Japan is facing an agricultural crisis. Unable to compete with the productive capabilities of foreign countries due to a variety of geographical, cultural and social challenges, Japanese farms are struggling to find their way into the global marketplace. To remain competitive, the general advice for agriculturalists has been to focus on high quality products and increase the cultural capital of Japanese food. This is a good plan, but it would work much better if the majority of Japanese farmers were not old part-timers who work the farm on weekends and head down to Tokyo for their day jobs during the week. It also does not help that many of these part-timers and other small farm-owners cannot afford the machinery to be efficient farmers.
The comicly unstable future that lie aheads of Japan’s agriculture makes it almost as fun to talk about as the future of American politics. Almost.
Thus, I was not surprised to find myself happily bemoaning the fate of Japanese farming with Mr. Makoto Watanabe, a lecturer at Tohoku University, peppering him with questions about Japan’s agricultural history. It was July 28th, and we were on our way to visit some agricultural enterprises in the Sendai area. What follows is a short account of my thoughts and experiences at each link of the local food chain.
Note: My understanding of Japanese modern agricultural history stems largely from my discussions with Professor Fusao Ito at Tohoku University, who kindly took the time to teach me over the summer.
Nobody wants to be a farmer. Days are long, profit is minimal, and if you’re Japanese, land is scarce. Knowing this, I was astonished to meet Ms. Hiramatsu, an optimistic young woman just two years out of university who had decided to become a farmer. Ms. Hiramatsu operates a farm entirely on her own. Well, perhaps operate is not the right word. An operator usually manages a mechanized process without involving him or herself with the specifics. Ms. Hiramatsu is much more than a mere operator?she does not own a tractor, nor does she own any other agricultural machine? Ms. Hiramatsu is a part of nature.
Waving towards a plot of edamame from two weeks before, she revealed that she had planted every seed with her bare hands. I could only imagine how tough it must have been: Head poised and back bent over the soil, roughly measuring the space between your hovering hand and the preceding seed before stuffing a new one into the dirt just so. The crop would be harvested later, when Ms. Hiramatsu decided to pick the oblong green sacks and sell the fuzzy fruit to tourists at the Tanabata Festival.
Under current law, young Japanese people who decide to become farmers are eligible to receive 1500000 yen, or roughly 14000 dollars, every year. The financial package is designed to encourage people like Ms. Hiramatsu to start their own farm. The idea is that this sort of law would balance out the current age disparity in the agricultural community (the average Japanese farmer is 66 years old), and help prepare for the death of the aged farming population. This would be a good deal for Ms. Hiramatsu if she could receive the money. The first time she went to the city office to collect her dues, Ms. Hiramatsu was denied any form of monetary compensation at all. The official in charge of distributing funds cited her lack of experience and suggested she try a different, easier job. Returning a few weeks later, Ms. Hiramatsu, with the help of a farmer friend, eventually convinced the official to relent and pass on 750000 yen, half of the amount promised by law.
She wakes up an hour early every day, 4am, working a part-time job by her farm to help cover costs.
Despite her financial hardships, Ms. Hiramatsu remains driven to farm at her small plots, working towards her goal of reviving the local community. Between the devastating tsunami six years ago, a shrinking population, and a young generation uninterested in the rural lifestyle, Ms. Hiramatsu has given herself quite a challenge. However, she remains resolute. Even with her heavy work schedule, she finds time to host a variety of young volunteers at her farm, teaching them about crop management and exposing them to the other farmers in the local community.
There are many ways to support local communities. Politics, engineering, and agribusiness stand out to me as areas particularly ripe to change lives, especially as agriculture moves towards more capital-intensive faming. Hearing Ms. Hiramatsu’s story, I could not help but wonder?why? Farming is a merciless profession that offers no breaks and no money.?Nobody wants to be a farmer. But as I let my thoughts simmer, I realized Ms. Hiramatsu’s mission is not about using current sociopolitical frameworks to promote change: It is about changing the framework altogether. Farming is about giving people the chance to interact with nature and produce real food in a world removed from economic and scientific abstraction. It is about giving people the chance to experience a web of local relationships much more genuine than those found in the company of savvy businessmen. Ms. Hiramatsu is working to change the ideological framework based around capital accumulation and convenience to one based on authenticity and community. By inviting young people to volunteer at her farm, Ms. Hiramatsu offers them the opportunity to reconsider their professional values as an extension of their fundamentally human values. In doing so, she is building a generation that understands the importance of the local farming community and is capable of doing the superficially thankless work that many of us struggle to comprehend.
