Young farmers brace for impact of trade liberalization

by Miya Tanaka

Kyodo News

As Japan weighs the possibility of joining negotiations for a Pacific free-trade pact that could force it to drastically open up its agricultural market, it is not only pessimism that is hanging over the domestic farming industry.

At least some in the younger generation appear to be bracing for the challenges they may face in the event Japan joins the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement and hope that the move will truly overhaul the country’s agricultural sector, which is plagued by a lack of successors.

“What I have to do will probably not change even if there is an impact from joining the TPP,” said Takuro Matsuhashi, 24, who will start his career as a rice farmer from March in his home village in Akita Prefecture, a renowned rice production center.

“I’d be lying if I said I’m not worried about the outlook . . . but I want to find a way to allow customers to choose my rice,” said Matsuhashi, a Waseda University graduate now working at a vegetable store in Tokyo to learn about sales.

His interest is heading toward what is known as “community-supported agriculture,” a food distribution system that links producers and consumers more closely as individuals pay expected costs for select farms in advance to share both the benefits and risks of food production. It is more popular in the United States and Europe.

Matsuhashi is not yet confident he will succeed in creating something similar, but he believes that farmers will no longer be able to survive by simply carrying on with what they have been doing amid changes in distribution routes and other factors.

The reality could be tougher than he expects, especially if Japan joins the TPP without being allowed to exempt rice from tariff elimination. Japan is reluctant to open up its agricultural market and has protected rice farmers with a 778 percent tariff on imports of milled rice.

The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry said in an estimate last October that the value of Japan’s agricultural output would dive by about ¥4.1 trillion (about $49.2 billion) annually from about ¥8.5 trillion if tariffs on key farm products are abolished in line with TPP requirements.

Under the TPP, now being negotiated among countries including major agricultural exporters such as the United States and Australia, all members are expected in principle to scrap all tariffs.

As for rice production, the ministry projected that “most of the domestically produced rice would be superseded by foreign rice,” except for products that can be clearly differentiated by quality.

While the government is trying to promote free-trade agreements with major trade partners to revitalize the flagging economy, opposition lingers in the farming industry because of the TPP’s possibly “devastating” impact.

But Yusuke Miyaji, 32, who works with his family as a pig farmer in Kanagawa Prefecture, said, “I know many young and energetic farmer colleagues nationwide, but I haven’t met a farmer who is against the TPP.

“When you think about what the difference is between farmers who are against the TPP and those who are not, it is whether they have made efforts to improve their management and developed their own sales outlets,” Miyaji said at a recent symposium in Tokyo that brought together several farmers who said they do not fear the TPP.

His hog farm is far from large, raising about 700 pigs. But Miyaji said his family’s farm saw a fivefold increase in annual sales after drastically changing the way it does business.

Miyaji, who was formerly a typical company employee, has developed a channel to sell his farm’s pork to restaurants and customers under the brand name Miyaji pork, instead of simply relying on the ordinary distribution route, which prevents consumers from knowing which farm the pork came from.

“Under the current system, good products and bad products are sold at the same price because they are put together in the same distribution route. Working hard doesn’t pay,” he said.

To change the situation, Miyaji started organizing barbecue events to promote the taste of his pork directly to consumers and sending out e-mail newsletters. The move led to the development of sales outlets and Miyaji pork is now sold to restaurants at a price about twice as high as ordinary domestic pork.

Without raising the quality of the pork, product-branding and direct sales would probably have not yielded results.

If Japan joins the TPP, Miyaji said, his farm may have to make further efforts to cut costs, especially in feeding, to prepare for a fall in prices caused by a possible influx of cheaper imports.

He also said: “Continuing discussions on the TPP and seeing confrontation would not benefit anyone. What is important is to create a system that would enable farmers to survive whether or not Japan joins the TPP.”

When he decided to take over his family business in 2004, Miyaji already had an ambitious goal in mind — to contribute to propping up Japan’s faltering agricultural sector.

“Because you can’t make a living by farming, parents tell their sons, ‘Go to Tokyo to work.’ That has resulted in a lack of successors and a lack of moves to address new challenges in the industry,” he said.

“When I entered the university, I wanted to be a teacher . . . but I felt like becoming a farmer after meeting attractive farmers who appeared to be not only enjoying farming but their lives,” Matsuhashi said.