A tomato farm in Niigata has created a stir on social media through an inventive marketing strategy, with orders pouring in from across Japan despite the owner himself not being so keen on the famous fruit.
The secret to the success of Soga Farm lies not only in the sweetness of their tomatoes but also in the unusual names the business uses for branding different tomato breeds, with its famous "Dark Side Tomatoes" having generated the farm a large following online.
Shinichi Soga, 45, is a third-generation farmer and president of the company. He came up with unique names for the various types of tomatoes the company sells, which have quickly gone viral on Twitter and significantly boosted their sales revenue in recent years.
After graduating from the Tokyo University of Agriculture, Soga worked as a Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteer, providing technical guidance on crop cultivation in African countries like the Ivory Coast and Senegal.
But he admits that farming was initially only a means to support his overseas travel. "I never planned on farming in Japan. I'd always thought tomatoes were lame."
Nonetheless, Soga decided at age 27 to rebuild his family's farming business after it began struggling financially. He started off cultivating chicory, artichokes and other Western vegetables which he had brought back from France, but sales never picked up. Eventually, he turned to the food he most despised -- tomatoes.
Soga ordered several new types of seedlings and utilized agricultural techniques passed down to him from his family. After about five years of selecting the best tomato varieties and refining them through customer feedback, he was able to perfect a firm and sweet-flavored tomato, which he thought could be a hit.
Packed full of umami flavor, the tomatoes were a success after being marketed as "Gold Stripe Tomatoes," with the name coming from the golden radial stripes on the bottom of the fruit, but sales nosedived in the spring of 2020 after the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Since his tomatoes are grown at his farm over the winter in a region that used to be known as Echigo Province, now located in Niigata Prefecture, Soga named them "Etto Tomatoes," meaning "overwinter tomatoes." But despite his best efforts, orders remained slow, even though he shifted to online sales.
It was around that time when Soga noticed some tomatoes from his crops were turning black, with the fruits developing what is commonly referred to in the industry as "butt rot."
The phenomena can occur when farmers reduce how much water they give their tomatoes as they grow in order to increase their sugar content, causing the fruit to lose its ability to absorb calcium. Naturally, many customers would not purchase them because of their ugly appearance and name.
But Soga decided to buck the trend, and instead remarketed them as "Dark Side Tomatoes," referencing Darth Vader, the central antagonist of the "Star Wars" franchise who joins the "dark side of the Force" in the famous science fiction movies.
Soga posted photos of the rebranded fruits on Twitter, where he received over 200,000 "likes" and a deluge of inquiries.
Despite their unseemly appearance, the tomatoes have long been known for being exceptionally sweet. The black parts of the fruit can also be shaved off and eaten, Soga says.
On its website, Soga Farm does not recommend that home gardeners grow their own Dark Side Tomatoes, as doing so requires having the proper technical knowledge and good judgment, while maintaining a reasonable quality standard.
Buoyed by their success, the company's Etto Tomatoes also began selling out. In May, the company began marketing their main tomato breed, called "Fruit Tomatoes," using native English pronunciation instead of a Japanese loan phrase.
Soga decided to switch the name because of a bittersweet memory from junior high school, when his classmates used to laugh at him for pronouncing "tomato" as it is said in American English.
When he wrote about his experience on Twitter, it immediately created a buzz, and his Fruit Tomato sales nearly doubled. But what kind of tomato story will Soga come up with next? He spends his days thinking about it and chuckling.
"For me, farming is about entertainment. I want to keep entertaining my customers," he said.