TOKYO — In the glory days, not all that long ago, Florida grapefruit farmers built their lives around Japan.
And the Japanese stayed true, enjoying grapefruit for breakfast, for dessert, swirled in cocktails, individually wrapped as gifts, even saving the peels for aromatic nightly baths.
Japan has one-third the population of the United States but consumed as much or more Florida grapefruit. Among imports in a typical Tokyo produce aisle, it was second only to bananas.
Now Florida’s grapefruit market is in shambles.
Rampant citrus greening has slashed the state’s already lean supply to its tiniest figure since trade opened in the early 1970s.
In the 2003-04 season, Japan imported 12.1 million cartons of Florida grapefruit.
In 2016-17, 1.58 million cartons.
Forecasters hoped the 2017-18 season running from November to April would be something of a rebound. But the strong winds and rain of September’s Hurricane Irma walloped trees and flooded groves.
Florida farmers have shipped 665,000 cartons to Japan this season.
“This is the lowest, for sure,” said Hiroshi Tsujikawa, president of the company that imported half of all grapefruit that reached Japan this season. “Ever, ever.”
The threats from nature feel insurmountable. But that’s just one side of the disruption.
The Japanese are losing interest.
In the chill of the produce section of a grocery store in Tokyo’s upscale Yoga neighborhood, grapefruit from Florida sits yellow and freckled, tart and sweet, for individual and four-piece sale.
An advertisement sponsored by the Florida Department of Citrus nods to the visible scars and gashes from the state’s environment: “There’s amazing inside.”
Most customers are breezing past or picking up avocados in the next shelf. But Machiko Asami, 72, pushes her cart to the wall of citrus and plucks a white grapefruit. Japan imports almost as much white grapefruit as red, a global anomaly.
This piece has the word “Florida” on it, so in it goes with eggplant and strawberries.
“Florida is very juicy, so it’s good for breakfast,” Asami said. “I like the Ruby, too.”
Asami is the typical customer for grapefruit. Most are housewives, older than 60, responsible for the shopping for her home, and willing to pay a higher price for a fruit that’s been part of the diet for 40 years (on this day about 158 yen, or $1.43 a piece).
But the industry cannot take aging customers for granted. Even the reliable fans are slipping away.
In addition to the higher prices that come with a shrinking supply, there is widespread concern about grapefruit interaction with statin drugs for high blood pressure, a national health problem. This is one reason consumption has fallen in the United States as well.
The risk of grapefruit juice for certain statins is that it allows more of the drug to enter the body, putting someone at risk of side effects, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The effect depends on the type of medication, the amount of grapefruit juice consumed, and someone’s individual health circumstances. But many just prefer to be cautious and avoid it.
“When I want to send grapefruit as a gift, I cannot send it to my parents because they are concerned about the medicine,” Tsujikawa said.
Yamano & Associates, the marketing liaison of the Florida Department of Citrus in Tokyo, has a 35-year history of trying to get Japanese to pay attention to Florida grapefruit.
To promote grapefruit, the agency has partnered with actress Saki Aibu, feng shui expert Dr. Copa, the Rakuten Golden Eagles pro baseball team in the northern city of Sendai, and the Kewpie mayonnaise and salad dressing company for “power salad” recipe cards.
Holidays hold a sentimental place in Japan, so the department celebrates Florida Grapefruit Day on Feb. 24, the height of the season, as a way to pass out samples and generate media buzz with celebrity guests.
Yamano has overseen the department’s advertising campaign at several stores this season, including the Life grocery store near the Tokyo Skytree tower. One of the first things customers see off of the descending escalator into the produce section is a basket of white grapefruit, arranged by produce manager Takahiro Mitsugi, 24.
Mitsugi knows all about Florida grapefruit — who eats it, who doesn’t, how sweet it is compared to other products. But he doesn’t eat it. “I don’t have time,” he said, listing the steps of cutting it in half, adding sugar and getting “the spoon from the shelf.”
What keeps this trade alive is a bond beyond business.
Twenty-three years ago, Tsujikawa was a low-level employee in charge of sourcing grapefruit for Tokyo-based importer Wismettac. He and other Japanese businessmen visited the groves of Indian River three to four times a year, inspecting grove conditions and packinghouses for a week before placing orders. At night they ate steak and seafood at the Ocean Grill, with menus in Japanese, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
Despite a packed schedule, Tsujikawa made time for his favorite Florida getaways, horse racing and jai alai in Miami and spring baseball in Vero Beach, which was especially fun when the Los Angeles Dodgers brought in Japanese ace Hideo Nomo.
“Dodgertown” was alive with relevance. Grapefruit from the Indian River region meant something special around the world. Packers used to get 50 cents a carton more just for the name.
Today, Tsujikawa is president of his company. But the fruit he came up with, the region he grew to know and love, is in serious trouble. (And the Dodgers train in Phoenix.)
Hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 drove the citrus industry to irreversible depths, spreading disease that led to the shedding of groves, packinghouses and people.
“I used to be able to throw a ball through five packinghouses from this packinghouse,” said Dan Richey, president of Riverfront Packing Company in Vero Beach. “Now there’s only five packinghouses in the whole county.”
Richey is doing all he can to keep his family citrus business alive. He owns 4,000 acres of grapefruit in St. Lucie and Indian River counties. Japan is his biggest customer of 37 years, even with the reduced supply. Richey commands 40 percent of the grapefruit exports to Japan.
