Government figures show a sharp and continuous fall-off in the number of farmers over the past five years that potentially threatens the landscape as its stewards leave the sector and are not replaced.
The number of workers in farming and forestry fell 19.8 percent over the five years, shrinking to 2.09 million this year, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries said in a preliminary report Friday.
The decrease of 516,000 people from the 2010 level represents a roughly 60 percent decline in the farming and forestry population over 30 years from 1985, when the ministry began compiling data using the same definitions.
The ministry attributed the drop to many people quitting the farming and forestry business as they grow older. The average age of those in the sector was 66.3 years, up six months from five years ago.
The agricultural and forestry population hit a zenith of 5.43 million in 1985 and has since been falling.
The rate of decline in the latest period measured was almost equivalent to the pace five years ago, 22.3 percent, the fastest to date.
Meanwhile, there could be a further blow to the sector from the upcoming 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade bloc, an agreement that might flood Japan with cheap farm products, potentially weakening the sector and spurring further departures from the workforce.
It remains to be seen whether the policy outline adopted by the government on Wednesday to boost exports and businesses under TPP can strengthen the agricultural sector through such means as human resources development.
The number of people primarily engaging in agriculture dropped 13.8 percent from 2010 to 1.77 million. The combined total of farming households and agricultural corporations declined 18.1 percent to 1.38 million.
Acreage used for cultivation per household or agricultural corporation came to 2.5 hectares, a modest 0.3 hectare increase from 2010. The area of farmland left fallow for over a year and expected to remain so for several years totaled 424,000 hectares, up 7.1 percent from five years ago, the largest since it was included in the survey in 1975.
The number of farming households and agricultural corporations in tsunami-hit Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures fell 22.6 percent to 139,000, a higher rate of decline than the national average.
Forestry acreage stood at 24.81 million hectares, or 66.5 percent of the country’s land, down 0.1 percentage point from 2010.
The farm ministry conducts a census of the agriculture and forestry sector every five years. The latest census covered data as of Feb. 1.