I had the opportunity to visit Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology's (TUAT)silk worm production farm on a beautiful weekend in May. The farm site had been established to study the process of manufacturing silk economically and efficiently. Indeed, sericulture was a important field of study for Japan, whose economy as late as the 1950s was still relying heavily on the export of raw silk. In fact, when Japan opened it's doors to international trade in 1859, silk was one of the few products it had to trade with the West. In 1872, the Japanese government established the Tomioka Silk Mill, bringing in a consultant from France to help modernize and mechanize silk production. This mill helped make Japan the largest silk exporter in the world in 1907.
A reoccurring dilemma I face as I continue to grapple with economical concepts of how we cultivate 'resources' in agriculture is how to balance that with ideas of human sustainability. The systems employed at the farm were so well thought out and from what I could see, very effective at maximizing the yield while minimizing the amount of human labour required. Yet even this system, this mechanized and highly innovative (at least for having been developed over 50 years ago) system, can't compete with the global competition from silk production farms where the cost of labour is cheaper than the cost of maintaining this type of facility. It, to me, illustrates this battle we face in our current capitalistic paradigm which pushes us to a race for the bottom, the cheapest product possible.
The farm is currently not in operation, at least in a productive sense. There is a baseline amount of silk production happening, but more for educational purposes and it is essentially being run by one retired professor. Based on my calculations, the farm when in peak production, would be able to generate 2700lbs of silk per cycle. Without air conditioners or heaters (silk worms need a certain window of temperature), I think the farm is capable of running about 6 cycles a year (three in the spring and three in the fall) which would put it at 16,200lbs of silk/year would only amount to $260,000 based on being able to sell it for the highest price on the market. This type of money wouldn't justify hiring the staff needed to increase their production capacity.
Emi Do: Exploring ideas in small scale agriculture: feasibility, viability, relevance and resilience.