We slip into the bath and with us
bob these bright ripe yuzu, small suns
spangling the warm water’s surface.
That this planet would permit us
such a golden age — flush, sipping
wine from hollowed fruit rinds as they do in Kitagawa —
is no surprise. But we must tend our orchards
carefully, or rise to find we’ve squandered the harvest.
Each month we delve into a new story inspired by our scent of the month. This month, Grapefruit + Yuzu has us meditating on the sustainable farming practices necessary to keep fruits like yuzu from becoming extinct.
The farmers of Kōchi Prefecture, where half of all the yuzu in Japan grows, have a saying about this unique citrus fruit: “Three years for peach or chestnut, eight years for persimmon, and eighteen years for silly old yuzu.”1 The adage refers to the length of time it takes for a yuzu tree to mature, but the “silly old” label could just as easily apply to the fruit itself.
Kōchi Prefecture; Source: Wikipedia.com
On first glance, yuzu is not much to look at: a small, lemon-like fruit with a thick, uneven yellow rind. Sliced open, it offers more seed than pulp.
While it may not be the most gorgeous fruit you’d spy at the market, the yuzu has nonetheless caused quite a craze here in the United States, showing up in everything from facial scrubs and body lotions to cocktails, ceviche, and even vegan mayonnaise substitutes. Celebrity chef David Bouley even drinks a concoction of yuzu juice and water every morning; he says it gives him a nice energy boost to start the day.2
“Yuzunone, an oil found in the yuzu’s peel, is said to stimulate pores and improve circulation for healthier skin.”
Yuzu’s big moment is thanks, in part, to a complex flavor: more floral, more fragrant, and more intense than other citrus fruits. Its juice can withstand high-temperature cooking, making it a natural choice for chefs in search of a nuanced citrus flavor that won’t break down in the heat of the kitchen.3
Yuzu is also prized for its health benefits. The fruit contains high doses of vitamin C and pectin, which promote immune system health and intestinal function, respectively. Yuzunone, an oil found in the yuzu’s peel, is said to stimulate pores and improve circulation for healthier skin.4
A newcomer to U.S. shores, yuzu has been a fixture of Japanese culture since arriving on the archipelago from China in the seventh century.5 The fruit’s juice and zest have long been common ingredients in kaiseki, Japan’s name for haute cuisine, and it is a key ingredient in certain versions of ponzu, a citrus-based soy sauce dating back to the 17th century.6
A yuzuyu bath; Source: Nippon.com
Nor were skincare-savvy American consumers the first to discover yuzu’s beautifying properties. Since the 1600s, Japanese people have soaked in Yuzu-infused baths called “yuzuyu” during the winter solstice. The practice is thought to ward off illness, and the warm citrus scent of yuzu reminds bathers of the spring months to come.7
A Village Built on Yuzu Groves
For the citizens of Umaji, a small village of 900 people nestled in Kōchi Prefecture, yuzu is a way of life. Once a key hub for forestry, the village fell on tough times during the 1970s when the industry began declining across Japan. This could have been a death knell for Umaji, but Tōtani Mochifumi, who now serves as president of the JA Umaji agricultural cooperative, had an idea.
JA Umaji President Tōtani Mochifumi; Source: Nippon.com
A native of the area, Tōtani had grown up eating yuzu. At the time, the fruit did not enjoy widespread national popularity in Japan, but Tōtani was confident he could change that by making people see the virtues of yuzu. He “embarked on a one-man campaign to disseminate Kōchi’s ‘yuzu culture,’” to quote Doi Emi of Nippon.com, personally visiting markets and food fairs around Japan to preach the yuzu gospel.8
Tōtani’s efforts paid off, as they helped spark a yuzu renaissance in Japan. That was good news for Umaji’s farmers, who were to play a key role in keeping yuzu supplies high. Thus, the village’s economy found renewed vigor.
In the 1980s, when Tōtani was an assistant manager at JA Umaji, he pushed for the cooperative to go even further by producing not only yuzu itself, but also its own branded yuzu products like sauces and soft drinks. It worked: today, these yuzu products bring more than $27 million annually to Umaji. That’s not to mention the tourist industry that has grown up alongside the farms, which regularly attracts tens of thousands of visitors every year.9
“Umaji’s yuzu-driven redemption also raises important concerns about monocropping.”
You Can’t Live on Yuzu Alone
Inspiring as it is, Umaji’s yuzu-driven redemption also raises important concerns about monocropping, a farming practice in which the same crop is grown on the same land year after year.
Monocropping is quite common around the world. While Umaji’s farms are focused on yuzu, monocropping in the U.S. often takes the form of cash crops like wheat, corn, or soybeans.
