The gratitude for rural Iowa’s generosity transcends oceans and decades, as well as language and cultural differences, Iowa Farm Bureau leaders discovered recently on a visit to Yamanashi Prefecture, Iowa’s sister state in Japan.

In every speech and at several farm visits in the mountainous Yamanashi region near Tokyo, Japanese hosts highlighted their gratitude for Iowa’s generous gift of breeding hogs that helped the area recover from devastating typhoons. They also praised the amazingly "strong" breeding pigs from Iowa, which provided the genetics to build and modernize pork production in Yamanashi and all of Japan.

"This act of kindness has set up an enduring positive relationship between Iowa and Yamanashi that endures today," Yamanashi Gov. Hitoshi Goto told the Iowans. "We are so thankful that Iowa helped Yamanashi at that time of need."

Helping out is just something that good neighbors in Iowa do, replied Craig Hill, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation (IFBF) president. "We now consider Yamanashi a neighbor, a very good neighbor."

The Yamanashi hog lift in 1960 was spearheaded by Master Sgt. Richard Thomas, an Iowan serving in the U.S. Air Force in the Yamanashi region, which is in the shadow of Japan’s renowned Mount Fuji. After learning that two large typhoons had devastated Yamanashi’s agriculture, Thomas worked with Iowa farm leaders, as well as U.S. Embassy officials, to arrange for the airlifting of breeding hogs that had been donated by Iowa farmers.

The Iowans sent 36 breeding hogs, and all but one survived the arduous transcontinental journey. Along with the breeding hogs, Air Force planes also carried Iowa-grown corn to feed the relocated hogs.

Touched by gratitude

The visiting Iowans, who traveled to Japan on the 2016 Iowa Farm Bureau county presidents incentive trip, were touched by the heartfelt gratitude of the people and leaders of Yamanashi.

"They are treating us like gold here," said Brad Moeckley of the Polk County Farm Bureau. "They are so appreciative of the hogs that we sent."

Deb Jesse of the Buena Vista County Farm Bureau said decades that have passed since the 1960 hog lift doesn’t seem to have dimmed the appreciation from Yamanashi citizens. "It was 56 years ago, but they act like we sent the hogs just last year," she said.

And Becky Meyer of the Floyd County Farm Bureau said the Iowans’ reception appears to reflect the way the Japanese value tradition. "They seem to have passed the knowledge of the hog lift from generation to generation so that everyone here knows about it," she said. "It’s very impressive."

The Yamanashi hog lift, Hill said, "planted a seed for the future, and it blossomed into a very significant economic relationship" for Iowa agriculture. He noted that Japan has become a very significant buyer of Iowa’s key farm products: pork, beef, soybeans and corn.

Sister state relationship

The hog lift also sparked the first sister-state relationship between the United States and Japan. It was signed by then Iowa Gov. Norman Erbe and Gov. Hisashi Amano of Yamanashi in 1961 and is going strong.

Along with cultural and student exchanges, Iowa and Yamanashi have continued to help each other in times of need. Yamanashi sent drinking water to Iowa after the 1993 flood. In 2014, Iowa sent aid to Yamanashi after a very heavy snowfall collapsed greenhouses that are used to raise fruits and vegetables.

Those fruits and vegetables, the Iowa visitors learned, are the key products of Yamanashi agriculture today. The prefecture is a big grower of peaches, wine and table grapes and other produce marketed throughout Japan and exported around Asia.

On their tour of the prefecture, the Iowans visited a peach orchard, a rice paddy, a produce processing plant, a refurbished greenhouse and other agricultural sites in Yamanashi. They were impressed with the success of the region’s adaptation to growing high-value crops.

Limited farmland

The land area of Japan, the Iowans learned, is approximately the same as California. But only a small portion of that land can be farmed because 70 percent of the country is covered by mountains and forests, and another big chunk is taken by sprawling cities, such as Tokyo.

"You can really see from the topography why they have gone to high-value crops like fruits because they have so little land to work with," said Matt Willimack of the Clinton County Farm Bureau. "It was very interesting to see how they use every bit of land they can find."

Chad Means of the Montgomery County Farm Bureau also noted that Yamanashi farmers were able to make a living farming only what would be considered a large garden in Iowa. "They don’t have a lot of space to work with, but it’s impressive what they can do with it," he said.

Mark Riesselman of the Crawford County Farm Bureau said the visit to Yamanashi really highlighted why trade and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, is so important for both countries.

"We have more land and can grow commodities, while they can specialize in high-value crops like fruits," he said. "It shows why it’s so important to have a good trading relationship."