Farmers market concept takes root in big cities

by Mie Sakamoto

Kyodo News

Tokyo’s Aoyama shopping district, home to numerous luxury brand stores, hosts an open-air farmers market every weekend, finding favor with customers increasingly conscious about what they eat.

“Vegetables here taste just like those grown in my hometown in the countryside,” said 40-year-old Yuka Kubota, who comes to the market from Shibuya Ward once a week to buy vegetables directly from farmers.

“I can buy organic food here with a sense of security because I can see producers’ faces,” Kubota said. “Here, I can also learn about recipes for rare vegetables.”

Although farmers markets are not uncommon in rural areas and have emerged in suburban areas, it is still rare for farmers to come and sell their products regularly in crowded Tokyo districts.

Growers set their own prices, so organic vegetables may be more expensive than those sold in supermarkets.

Osamu Kobayashi, 39, who started selling vegetables at the Aoyama market in early October, said bringing produce from his farm in Nagano Prefecture is costly, but selling direct has plenty of benefits.

“It’s delightful to see customers who come back and buy our products again, telling us that they liked them,” he said after getting up at 4:30 a.m. and making the long drive to Tokyo.

The market is one of about 20 in major cities, including Osaka, Yokohama, Fukuoka and Sapporo, under the agriculture ministry’s Marche Japon project, which started in September.

The ¥1.6 billion project was originally aimed at helping farmers struggling with high gasoline prices, said ministry official Koji Otani. “We wanted to expand farmers distribution routes and raise their incomes.”

Unfortunately, the project started the same month the Hatoyama government rode into town. Shortly thereafter, the administration decided to ax the program’s budget.

The ministry wanted to create markets in major cities similar to those found overseas, including in France, where the “marche” is closely connected to daily life, he said.

By opening farmers markets in downtown areas, the goal was to provide people with opportunities to taste local fare while prompting private entities to start such businesses, Otani said.

Hideaki Ida, senior promotion manager at Web site operator Gourmet Navigation Inc., which was selected as the Marche Japon Executive Office, said farmers will also have the opportunity to sell their produce directly to restaurants in Tokyo and other big cities.

“It will be beneficial for producers to create contacts with new customers such as restaurants or processed food firms that will be able to procure a stable supply,” Ida said. “If their food is used in famous restaurants or by manufacturers, their brand value will rise.”

The markets can only be a benefit to consumers.

“Consumer awareness about food safety has begun to change” following the highly publicized series of false labeling cases and the tainted Chinese frozen dumplings that made people ill in Japan, said Hiromichi Kaneko, a professor at Tottori University of Environmental Studies.

People are now willing to spend money for expensive but safe food, Kaneko said, and suburban farmers markets are on the rise despite the sluggish economy.

The Marche operators received subsidies from the ministry to start the markets, but they will have no financial support starting with the coming fiscal year and will have to run the markets on their own.

“It’s an unprecedented attempt to open markets regularly in big cities, and private companies must take big risks if they want to start markets on such a wide scale,” Otani said of the need for government support.

Yasuteru Suda, a general manager of marketing company Mindshare Inc., which runs the Aoyama market, said the operators need subsidies to cover maintenance and other costs if they are going to continue the markets in big cities.

“We cannot receive a lot of money from farmers,” Suda said.

None of this, however, means much to the Democratic Party of Japan-led government, which is looking to cut spending wherever it can. A task force on government waste judged in November that the program’s funding must be scrapped. One of the reasons it cited was that farmers markets could undercut other commercial activities.

“Despite the budget cut, we would like to continue cooperating with operators to have the markets take root by seeking ways to help them without using taxpayer money,” the farm ministry’s Otani said.

Aside from the government project, a monthly farmers market sponsored by a nonprofit group in Yoyogi Park in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, has been growing little by little since its April 2006 debut.

The market, run by the earthdaymoney association, started with 20 stalls to provide small-scale farmers with opportunities to sell organic vegetables. It now boasts about 60 stalls that draw 15,000 to 20,000 people a day.

“The culture of buying food directly from farmers is not taking root in Japan, unlike in Western countries,” said Hiroshi Tomiyama of the market’s planning committee. The government’s project “is good in a sense that it may become a trigger to let people know that shopping at markets is fun.”

Kaneko of Tottori University said farmers are likely to be better off by selling direct because 70 percent to 80 percent of their potential profits are swallowed up in the distribution stage.

But at the same time, Kaneko said government support for farmers should be moderate because they have grown highly dependent on subsidies.

“The farm industry is saturated with subsidies. It cannot stand on its own feet as long as it depends on them,” he said.