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Italian vegetables grown to help child-rearing women

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Chef Mikio Abe, left, tries an Italian vegetable grown by Risa Ikeda in Sakata, Yamagata Prefecture.

The Yomiuri ShimbunSAKATA, Yamagata — Located near Mt. Chokai, the city of Sakata in Yamagata Prefecture is blessed with a cold climate, which has inspired local women to produce Italian vegetables mainly to help women with children.

The project was launched by members of a local study group established for women interested in agriculture. The 21 group members study how to promote the industry and at the same time develop an appealing community by taking advantage of women’s inspiration and their flexible ideas, which transcend occupations.

Eleven of the study group’s members, including company employees and students, are not farmers.

The city’s agriculture industry had 1,090 female workers in 2015, about 40 percent of the industry’s total workforce, according to the municipal government’s agriculture policy section. However, men usually play the central role in the management of agricultural businesses.

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  • Courtesy of Risa Ikeda

    Minestrone made by Abe using Italian vegetables from Ikeda’s farm

  • Courtesy of Risa Ikeda

  • Courtesy of Risa Ikeda

  • Courtesy of Risa Ikeda

The study group was launched in June last year by the municipal government, with the aim of not only training female farmers but also exloring consumers’ needs from women’s perspective.

Akiko Iyoda, 42, a member of the study group and a farmer, said the group can be engaged in activities based on a woman’s point of view, such as “producing vegetables [consumers can trust as] safe for children to eat.”

As part of the group’s activities, the members met with female consumers living in Yokohama in November last year, who said they preferred eating safe and “stylish” vegetables.

These requests prompted Risa Ikeda, 29, to take on the challenge of producing Italian vegetables. Ikeda is an employee at Tohoku University of Community Service and Science in the city whose in-laws are part-time farmers.

The municipal government’s biotechnology research and training center provided Ikeda with young plants of six kinds of Italian vegetables that are considered suitable for beginning-level growers. The six include leafy greens and a type of beet.

Ikeda started growing the vegetables in August on a 50-square-meter plot of land in the city that had been fallow for a while. It was the first time for a member of the study group to try her hand at growing crops, so Ikeda was initially unsure about what to do and found her plants were damaged by pests.

“I was committed to growing without chemicals,” Ikeda said, “so I used pyroligneous acid and removed the pests by hand,” adding she works in the field with the aim of helping mothers who are rearing children.

It took 1½ months for Ikeda to grow enough beets to harvest, which were provided to other members of the study group and local restaurants.

“It [Ikeda’s produce] was surprisingly good for vegetables produced by a beginner,” said Koji Kurita, a senior trainer of the center.

Ikeda is harvesting the leafy greens such as cavolo nero (Tuscan kale) this month when the vegetables develop good flavor as the weather becomes colder. She will bring the produce to consumers in Yokohama to get their feedback.

Other members of the group and a chef visited Ikeda’s field in late September to check the quality of her produce and discuss how they can be cooked.

“[Ikeda’s] Italian vegetables are tasty and have rich flavors,” said Mikio Abe, the owner-chef of Seiyou Kappou Kagetsu, a local Western-style restaurant. “They can be served best in salads and soups.”

When shipping the vegetables, the group also plans to add recipes in the hope that they will help mothers decide their dinner menus.

In the future, the group aims to not only sell the vegetables in the Tokyo metropolitan area, but also ask local restaurants to feature the produce in their dishes as a new Sakata specialty.

“We aim to expand the scale of producing the vegetables by taking advantage of ties among women,” Iyoda said.

Ikeda said she hopes to launch a home-delivery service.

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