Summer 2022

Natural Selections

A laptop screen showing an aerial drone view of the lands surrounding Yuichi Sato's farm in the town of Shimizu, west of Obihiro, Japan, from an interview and virtual tour recorded in summer 2021.
An aerial drone view of the lands surrounding Yuichi Sato's farm in the town of Shimizu, west of Obihiro, Japan, from an interview and virtual tour recorded in summer 2021. All photos are computer screen captures by Michael P. King


In a span of 20 minutes, a dozen UW students visited a Japanese pastry shop and a high-tech sushi restaurant, and then they got ice cream — twice. But they all left a little hungrier.

They were the virtual guests of their counterparts at Obihiro University of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine (OUAVM), taking a food tour of the Japanese city. It was one of several immersive video field trips the students would attend and just a taste of many welcoming and engaging experiences to come. For 10 days last summer, the virtual study abroad program UW Food Systems and the Environment in Northern Japan was in session.

“The [food tour] was one of the highlights for me,” says Maggie Li, a neurobiology major pursuing a certificate in global health. “The pastries looked so puffy and pretty, and I really enjoyed seeing the sushi conveyor belt.”

The short summer program transcended time zones without the jet lag. It introduced UW students to the agricultural and food systems of Hokkaido — the top agricultural producing region in Japan — and compared them with Wisconsin’s systems. The program also featured live lectures and discussions led by OUAVM faculty; one-on-one conversations with Japanese undergraduate students; and virtual field trips to an active volcano, a sake brewery, and crop and dairy farms.

The virtual version of the study abroad program — developed in response to the coronavirus pandemic and offered for the first time in summer 2021 — was carefully designed to feel like the in-person experience as much as possible. It served as an effective bridge; instructors anticipate returning to the in-person version of the program in summer 2023.

“One of my goals for this program was to bring UW students as close as possible to the country, its culture, and its people,” says course instructor Aurelie Rakotondrafara, an associate professor of plant pathology. “And there are lessons here for every UW student: Every time we eat, we participate in agriculture.”

The original program was established in 2018 by Jiwan Palta, now a professor emeritus of horticulture, after he was inspired by the numerous links between Madison and Obihiro. The two municipalities are sister cities, and their universities have an official research collaboration to improve potato quality and production. Obihiro, on the island of Hokkaido, shares a common latitude with Wisconsin of 43 degrees north, so the two areas experience similar climates and seasonal changes. There are notable differences, too, such as Hokkaido’s volcanic ash soils.

Obihiro University student Yuka Nakamura receiving her order by conveyor belt in a sushi restaurant during a recorded food tour of Obihiro, Japan.
Obihiro University student Yuka Nakamura receives her order by conveyor belt in a sushi restaurant during a recorded food tour of Obihiro, Japan.

Hokkaido’s farmers produce some of the same products as Wisconsin’s farmers — potatoes, soybeans, and dairy, for example — and they grapple with some of the same challenges, such as soil conservation.

“[My farm’s] volcanic ash soil is very easy to till but has . . . poor drainage. For soil management, I am trying to avoid excessive tillage because the soils are very fragile,” crop farmer Yuichi Sato explained during a virtual field trip to his farm, where he grows a five-year rotation: potato, wheat, wheat, sugar beet, beans.

Students in the program learned about the two countries’ different approaches, based on cultural, geographic, and agricultural factors.

“I liked being able to converse with the professors regarding dairy farming in Japan and how different and similar it is to farming here in Wisconsin,” says Rachel Schumann, a Farm and Industry Short Course student focused on agricultural business. Her family owns Blue Prairie Holstein in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin. “As a member of a dairy farming family, it was interesting to hear how low the fertility rate is on Japanese farms and how small their farms are compared to those in Wisconsin. Big dairy farms in Japan are 80 to 100 cows, whereas my family has a 1,000-cow dairy here.”

The course also introduced students to Japanese culture. Ahead of their first meeting with OUAVM faculty and students, UW students learned Japanese etiquette. They could also earn extra credit through lessons about the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, gift wrapping, manga (graphic novels), and more.

In their course evaluations, students reported enjoying the live interactions with professors, farmers, and other undergraduates. And on the other side of the globe, the course provided meaningful experiences for the Japanese students who volunteered to help produce the field trip videos and participate in classroom discussions. Some had their own study abroad plans derailed by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I enjoyed it a lot! We had the opportunity to interact with UW students, discussing Japanese culture and [having] chitchat sessions, asking questions to each other,” says Ai Yamazaki, a senior studying animal production at OUAVM. “It was a great chance to learn new [English] vocabulary related to agriculture and get to know students from the States.”

The warm feelings were mutual.

“Although being in Japan would have been more immersive, being able to interact with the students of Obihiro was fun,” says Schumann. “They were so interested in us American students, just like we were interested in them.”

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