Why don’t we eat bent cucumbers?

by Melinda Joe

An aging agricultural workforce, a food self-sufficiency rate below 40 percent and the constant threat of environmental damage: How can tiny vegetable distribution companies in Chiba Prefecture, northeast of Tokyo, tackle the issues facing Japan’s farming industry?

The answer, according to Setsuo Nakagoshi, is one organic tomato at a time. Nakagoshi’s company, Watashi no Hata (My Field), is one of several organic grocery delivery services who are trying to make a change. A former financial securities specialist, he spent eight years in the industry before trading in tailored suits for the jeans and rubber boots he wears around his small farm.

Nakagoshi started farming three years ago and currently supplies organic vegetables to restaurants and residents in the Nagareyama area.

Standing among the chest-high stalks of taro root plants in his 2,000-sq.-meter field, Nakagoshi explains that it was the lack of interest in agriculture expressed by young people that initially led him to get involved in farming.

“Young people don’t even see farming as an alternative,” he says. “They think that working for a big company after college is the only career possible for them.”

A big part of the problem, he insists, is profitability. The work is long and difficult but the margins are slim. Moreover, strict regulations on the size and appearance of vegetables translate into huge losses for farmers.

Nakagoshi claims that standards set by JA Zennoh, the organization responsible for the marketing and quality control of products from 1,173 agricultural cooperatives in Japan, are often based on the size of the box or plastic bags that they provide.

“Take cucumbers for example. They have a special box for them and if your cucumber is too big or too small, it is classified as irregular and priced low. Of course, if it isn’t straight enough, it’s considered irregular as well,” he says.

Some of these “irregular” vegetables are simply thrown away. It’s a serious problem, and Nakagoshi has recently teamed up with a new company named Vegetable Equality to spread awareness of agricultural waste.

Vegetable Equality’s CEO, Mitsuko Mori, stumbled on the issue in 2008 while visiting potential food suppliers. During a warehouse tour, Mori noticed boxes piled high with broccoli. When she asked the farmer about them, he replied that he’d have to throw them out because of their size: The diameter of each was five centimeters too wide.

“I visited numerous farmers and noticed all of them shared a similar problem,” she says. “My immediate goal is to bring irregular vegetables to the market and change industry and consumer habits.”

In a June appearance on NHK’s “Purofesshonaru Shigoto no Ryugi” (“Professional Job Style”), Hiroichi Kikuchi, head of agricultural business firm Wakyoen, stated that approximately 40 percent of total vegetable production is wasted due to irregular shape or size. This amounts to roughly five million tons of produce.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries recently announced that JA Zennoh was considering easing restrictions on irregular vegetables, but both Mori and Nakagoshi doubt this will have any long-term effect.

“They’re only doing it in response to the rising price of fresh produce caused by the typhoons this summer,” says Nakagoshi. “The real problem lies in industry and consumer habits. Right now, people are used to the idea that irregular vegetables should be priced low.”

Mori works with 50 farmers in Chiba Prefecture. Her company plans to begin a delivery service to central Tokyo this fall, and as part of their educational outreach program they will give lectures on irregular vegetables and organic farming at elementary schools in the capital. L ike Nakagoshi, Mori started out in finance. While working as a foreign-exchange analyst for Deutsche Bank in Tokyo, she took a part-time job at a high-end supermarket to learn about the food business. Though her work schedule was exhausting, Mori finds her new venture much more challenging.

“Compared to what I’m doing now, finance was a cushy job,” she laughs.

Starting a new business, particularly in a niche industry such as organic home-delivery, seems risky given the current economic climate. However, it may not be as crazy as it sounds. According to a study conducted by Yano Research, home deliveries increased by 4 percent between 2007 and 2008, with consumers’ preference for organic produce increasing in online purchases by 2.6 percent.

Concerns over food safety have fueled the trend. Shigetoshi Suzue, a spokesperson for the popular cooperative Pal System, remarked that the number of consumers opting for domestically produced fruits and vegetables is increasing. The co-op, which provides service to over a million households nationwide, sells both organic and nonorganic produce. With the exception of items like avocados and kiwis, almost all of the fruits and vegetables are from Japan.

A number of today’s successful organic delivery services, such as Daichi wo Mamoru Kai (Association to Preserve the Earth) and Radish Boya, started out as small, grassroots organizations. Daichi wo Mamoru Kai began as an NGO in 1975 and established the first organic-food distribution business in 1977.

“Thirty five years ago, no one was selling organic,” says Daichi representative Yukie Ohno. “The organic movement now is still small but it’s growing. I think we’ve played a major role in that. These days, even regular people, not only those interested in environmentalism, know about natural foods.”

Daichi started with farmers markets in downtown Tokyo. The company now delivers to 91,000 households, 95 percent of which are in the Kanto region, and 80 percent of their produce is completely pesticide-free, with everything but bananas grown domestically.

The organization has also been active in the environmental movement. In 2003, together with environmental group the Sloth Club, they launched Japan’s first Candle Night, a two-hour voluntary blackout to highlight energy concerns, held annually on the summer solstice. In 2005, Daichi initiated a food-mileage campaign to shed light on the energy consumption and carbon emissions of imported foods. Their latest project, called Tabemamo (an abbreviation of tabete-mamoru, or “preservation through eating”), seeks to preserve seed diversity by encouraging consumers to eat locally grown produce.

Daichi’s founders were in their 20s when they started the business. Likewise, Mitsuko Mori is a young entrepreneur and, at age 25, she has big plans for Vegetable Equality. She hopes that her efforts will eventually reduce agricultural waste in Japan by half.

“I know it’s ambitious,” she says with a smile, “but I think we can do it.”