Bowing my way into the conference room, I hastily took some business cards from my plastic bag, handing them out in haphazard ceremony to Mr. Ito and Mr. Toshima. Exchanging greetings with the two, I was struck by their bizarre getup. Between Mr. Toshima’s pseudo-hazmat suit and Mr. Ito’s business suit-hairnet combination, they seemed to be the very embodiment of Japan’s tech-driven economy. Wearing plain clothes and having been asked myself to wear a hairnet before entering the premises, I can only hope that I added my fair share of variety to the costumes in the room.
Once formalities were out of the way, I was ushered into a chair and blasted with a rapid-fire history of their company, Butai Farms.
Butai Farms is a farm-factory complex. The factory brings in vegetables from farms in the surrounding area and cuts them into salad-appropriate pieces using custom-built machinery. The sliced vegetables are then packaged with some more custom-built machinery and sent from the factory to Japan’s omnipresent convenience store, 7-Eleven, as small salads, with each costing about one or two dollars. It is worth noting here that I never actually saw the factory due to hygiene concerns. I guess I should have known that such an excursion would be impossible after seeing Mr. Toshima’s white body suit.
A successful business, Butai Farms has continued to expand since its creation in 2003, buying new factories and evolving to meet the demands of its benefactors. Its projects range from farm machinery-sharing?“an uber for farmers”?to TV shows on the benefits of rice.
Agribusiness is often painted in an ugly light. I must admit that I was unfairly suspicious of the slick, fast-talking businessmen as they spoke of wonderful work happening at Butai Farms. But the more I listened to their speech and tried to set aside my biases, the more I grew to admire the company. Perhaps it was my own naivet?, but I sensed genuine goodwill underlying their ambitious business plans. One of the factory’s central roles for example, is providing economic stability for the farmers who live in the local area. By agreeing to buy a certain amount of produce every month, Butai Farms gives farmers somewhere to go when no-one else is buying. The business is also involved with the local government, pioneering many initiatives to help revive the shrinking rural community.
Despite all this, I can understand why many are hesitant to trust large businesses like Butai Farms to work sincerely for the sake of others. Ultimately, businesses must turn a profit to function, and the more profit they make, the more successful they will be. Once Butai Farms expands into other regions and gains greater bargaining power over its contributing farmers, who is to say that it will not begin altering its guarantees to local farmers? Doing so may not be good ethics, but it is good business.
The profit motive is an undeniable concern when considering businesses’s commitment to the local community. But it is also an essential element of our current economic system. Profit is the best motivator of positive change, as businesses that work to turn a profit will also confer benefits to society?at least, that is what my friends studying economics tell me. I am not equipped to tackle the ins and outs of the profit motive in detail, but at the very least, I can admire Mr. Ito and Mr. Toshima’s work. They have kept their commitments to the land thus far, and have used the current economic framework to continuously innovate and expand, increasing their economic prowess while synergistically affecting the local community. I hope they continue to do so.
JA Sendai’s Farm Direct Supermarket
Avoiding the raucous calls of melon-selling children, I slipped into Sendai’s Farm Direct supermarket. Refrigerated food and drink lined the walls while a sprawling array of fruits and vegetables dominated the center of the store, nonchalantly sucking shoppers in with heaps of tantalizing produce. As I browsed this popular section, I noticed that each item featured a name followed by a price and barcode. Now I knew who I was buying my carrots from. Older patrons perused the store alongside me, examining produce with searching eyes and experienced hands, occasionally opting to pop a cucumber or two into their bag.??
