Salaryman trades desk for truck patch

by Hisanobu Wakabayashi

ISEHARA, Kanagawa Pref. (Kyodo) Hiroshi Saito, 58, clad in dark jacket, work pants and mud-encrusted shoes, smells of earth.

“I used to wear a suit everyday. When I began farming, I was told, ‘That (farmer’s) style suits you, too,’ ” he said with a self-conscious smile.

Saito quit the food firm he worked at for 33 years in 2002 and turned to farming.

In a 990 sq.-meter field near his house in Isehara, Kanagawa Prefecture, Saito grows cabbages, broccoli, cherry tomatoes and green beans.

As the baby-boom generation enters the cusp of retirement, how to spend one’s later years is becoming an important issue, both for individuals and for policymakers wrestling with the country’s social security challenges.

“There is no mandatory retirement as long as you are healthy enough to work. I have realized my dream,” said Saito, who took early retirement to become a farmer.

When he was a university student in Hokkaido, Saito majored in dairy farming. But he joined a company based in Tokyo after graduation and worked as a salesman. His two-hour daily commute and long work hours left little time for him to devote to his family, he said.

Saito reached a turning point three years ago. Feeling that something was missing in his life, he took up the company’s offer of early retirement at age 55.

At that time, he recalled his college days. As a undergraduate, he learned about insect and weed control, and irrigation techniques. Saito said it has been rewarding to put his training to use.

When he told his 58-year-old wife of his plan to give up his company job for farm life, she supported him, saying, “You are free to do anything.”

After receiving preparatory training through a company that helps people find new jobs, Saito became a farmhand. More than two years later, in November 2004, he rented the field where he grows his vegetables for 15,000 yen a year.

Half a year later, he harvested his first spinach crop, putting the produce on sale at a shop run by an agricultural cooperative. “In 20 minutes, a customer bought it. I was very pleased,” Saito said.

The government hopes more baby boomers like Saito will enter the agricultural industry as it looks to revitalize farming villages. Local governments are also helping them find farmland.

Workers who were born between 1947 and 1949, the first baby boomers, will begin retiring in 2007. About 2.7 million babies were born in 1949.

But it isn’t easy making a living in agriculture.

Minoru Hosono, 54, a farmer who taught Saito how to raise crops, said patience is necessary.

“Unless your mind is fixed, you will soon give it up, even if you come here to help us,” he said. “Agriculture’s partner is nature, and even if you have been engaged in agriculture for many years, you are still a first-grader. You have to be tenacious even if you fail.”

Saito earns 30,000 yen to 70,000 yen a month selling vegetables.

Because he has already repaid his housing loan, and his wife has an income, they face no financial problems for now.

“By doing what I love, I can use the money (gained by farming) for our future,” Saito said, adding his wife has recently begun to help him with harvesting.