Nobuo and Fumiko Suzuki have one of the few commercial plum orchards left in Tokyo.
You can read the tradition of the place from the names on the map. It is in Baigo, literally “plum village,” in the city of Ome, which means “unripe plums,” on the western edge of the metropolis. The people of Ome, a picturesque spot surrounded by wooded hills and streams, have been supplying the fruit to hungry Tokyoites for as long as anyone can remember.
Every spring, the city’s biggest attraction, Ome Plum Park, right next to the Suzuki farm, draws tens of thousands of visitors to view the blossoms.
But all is not well under the beautiful flowers. The Suzukis were told this spring that their 148-tree orchard will be cut down to prevent the spread of plum pox virus (PPV), a disease carried by aphids that deforms the fruit of stone fruit trees and discolors their leaves. This year’s harvest, which began in mid-June, will be the trees’ last.
“I grew up with these trees, and the money that my father earned from them put me through school,” says Nobuo Suzuki. Several of the trees on the estate are nearly a century old. “It will be hard to look on when the cutters finally come.”
The Ome PPV outbreak, the first of its kind in Japan, was first detected in 2009. Officials at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, working with research conducted by Tokyo University, have determined that the entire Ome region is infected.
No one knows how the disease arrived, although one supposition is that it was brought on a bonsai about 20 years ago. The effects remain largely invisible and the blight poses no danger to customers, but there is no cure except for mass felling.
“The best thing to do is cut down every plum tree to make sure the virus is completely eradicated and then replant after three years,” says Toru Tomita of Ome city’s forestry section.
But that, according to Suzuki and other concerned growers, is not what is going to happen. The Baigo neighborhood alone boasts 25,000 plum trees--but many of the modern trees are no longer valued for their fruit.
Farmers started planting plums in large numbers soon after World War II, following a government program to help bring money into the Ome area. But in recent years, the area has been transformed into a rustic dormitory town for central Tokyo, 40 kilometers away, and an outdoorsman’s paradise. Scores of trails wind through the surrounding hills.
The number of commercial growers--defined as landowners who harvest 3 tons of fruit a year from their trees--has dwindled. Only 89 attended the city’s March meeting announcing the planned felling, out of 160 invited.
From the growers’ perspective, the planned response to the outbreak is a worrying halfway house between their needs and the imperatives of tourism. Officials will determine on a tree-by-tree basis which plums are commercial and which are decorative. If a random sampling of a commercial orchard finds that 10 percent of the trees are infected, then the entire site has to be cleared, with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government buying each tree on a varying price scale. Decorative trees, meanwhile, will be spared as far as is possible, in order to preserve the landscape.
“That doesn’t really guarantee that the virus is gone, does it?” says Suzuki, citing practice in Europe, where the disease originated. If an infection is suspected on a single tree there, he says, all other trees within 800 meters are immediately taken down. “We’re not ready to be drastic. What we’re doing here is prolonging the problem.”
The plan to keep up appearances may also backfire. Until now, the growers haven’t had to pay land tax, as an incentive to keep them producing plums, but many are wary of starting over again after a three-year wait, only to get reinfected again.
A few have leveled their orchards themselves, given up their tax-exempt status and put up condos. A score of new houses now border Suzuki’s grove.
- « Prev
- Next »