He has been to Tokyo 40 times. Business was bound to mix with pleasure. Richey has vacationed in the Bahamas with Tsujikawa and climbed Mount Fuji with Hisao Takeda, who oversees Yamano’s marketing in Japan. Masakazu Uchida of the Kyoto-based Royal Corporation, an original importer of Florida grapefruit from the 1970s trade opening, calls Richey his “American son.”
Jimmy Johnson, president of citrus marketing at Premier Citrus, said only one Japanese importer came to his Vero Beach packinghouse this season.
In turn, this was Johnson’s first year in 25 that he did not go to Japan for his business. He had hoped his company would send 400,000 cartons, but Irma whittled it to 100,000.
“I didn’t have anything to tell them but bad news,” Johnson said.
Turkey, Israel and Mexico have emerged as cheaper seasonal rivals in Florida’s absence. Tsujikawa worries possible grapefruit fans will be turned off altogether after trying less juicy grapefruit from somewhere else.
“I eat only Florida grapefruit,” Tsujikawa said. “But general consumers don’t know.”
Every year seems to feel like the bottom. Then it drops again.
George Hamner Jr., the fourth-generation owner of Indian River Exchange Packers, had to end the grapefruit season after the first week of March. It was the earliest end to a season he can remember, even with harsh freezes in the 1980s.
“To get worse than this is to be gone,” he said.
Fighting for a bite
The marketing team knows millennials and their crushing mendokusai — the Japanese phrase for “it’s a hassle” — are a tough sell.
So they’re going a lot younger.
The Yamano firm has helped the citrus department invite kids to cooking classes in Sapporo on Japan’s northernmost island, and planted ads and recipes in their Eco Chil elementary newsletters.
It’s all to get them to take their first bite. Maybe if they like it, the thinking goes, they’ll grow up eating grapefruit and persuade their parents to eat it, too.
The citrus department is also eyeing expectant mothers, paying for a one-page printed advertorial in a semi-governmental booklet distributed to all pregnant women in Japan. It includes a mock grapefruit mojito recipe and touts grapefruit’s folic acid, vitamin C and other health benefits.
Takeda, who oversees Florida’s marketing in Japan, said 1 million booklets were printed in 2017 — more booklets than Japanese births.
Without younger fans, Florida grapefruit’s legacy is in doubt even if a healthy supply returns.
The trends are ominous. Grapefruit was the second-most imported fruit behind bananas from 1996-2011, according to Japanese records. Since then it has slipped behind pineapples, kiwi and oranges.
Grapefruit nearly fell out of the top five in 2017, with avocado on its heels.
“We are probably the most mature product of imported fruit in Japan,” Richey said. “It goes through a cycle.”
People in the markets complain about the higher prices. They ask why a new variety can’t just be engineered — one that can stand up to greening and Japanese demand for sweeter fruit.
Farmers say grapefruit is just going to taste how it tastes. Beauty and curse.
On the grove with greening
Johnson parks his truck on the grove and pulls out a knife. Right there, he cuts a healthy piece of Ruby Red from the branches into halves. He hands off the juicy slices to eat fresh from the tree.
That routine killed with foreign visitors back in the day.
This is a Florida grapefruit story, however, so the fun soon ends. Johnson slices a couple of pieces of mangled green fruit and lays them on the ground for a side-by-side look, healthy versus infected.
The diseased fruit is oblong and small like a tennis ball. The seeds are jutting out from an asymmetrical center.
The work of citrus greening. The bacterium is spread by an Asian citrus psyllid, a tiny insect that feeds on leaves of the tree. It goes after a tree’s vascular system, blocking nutrients from the roots to the fruit on the branches.
Johnson’s company Premier Citrus is one of the largest exporters of grapefruit to Japan, and one of the few packinghouses remaining in the Indian River region. Premier brings on seasonal workers at the start of the international season in fall to operate machines that wash, sort and seal the grapefruit with a protective seal.
Japan is 80 percent of Premier’s business, but there is some promise for new customers in South Korea, where young adults are eating grapefruit. Without more volume, there is little point in trying to expand.
Johnson is an optimist, so he looks at the upcoming season as a chance to start clean.
“If there’s one good thing about this year, we’ll have all of the fruit picked off of the tree,” Johnson said. “So the tree when it blooms, it won’t be putting energy into holding last year’s crop.”
The ideal market would be 2 million cartons to Japan a year. In these circumstances, that’s a few years away barring more major storms.
Tsujikawa likes that Florida farmers are fighting, which so far means throwing money at solutions that haven’t worked. Grapefruit has proven the most susceptible to greening and least responsive to therapies, Richey said. He has researched genetic modification, tried acid injections at the root systems and tenting trees in the hottest temperatures they can stand to kill the bacteria — “anything short of voodoo.”
Premier Citrus recruited one of the state’s leading citrus scientists, Harold Browning, to lead its citrus-greening fight in a new research company.
Richey is planting more lemons and oranges, which better resist the disease. “At this point you have to plant what you can grow, not what you want to plant to market,” he said.
Hamner, the fourth-generation owner, has a nightmare of walking into a supermarket without Florida grapefruit on the shelf. What makes it worse in his head is that no one misses it or cares.
“Maybe we should have quit a long time ago, and we might have saved ourselves a lot of money,” Hamner said. “The reality is we don’t really know how to quit.”
This story was made possible by a grant from the International Center for Journalists.