As Summer draws to a close, the most important event in the Japanese farming calender has arrived – the rice harvest.
Rice crops grow rapidly in the heat and humidity of the Japanese Summer. As the rice develops, crops becomes heavily laden with grain and eventually start to dry and yellow.
The soil beds of the paddies remain moist, but are generally no longer flooded or soaked through. Farmers have allowed the water levels in the paddies to drain and evaporate in the sunshine as the rice has matured.
The rice harvest does not begin until the the moisture content of grain heads fall to around 20-30%. Once dry enough however, there is a sudden burst of determined activity and the rice harvest is on for another year.
Farmers, harvest machinery and trucks can be seen scurrying around the rice paddies; harvesting and moving the precious rice crop as quickly as possible.
In most years, prevailing weather conditions mean that the number of days suitable for harvesting are extremely limited.
The drying off and harvest period is perched precariously between the regular localized storms of late Summer and the powerful typhoon systems of early Fall. Once the rice has matured, it is vital the grain is plucked from the perils of nature in the exposed paddies as soon as possible.
Most rice crops in Japan are grown and harvested using modern farming techniques and machines. The harvester are efficient and manoeuvrable machines within the muddy paddies. They cut the rice stands off neatly near ground level and then separate the straw from the grain heads. They thrash the rice grains from the heads to remove husk.
The rice grain goes to an onboard storage bin and all unwanted material is ejected out of the back of the machine.
Once the harvesting machine’s storage bin is full, the rice is unloaded by screw auger into light trucks waiting at the edge of the paddies.
Poorly aerated rice or organic material left sitting for even short periods of time in the heat and humidity in Japan, is usually quickly spoiled by mold.
Therefore, from the moment rice is removed from the matured plants, drying and aeration of the grain becomes a priority. Modern harvesters aerate and partially dry the grain using air blowers and heat from their engines. The storage bins of both the harvesters and the waiting trucks are also usually well aerated or air fluidized to prevent any mold growth.
By the time the freshly harvested rice is moved from the paddies to longer term storage facilities located elsewhere, the grain moisture content is usually reduced from the original 20-30% when cut, down to around 15%.
Upon transport to larger facilities, the fresh rice is dried even further. Most rice growers usually have access to bulk grain drying, processing and storage facilities as part of their farming infrastructure. For those without, community facilities are also usually available relatively nearby for use at a fee.
With further downstream drying and processing, the moisture content of the rice is steadily reduced to a target level of approximately 2% within about a day.
Once suitably dried, the rice is packed into extremely tough, standardized 30kg paper bags for bulk storage and wholesale.
The rice is not yet fully processed or ready for consumption at this stage however, as it still retains the inner husk to maintain the freshness and flavor of the individual grains.
While packets of commercial and boutique rice are readily available in supermarkets as fully cleaned and processed product, many Japanese obtain unprocessed rice in bulk direct from farmers or farming cooperatives. This unprocessed rice is usually only dehusked and polished shortly before use.
Most rural families have private polishing machines on hand to process small batches of rice before consumption. Coin operated rice polishing machines are also a regular sight in most communities throughout Japan for use by the wider population.