On a Saturday morning in December in the classy Roppongi area, young farmers surrounded by their vegetables, fruits, hams, and honeys explained to fashionable Tokyoites the intricacies of their produce — including the production process and the best ways to prepare them.
The market, named the Hill’s Marche, is one of the projects organized by the nonprofit organization Noka no Kosegare Network (Network of Farmers’ Sons), aimed at offering new sales routes for growers where they can set their own prices and communicate directly with consumers.
“We’re aiming to change the primary sector into a cool, profitable and inspiring industry to attract young farmers and revamp Japan’s agriculture,” said Yusuke Miyaji, 33, a former company employee and now pig farmer who heads the NPO based in Minato Ward, Tokyo.
By organizing forums and other events to help facilitate the exchange of information, the NPO offers support to young farmers, including Tokyo entrepreneurs who have begun farming part time, as well as farmers’ grownup children who want to explore new business opportunities in the industry.
“The aging of farmers is a critical problem,” Miyaji said. “We need to change the current structure as soon as possible. I think there’s a problem in the system that is keeping young people away from farming.”
Of an estimated 1.86 million full-time farmers in Japan in 2011 — down sharply from 3.46 million in 1985 — 1.1 million, or 59 percent, are 65 and older, up from 677,300, or 19.5 percent, 26 years earlier. Their average age was over 66 in 2010, according to government data released in December.
Miyaji himself used to be one of the “kosegare” who avoided joining his parents in pig farming and worked for a top job-placement agency in Tokyo for about four years, all the while hoping to someday start a business of his own.
“I never thought about becoming a farmer and cleaning up livestock excreta,” Miyaji said laughing.
To make his entrepreneurial dream come true, he made it a practice to read up on the business world and various industries. Among the books he read, the ones on the subject of agriculture left the biggest impression, giving him a sense of the critical stage Japan’s farming sector has reached.
The more he learned about the serious situation, the more he became motivated to succeed his father on his farm and to eventually change the industry.
“I found two issues in the current system,” said Miyaji. “Farmers can’t gain high profits because they have no pricing rights. The second is a (poor) connection between producers and consumers.”
Due to unstable shipments of produce — thanks in no small part to the capriciousness of the weather — most farmers depend on third parties, such as wholesalers and agricultural cooperatives, when it comes to sales and pricing. Most don’t even know where their products are finally sold, he said.
To alleviate the lack of contact between producers and consumers, Miyaji, who joined and incorporated his father’s pig farm in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, in 2006, began by organizing barbecue parties that delivered the taste of “Miyaji Pork” directly to participants.
Through word of mouth, the events helped his farm develop new sales channels directly linked to customers — including posh restaurants in Tokyo — which has helped sales surge.
His passion to rejuvenate and bolster the ailing industry also led him to form the Kosegare Network in 2009, which has grown to boast about 13,000 members across the nation, including not only farmers but also chefs and restaurant owners.
“The fastest and most efficient way to drastically change the industry is to get more children of farmers to succeed their parents and hence increase the number of young farmers,” he said. If they have experiences in other business, “it’s easier to adopt new ideas into farming.”
The network launched farm-to-table projects, an integrated process from harvesting to consumption, such as the Hill’s Marche and the Roppongi Noen restaurant in Tokyo, that enable producers to sell or introduce their products face to face with consumers.
Another service is the “My Farmer” system. Consumers choose their farmers and receive seasonal foods directly from them by paying in advance, while farmers bear less weather risk by gaining a fixed income and get feedback from consumers.
“This network is aimed not only at making the primary sector cool, but also producing young farmers who can become role models for people who hesitate to become farmers,” Miyaji said.
Yusuke Shino, a 28-year-old member of the network, may be one such role model. He runs a farm in Togane, Chiba Prefecture, with his wife and seven other colleagues, most of them in their 20s and all from nonfarm families.
Their farm produces about 200 types of vegetables and fruit throughout the year, and sells them all on private delivery routes.
“Farming is really fun. I’m truly satisfied with the job I chose,” Shino said.
To help increase the number of young farmers like Shino, the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry has announced a subsidy program starting in April with a target of doubling the annual number of new farmers under the age of 40 to 20,000.
Under the program, new farmers will receive ¥1.5 million per annum for five years, the average period required for such farmers’ incomes to stabilize.
“About 30 percent of new farmers quit farming,” a ministry official in charge of the program said. “One of the reasons is unstable income due to lack of distribution channels and inexperience in terms of skills.
“We want to support young farmers to make farming sustainable as soon as possible,” the official said. “We want them to make full use of the subsidy. It’s encouraging to have someone with strong leadership like Miyaji and active farmers.”
About two years after the launch of the Kosegare Network, the fruits of its labors can be seen in the seven branch networks that have emerged nationwide.
At a regional meeting in spring 2010 in Nagoya, Hideaki Kato, 31, a strawberry grower and former Internet marketer in Tokyo, met with fellow farmers and developed a plan to produce chiffon cakes using his strawberries and produce from other farmers.
Kato even made a foray into stores in China, leading to the opening of a local shop there. The group was chosen as one of 10 Japanese exhibitors at the September 2010 Asia Fruit Logistica trade fair in Hong Kong.
Kato, who became a full-time farmer in 2008 and runs farms in Ichinomiya, Aichi Prefecture, and Shanghai, began selling original breads and sweets last year at a Shanghai department store jointly with a major Japanese bakery. Their section in the department store saw sales jump threefold to fourfold from 2010.
“Being a farmer is severe,” he said, noting the damage to his Aichi farm by two typhoons last fall. “But I find my job worthwhile when I see consumers enjoying my products.”