Farmers often turn to monocropping for economic reasons. Polyculturist Jonathan Engels calls it “the assembly line of agriculture” for the way it streamlines crop production. Monocropping operations only need to invest in one set of tools and techniques because they only deal with one type of crop. All told, this makes monocropping far more cost-effective in the short term than many other farming methods. 10
Monocropping; Source: Shutterstock
Which is not to say monocropping carries no economic risks. All farming methods do, and monocropping is far from exempt. Because monocropping depends on one type of crop, a bad year for that crop due to environmental or other factors can lead to economic devastation for the farm. In fact, even a good harvest can be a cause for concern: if too much of a crop floods the market, prices will plummet. Part of the reason why JA Umaji decided to create its own yuzu products was to stabilize prices in the event of such a bumper crop.11
Monocrops also provide pests and diseases with an easy target. By concentrating huge amounts of the same plant in one place, they essentially offer an all-you-can-eat buffet.12 Whereas a more diverse group of plants could mitigate the spread of pests, a monocrop is vulnerable to total collapse if the problem gets bad enough. The Irish Potato Famine, which claimed one million lives,13 was partially the result of monocropping. With Irish farmers all depending on the same kind of potato, it was easy for the Phytophthora infestans mold to take hold and spread throughout the nation.14 It’s not hard to imagine a similar fate befalling Umaji’s yuzu crop.
“A biological arms race between pesticide manufacturers and pests, each side racing to outdo the other.”
To defend against pests and diseases, monocrop farmers must rely on chemical pesticides. However, over time, pests can evolve immunities to these chemicals. This interplay leads to what is essentially a biological arms race between pesticide manufacturers and pests, each side racing to outdo the other.15 It’s similar to the dynamic that produces antibiotic-resistant “superbugs,” only these invincible diseases affect our food supplies.16
A pawpaw; Source: NPR
Consider also the way monocropping has flattened our feasting, contributing to a dietary monoculture that limits us to eating only what big agribusinesses deem profitable. The pawpaw, or “hillbilly mango” as it is playfully called, was once a staple of American diets. Indigenous North Americans relied on them, and they were supposedly one of George Washington’s favorite desserts. However, the rise of industrial farming nearly wiped pawpaws off the map. These days, only a small minority of people have been lucky enough to taste this singular fruit, whose flavor has been called wine-like in its intricacy.17
While many farmers understand the hazards of monocropping, the fact remains that the mainstream agricultural industry’s very nature makes this method alluring. Moreover, there are the government subsidies to contend with. Roughly 80 percent of the farm subsidies handed out by the U.S. government go to mid-size and large-size farming operations. As Fair Farms Maryland notes, “By mainly giving subsidies to industrial-sized farms, the government is primarily supporting monocrop farming operations that utilize intensive farming practices like chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, and minimal crop rotation.”18
Agroforestry in Ghana, piloted by Dr. Bronner’s; Source: ThriveMarket.com
Taking A Stand
The farmer and poet Wendell Berry, an ardent critic of big agribusiness’s tendency to prioritize profit over the planet, has long advocated for “a farming culture in which everything helps everything else — following the example of nature.”19
“If you work against [nature], as we are now doing, she’ll work against you,” Berry says. At that point, there’s only one question left: “Who’s going to decide who is going to starve when you get done polluting and eroding the arable land, and destroying all the world’s cultures of land husbandry?”20
Luckily, dedicated organizations and individuals are pushing back to ensure we don’t ever reach such a bleak moment. Polyculturists like Engels advocate for farming practices in which many different kinds of plants are grown alongside one another at the same time, just like in nature. Agroforestry is one interesting type of polyculture in which farms are built on the model of natural forests, with tall trees providing cover for a mixture of crops below.21This helps prevent large-scale pestilence outbreaks, and it also keeps soil healthier because the plants are not all competing for the same nutrients.22
Diagram of a typical agroforestry operation;; Source: GreenPolicy360
Meanwhile, organizations like the Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA) — spear-headed by thoughtful consumer brands like Dr. Bronner’s, Patagonia, and AlterEco — have put together comprehensive guidelines to help farmers adopt more sustainable modes of crop cultivation.
The ROA is currently piloting a Regenerative Organic Certification program. Once live, the program will grant farms certification if they follow a set of environmentally friendly farming methods like crop rotation, biodiversity, non-GMO crops, and more.23
Modern industrial farming techniques may provide us with yuzu and other crops for now, but a system that rejects the principles of the very environment it depends on is bound to fail. Instead of repeating the mistakes of the past, we have the unprecedented opportunity to build a more just, more verdant, and more beautiful world. That future may seem to some like a dream, but as groups like the ROA can attest, it’s easier to grasp than we might think.
As renowned nature photograph Daniel Beltra says, “If we can send someone to the moon, surely our problems here can’t be so insurmountable.”24