March 12, 2014 at 12:05 pm

Growing Japan’s Struggling Farm Economy

A new generation of farmers in Japan are farming not as a career, but as a way to supplement their busy lives with something more meaningful. They’re called “weekend farmers” and their work between cities and farms could reinvigorate the country’s agricultural economy.

Japan’s local food movement, called jisan jisho, or “local food for local consumption” emerged out of concern for the decline of farmers (just under 2% of the total population) and the rising average age of farmers, now 66. It gained momentum in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster that hit in March of 2011. Tsunamis caused by the Tohuku earthquake destroyed the nuclear plant in Fukushima, which leached radioactive materials into the water and soils of Japan. Produce up to 200 miles from Fukushima was found to have traces of radioactive material. Consumers were unsettled; the government had suddenly increased their recommended radioactive exposure limits from 1 mSv (pre-earthquake) to 20 mSv (post-earthquake).

Cabbage Farmer Protesters in Tokyo

Farmers affected by the Fukushima Daiichi disaster hold up cabbages during a protest in front of the Tokyo Electric Power Co. in Tokyo Tuesday, April 26, 2011.

Out of concerns for food safety, the vitality of farms, and the prospect of increased reliance on imports, the jisan jisho movement is in full swing among city dwellers, whose demand for community garden plots in Tokyo exceed available land three to one. Increasingly, people want to grow their own food.

Meanwhile, viable farmland outside of the city is underutilized, or even abandoned. For a small, mountainous island nation with only twelve percent of arable land, and ten percent of their farmland abandoned (more than 400,000 hectares), imported food is becoming increasingly important. Currently, they import 60% of their food, making them one of the world’s largest agricultural buyers.

Instead of asking the government to increase Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate, we can plant a seed by ourselves, step into a rice field, or go out into a vegetable garden. 

 Japan’s geography coupled with a long history of subsistence instead of commercial farming, makes them a relatively small agricultural producer compared to other wealthy nations. Other countries simply have more farmland at their disposal; Germany and France have about one third of their land available for farming, while the US has the most overall area of arable land worldwide – a number which includes land that is ploughed or tilled regularly, as well as fallow land that could be farmed. It follows that the US is Japan’s leading supplier of food, followed by China and the EU.

Troubling agricultural futures aside, what might Japan’s unique geography and farming history have to offer in terms of cultural and spiritual development? Naoki Shiomi, author on the subject of weekend farming’s potential to revive farmland, has some answers. Shiomi grew up in a farming family in Ayabi, Japan and returned in 2000 after a busy career in the city. At that time, he began writing and popularized a lifestyle called “half farmer, half-x” where x represents one’s calling, or, less idealistically, one’s profession. But he insists that part-time farming is nothing new; people have been part-craftsman or part-artists, part-farmers since Japan’s agricultural beginning. In an interview about his philosophy, Shiomi shares concerns for his food system, which depends on less than two percent of the population to feed the nation, “the main workers in agriculture are aging to their early and mid 70s. If nothing is done, Japanese agriculture will collapse in about five years.”

Shiomi encourages self-reliance instead of government solutions to solve Japan’s food crisis. “To survive the difficult times of more serious environmental issues,” he proffers, “we will need to grow our own foods as much as possible. Instead of asking the government to increase Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate, we can plant a seed by ourselves, step into a rice field, or go out into a vegetable garden.”

Logistics are underway for the aspiring farmers who don’t wish to leave the city quite yet. Helping urbanites access abandoned farmland is what Japanese startups like MyFarm intend to do. For $60 a month, aspiring part-time farmers can plant community-garden sized plots, about 85 square feet, throughout Japan’s countryside. To help them decide what farm to choose, MyFarm posts profiles of farms and farmers, outlining the perks of each farm: break hut, water, toilets, walking distance to the Tokyo train line, and parking lots among them. Other services include watering and weeding and basic farm education.

(Screenshot from MyFarm's website)

(Screenshot from MyFarm’s website)

Modern Farmer contributor, Danielle Demetriou, currently living in Japan, reported that some MyFarm users monitor their farms from their homes and offices via webcam. Another high-tech option is the My Farm App that guides new farmers through the season with tips and timelines, and even the ability to connect with other farmers over the web.

I wondered whether webcam farming, and part-time farming at large, could address Japan’s struggling farming economy. For part-time farmers, the benefits translate into less money spent on groceries at the markets. Their money instead goes directly to small farmers who aren’t able, for a variety of reasons, to utilize their land. But what about the full-time farmers who should be able to make a living for themselves, (not to mention the full-time eaters who don’t wish to farm part-time) while helping Japan avoid a more globalized food system?

Part-time farming isn’t a long-term solution for the agricultural economy, but rather a starting point from which sustainability, ideation, and policies can come. 

Japan’s population of core farmers under the age of 60 are 2 percent of their population and they’re facing barriers to access the land they need to turn a profit. In 2009, The New York Times documented how a rice farmer who quadrupled his family’s 450-year old farm to forty acres by leasing abandoned plots from his aging neighbors ended up deeper in the hole than when he started. Today, economic pressures continue to squeeze the resources of full-time farmers, enabling the part-time farming style of their neighbors. Inflated land prices, restrictions on rice production, and the cost of Japan’s highly mechanized farming (like machines that pick strawberries) make efficient larger-scale farming a difficult option.

By the standards of conventional agriculture in industrialized nations, even the largest Japanese farms can’t compete. On average, farms in Japan are 4.7 acres, while farms in the US average 490 acres, and even small farms in the US can be as large as 100 acres.


Daio Wasabi farm, one of Japan’s largest farms at 37 acres, is just outside Matsumoto, Japan

Full-time farmers see the solution to Japan’s agricultural crisis in updated farming policies and land distribution. They want to consolidate disparate plots of under-utilized land into larger farms, and to remove limits to production that were set after WWII as a way to protect the prices for the nation of small farmers.  Since farmers have been unable to keep up with their land, rice production has fallen and once-strict limits on imports have relaxed.

Shiomi and other part-time farmers hope that weekend farmers, especially those involved in rice farming, will become the next wave of farmers that Japan needs.  He sees a future where a small number of large-scale rice growers collaborate with fruit and vegetable farmers to grow and exchange products.

In this light, part-time farming isn’t a long-term solution for the agricultural economy, but rather a starting point from which sustainability, ideation, and policies can come.

Regardless of its large-scale effects, there’s something telling about the need to migrate back to the rural, even just for a weekend. To the Japanese, and to any urbanite who leaves the city and travels to a farm for a day, there’s a fresh-air, compost-scented rejuvenation that happens there.  Growing your own food and absorbing traditional agricultural knowledge from long-time farmers is an opportunity few encounter, and arguably more valuable than ratios of exports to imports. At the very least, weekend farmers might be the part-time caretakers of the land and soil that full-timers need until they have the right circumstances on which to expand their efforts.

-Aly Miller