too. His father began growing passionfruits and after he retired, Oshiro-san took over. Yoshihama-san used to work in the food and beverage industry, but through chance meetings, he changed careers eight years ago. He also grows eggplants and other vegetables. These three men are of different generations and experiences, but they share a common passion for passionfruits. Through agriculture, we can say that they are true ambassadors of Okinawa.
Okinawa CLIP photo writer, Nobuya Fukuda.