In mid-December, the sweet potato fields are blanketed in snow after harvesting.
This is Izawa Farm in Kuriyama. We interviewed Izawa Ayaka, a member of the Sorachi Minami Sweet Potato Club, a farmers' group engaged in the production of Yukkuri-imo.
The storage room by the house is filled with sweet potatoes of the Beni Azuma variety. Why did the producers in Yuni and Kuriyama join forces to work together?
Izawa says, "The catalyst was the merger of agricultural cooperatives." The JAs of Kuriyama and Yuni merged and became a single organization in 2009. She says, "The youth clubs also merged, but even though they tried to work together, they couldn't seem to bring their focus towards the same direction." Against this backdrop, the members of the 4H Club, an organization of young people, from both towns began to take on challenges of activities that involved cooperating with each other. They started sweet potato cultivation around 2016, initially with six households under a joint project.
Both towns have agriculture as their core industry and produce a wide variety of vegetables, but surprisingly, they do not have any special products of their own. The lack of successors to the farms is also a common concern in both towns, and they agreed that they want their children enjoy great tasting sweet potatoes and be proud of the fact that they can grow such delicious crops.
There was also the idea that sweet potatoes would be an interesting choice because they had not yet been grown in Hokkaido before. Sweet potatoes are vulnerable to cold weather and have been considered unsuitable for the cooler climate of Hokkaido. Currently, the main production areas are still Kyushu and Kanto. In recent years, however, cultivation of sweet potatoes for shochu and food has been growing in various parts of Hokkaido. In addition to the ingenuity and hard work of growers, the rise in temperatures due to global warming has also been a driving force.
The deciding factor in choosing Beni Azuma from among many varieties was its ease of production and deliciousness. Sweet potatoes require a certain cumulative temperature (the sum of the average daily temperatures) before they can be harvested, which varies by variety. The Beni Azuma has a relatively low cumulative temperature of about 2,400 degrees Celsius. Still, it takes about a month longer than in Honshu, with seedlings planted in mid-May and harvested around the end of September. Izawa explains, "The deadline for harvesting is shorter than in Honshu because the sweet potatoes rot in the soil after a frost." The length of time spent in the soil is the first reason for the name Yukkuri-imo, which is based on the concept of, "slowly growing over time" (Yukkuri means slowly and imo means sweet potato).
Another origin of the name Yukkuri-imo is that it is "aged slowly over time" in a special-purpose facility.
Sweet potatoes are grown over a long period of time, and then allowed to mature at a leisurely pace. In addition, they also took the "Yu" from Yuni and "Kuri" from Kuriyama to make the name Yukkuri-imo in the hope that the sweet potatoes would become a specialty of the two towns.
In November 2023, the fifth Sweet Potato Festival was held in Yuni. Sweets made from Yukkuri-imo were also available.
Yukkuri-imo Hatake no Caramel is a new product created in September 2023 in collaboration with Tanida Seika in Kuriyama. These efforts involving a long-established local confectionery store and young farmers is generating a great deal of interest.
The club was founded in 2017 and is now in its seventh year. The club now has 30 members (including 26 farmers) and is gradually gaining recognition through media coverage and other exposure.
Izawa says, "Yukkuri-imo is easy to use in cooking and making sweets, so it is a very versatile and appealing ingredient."
Takahiro, a partner of the group, says, "In order to contribute to the local community, we would like to eventually take on the challenge of cooperation between agriculture and the welfare sector. We would be happy if more people want to get involved in agriculture through these kinds of activities."
Izawa says, “Farmers have different methods, crops, and specific preferences, varying from household to household. Therefore, when households get together like this and work collaboratively, it opens up possibilities that cannot be done by a family-run business, and it also increases the attachment to the crops.”
Why do young people gather in the fields, from different towns? As a consumer, it is comforting to know that one of the reasons for this is fun.
Sorachi Minami Sweet Potato Club