Weekend: A growth industry
BY HIROMI KUMAI
THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
Farming has caught on among young people over the past year or two. Despite the hard work required to produce rice or vegetables, more than a few outsiders find themselves drawn to the challenge, seeing in it a chance to do something uniquely one's own.
Nahoko Takahashi, 28, has been running Girls Farm in Murayama, Yamagata Prefecture, since April. The women grow about 30 crops, including tomatoes and pumpkins.
During a tomato harvest in August, Takahashi issued instructions as she and two staff members cut the tomatoes with scissors: "Feel how hard they are. Don't just look at the color."
The two staffers, Yoshiko Nasuno, 27, and Satoko Tanaka, 25, are beginners at farm work. Nahoko's father Katsuhiro, 59, is on hand to teach them how to use farm implements and spread fertilizer.
The tomatoes were packed in boxes which were covered with wrapping paper designed by Tanaka, who studied at an art college.
"We went to a lot of trouble to grow these tomatoes," Nahoko said. "I want them to look cute."
The women work from sunup to sundown for a mere 140,000 yen a month. The payment is 100,000 yen in Takahashi's case. Theoretically they are entitled to take one day off a week, but during the busy season taking time off is not easy.
Plans are under way for a food processing operation to take up the winter months.
Nahoko's grandparents were against her taking up farming, saying that it does not make money.
But she went ahead anyway and began working with her father right after graduating from university in 2004.
Her initial goal was to make a living exclusively from agriculture, but her monthly income of 50,000 yen was discouraging. It drove her at one point to teaching high school part time.
It was around then that she met Ganari Takahashi, 50, who runs Kunitachi Farm.
Three years ago Ganari left a company producing adult videos to work in food and farming.
He now heads the restaurant business. The vegetables he serves were either supplied by farms under contract or grown by his Kunitachi Farm staff on about 60 ares of land purchased in Chiba Prefecture.
Two years ago, Nahoko Takahashi attended a lecture given by Ganari Takahashi and found herself inspired.
She started the Girls Farm as a Yamagata branch of Kunitachi Farm, leasing land from a neighboring township and a work shed from her family.
She was determined to farm "in an economically viable way in an individual style."
The vegetables she and her team harvest are shipped to the Kunitachi Farm restaurant and other clients. Though she says she's about a million yen in debt this year, she aims to be in the black within three years.
Advice for novices
This past summer saw the publication of a spate of books offering tips and encouragement to would-be farmers. Among them are "Nogyo Yaro-ze" (Come on, let's farm!) and "Ima koso Nogyo o Hajimeru" (Now's the time to start farming), from Takarajimasha and Ikaros Publications, respectively.
July saw the debut of the agricultural quarterly Agrizm, published by Agricultural Communications Co. and edited by Masachika Ogihara, a 30-year-old farmer.
Ogihara grows rice, wheat and other crops on a large farm in Tomi, Nagano Prefecture.
"I want to present agriculture as both cool and profitable," he said. "For my part, I plan to be still farming 10 years from now."
According to a farm ministry survey of people taking up farming for the first time, 8,400 were employed by corporate farms or large-scale farmers as of April this year.
Among them, 5,530 were 39 years-old or younger, up 34 percent from the previous year. The increase is all the more dramatic given that the overall number of new farmers nationwide fell by 13,000 to 60,000 from the year before.
But getting into farming is, for a beginner, no easy matter.
Ganari Takahashi's farm in Chiba Prefecture hired a dozen or so people keen to work the land. None could stick it out. Many gave up after failing to develop effective management plans.
It takes time to learn the techniques involved in cultivating crops with a long production cycle. Because family farms are still the norm, newcomers still find it hard to acquire the needed skills.
Corporate farms, which place value on teaching novice farmers, emerged in part to fill the gap.
Top River, for example, is a corporate farm in Miyota, Nagano Prefecture, whose president Hideki Shimazaki, 50, has a business philosophy of teaching motivated young people, even if they have no land, funds or skills, to cultivate high-demand vegetables.
The first seven days the novices work for no pay. A three-month training period follows, with trainees earning 5,000 yen a day, under the system.
The successful trainee can then become a company employee, with the potential to earn several million yen a year after five or six years, depending on how hard one works.
"The point is to change participants' attitudes towards farming and revitalize agriculture," Shimazaki said.
Is the trend of people taking up farming merely a passing fad?
Kichinori Kon, chief editor of monthly magazine "Nogyo Keieisha" (Farm manager) from Agricultural Communications and a long-time observer of the agricultural scene, said: "Circumstances are not all that great for people who want to take up farming. But there is significance in having people engage in agriculture, even though there is always going to be some who fail."(IHT/Asahi: October 23,2009)