With the help of Mr. Kogasaka, the manager of the store, I came to understand the routine at the Direct Farm supermarket. A typical day looks something like this: In the morning, farmers drive their produce to the store, where they drop it off before heading elsewhere. Sendai’s Farm Direct employees take account of the produce they receive from the farmers, and contact other Farm Direct stores when produce is scarce or unvaried. Once the food has been adequately organized, staff retreat behind the registers and act just like members of a typical supermarket?offering help to customers when they ask for it, but otherwise staying out of their way. The rest of the work day is the same as at a normal supermarket except for the end, when farmers come back to collect any leftover produce.
Most of Farm Direct’s contributors run small farms. Compared to the US, these Japanese farms are puny, averaging 2 hectares to America’s 175. As a result, many Japanese farms struggle to supply normal supermarkets because they cannot consistently churn out copious quantities of food. Farm Direct remediates this problem by accepting small amounts of produce. They also tax it at a much lower rate than typical supermarkets (7% versus 15%), as the stores do not have to worry about transportation and storage costs. This not only drives the price of produce down, making Farm Direct supermarkets cheaper than many of their counterparts, but it also supports local producers, who accrue more profit the closer they are to the store.
Farm Direct supplies higher quality produce than its competition at a lower price. Everyday fruits and vegetables like carrots, green onions, and strawberries are cheaper, fresher and healthier than their supermarket competitors. On top of that, they just taste better. With this in mind, it is hard to understand why customers would choose to go to the typical supermarket instead of Farm Direct. Or maybe it isn’t. While Farm Direct sells plenty of high quality produce, that produce has to be cooked before it is eaten. Unlike bagged sandwiches and microwave-ready meat, most products at Farm Direct have additional implicit, invisible price tags that read something like this: “Please note, this product may require upwards of ten minutes to prepare and cook before consumption. Also since this product is fresh, it will expire in the next few days.” Simply put, food from Farm Direct is more hassle than food from its competitors. And in our convenience-focused lifestyle, embodied by the spate of aptly-named convenience stores that have been cropping up all over Japan since the late 20th?century, ten extra minutes is a long time.
Although it mimics the appearance of typical supermarkets, Sendai’s Farm Direct Supermarket represents a countermovement against the titans that have dominated modern food shopping since refrigeration. The Farm Direct supermarket takes the concept of a farmer’s market and attempts to normalize it, consolidating fresh produce in a large store with all the expected hallmarks of a typical supermarket. Customers can avoid the sales pitches of farmers while gaining access to fresh food and buying from their favorite producers, most of whom live nearby. Farm Direct is about reconnecting with the land through one of the few mediums we understand: the supermarket.
As the car turned back to the heart of Sendai, I noticed the neon storefronts of convenience stores glaring obliquely at me. Innumerous permutations of 7-Eleven, Lawson’s, and FamilyMart participated in some sort of bland free-for-all, competing to see who could occupy the largest portion of my vision. It was not an offensive display, but it was certainly a jolt back into the reality of grocery shopping.
These are the places that dominate the modern shopping world. Most of us do not go anywhere like the Farm Direct supermarket, let alone the factories and farms that procure the ingredients that go into our food. Instead we spend our time browsing never-ending supermarket shelves or rushing in and out of convenience stores on the way to and from work. At these places, it is easy to forget all the work that goes into a single product. The complex network of producers behind each food is obscured behind a wall of nutritional ingredients, the process forgotten while the product remains. And this is the problem. Once customers lose sight of what is going on behind the product, we give the food industry license to do whatever they like with our food: We become willing participants in a worldwide experiment to find the fastest and cheapest way to eat. This contributes to a host of problems, such as the overuse of toxic chemicals that seep into our water supply; excessive greenhouse gas production as goods are flown in from overseas; and widespread metabolic syndrome alongside rising rates of cancer and cardiovascular diseases. The process-product disconnect is also a major contributing factor to Japan’s agricultural crisis at home. As customers start to lose touch with where their food is coming from and how it is getting there, overseas competition has an easier time filling in the gap. The continuous influx of cheap foreign food erodes the influence of local cuisine, changing eating habits, and lowering Japan’s self-sufficiency.
I am not deploring the development of a global economy. Instead, I am asserting the importance of supporting local communities to create better eating habits. Local food tends to be healthier, better for the environment, and is also an essential element of Japanese identity. For Japan to compete against overseas brands, it would do well to foster a culture treasuring local communities, whether it be at the farm, factory or supermarket.