One thing that I really love about living in Gunma is that we can enjoy both the city life here in Maebashi and rural life just outside of town. Everywhere you go you see vegetable gardens in people’s front yards, community garden plots in empty lots for people who aren’t lucky enough to have a yard, and small farm plots with all sorts of fruits, vegetables, and grains.
Our friends Tomomi and Yoshi are part of a community of farmers in the town of Yoshioka, which is northwest of Maebashi. Yoshi’s parents farm Satsuma-imo, Japanese sweet potatoes. Some of their neighbors farm grapes and strawberries. So since the seasons when each crop needs a lot of work are different, they take turns helping out on each others’ farms. On Sunday, they invited us and a bunch of our friends to help at Noriko’s grape farm. There they grow 28 varieties of grapes, which will ripen in the fall. The grapes at the farm have won several awards; they even have a photo on the wall of Prime Minister Fukuda (a Gunma native) paying a visit to the farm. Although you might like the sound of doing farm work for free at first, it’s actually quite fun (at least for a few days!).
Noriko trims a bunch of grapes | our crew of guest farmers
We arrived in late morning, but our hosts had already done half a day’s work by then, so they were taking a tea break.
After tea, we got to work. It was raining that day, so we worked in the greenhouse. First we worked in pairs to find all of the grape blossoms and small bunches of grapes that were still on the vines. They steal nutrients from the developing bunches of grapes, so we had to cut them off. Noriko also showed us how they trim the flowers earlier in the spring to get the best grapes. They actually remove most of the small blossoms until only a pinky-finger sized section is left. This will grow into a bunch of grapes that is just the right size.
some of the grapes that we had to trim: grape flowers | a small bunch of immature grapes | a heart-shaped grape
Next, I learned how to thin the grape bunches. There are too many grapes on each bunch, so we had to cut some of them off to allow the rest of them room to grow. Noriko showed me how to cut off the ones that were growing in the center of the bunch and the ones that were too close together. With extra room, the grapes will grow to be the size of ping-pong balls. The variety that we were trimming was still green, but eventually they will turn almost black when they ripen.
We trimmed bunches like the one on the left until they looked like this one on the right
We finished working around 3:00 and had a snack of tea, pickles, homegrown cucumbers and tomatoes, and dango. Then we cleaned up and had a relaxing soak at Shibukawa Onsen before we headed back to Yoshi’s parents’ house for a barbecue dinner. It was a great, fun day on the farm for us. I’m really looking forward to going back to see the grapes when they ripen, I am sure that all of the different shapes and colors will be a beautiful sight to see.
a lovely homegrown tomato | our afternoon snack (pickled daikon, dango, salted cucumbers, umeboshi) | sakuranbo, Japanese cherries, that we had for dessert at the barbecue