OKTYABRSKY, Russia--In the first major agricultural project by a Japanese company in the Russian Far East, Ebistrade Inc. has started growing buckwheat, a move that could cut Japan's dependence on China for the crop.
Ebistrade planted buckwheat over 170 hectares in the coastal Primorsky region this year and will export half of the projected 200-ton harvest to Japan, with plans to increase production if the crop meets expectations.
"The Primorsky region is a major breadbasket right next to Japan, although it has drawn little attention," said Yasuo Yamada, a manager at Ebistrade. "The farmers are also well-educated."
The trading house has concluded contracts with three farmers, including Anatoly Timchisin in the Oktyabrsky district near the border with China, 150 kilometers north of Vladivostok.
A Russian employee of Ebistrade, camera in hand, recently joined Timchisin at his farm to inspect flowers and seeds for a report to the company's head office in Tokyo.
"They are growing well," Timchisin, 53, said, as he looked out over his 100-hectare field covered by buckwheat flowers.
Russians eat boiled buckwheat seeds as a side dish, and the country is a major buckwheat producer, with many experienced farmers.
One of the main advantages of the Primorsky region is that Japanese agricultural technologies can be utilized there because its climate is similar to that of Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island.
Ebistrade has selected varieties of buckwheat similar to those grown in Japan, and the company will also provide technical guidance in drying and seed selection processes for the Japanese market.
Because the quality of buckwheat tends to deteriorate during transportation, the geographical proximity of the Primorsky region would also make it an ideal export base to Japan.
If the current crop meets quality standards, the company will expand production from next year and increase imports to 10,000 tons--nearly 10 percent of Japan's annual demand--in five years.
Japan consumes about 130,000 tons of buckwheat a year, and China accounts for 80 percent of the 100,000 tons imported annually, according to Ebistrade figures.
Japan imports about 90 percent of its corn, wheat, soybeans and other major crops, excluding rice. A majority of those imports come from a handful of countries including the United States, Canada and Australia. Crop imports from Russia, however, have been extremely limited.
Many companies from China and South Korea have already been growing soybeans and other crops over large tracts of land in the Primorsky region for several years.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, vast agricultural lands in the Russian Far East were abandoned due to economic confusion and depopulation. Chinese and South Korean companies rented the deserted farmlands at bargain rates and started growing crops there when global food prices surged around 2006-2008.
Ebistrade is set to become the first Japanese firm to engage in large-scale farming in the Russian Far East.
The current Ebistrade project started when Shinryo, a food trading house in Tokyo, contacted the company to find countries other than China from which it can import buckwheat.
Ebistrade had a network of contacts in the Primorsky region because it grew rapeseeds, which are used for biofuel, on a trial basis there for two years through 2011.
Like many Chinese and South Korean companies, Ebistrade plans to eventually set up a joint venture and acquire a large plot of land in the Russian Far East.
As interest in the area grows, the company may be followed by other Japanese businesses.
Under the initiative of Hokkaido Bank, an agricultural corporation in Hokkaido and other organizations plan to open a 1,000-hectare farm outside Khabarovsk next spring to produce corn for livestock feed, milk and other products.
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