Small farmers fear TPP may force them to pursue expansion over simplicity


With the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal now formally signed by its members, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration will step up efforts to help farmers in Japan become globally competitive.

One measure Abe is proposing is for farmers to expand.

The Abe administration is pitching “agriculture on the offense,” urging farmers to expand their business and corporations to enter the industry.

But Soichi Yamashita, 79, a farmer in a small town in Saga Prefecture, claims expanding would only make farmers even more vulnerable to risks, including bad weather and oil prices, and be a bad idea for those who want to keep their businesses small and sufficient enough to support their families.

Yamashita is not the only one who feels that way.

He and Masaharu Manda, a professor emeritus at Kagoshima University, have launched a group to promote the cause of small farmers that consisted of about 80 farmers and academics at the end of last year.

Yamashita defines small farmers as those who only want to grow and sell enough produce to support their families, rather than seek out big profits.

His perspective apparently stems from problems he encountered with government flip-flops on policy in past decades.

During the nation’s rapid economic growth in the 1970s, the government advocated fruit growing. Yamashita followed along, expanding mikan (tangerine) farming in the coastal town of Minato facing the Genkai Sea. At the time, there were many mikan fields next to rice paddies in the mountains.

But when a mikan glut developed in the 1980s, the government started to restrict harvests. Farmers also were threatened by the liberalized trade in imported oranges in 1991, further affecting mikan output.

To meet consumer demand for other fruits, Yamashita and other farmers started harvesting other products, including grapes.

In the town of Minato, only five households now grow mikan, down from a peak of 100. Abandoned mikan groves are now overrun with bamboo. Some, apparently abandoned recently, still have rotting fruit hanging from the branches.

A local grocery store funded by an agricultural cooperative sells American oranges and lemons. Yamashita and his wife now grow 2.5 tons of rice, 7 tons of mikan, 500 kg of lemon, 200 kg of plum and six kinds of vegetables in a 10-are field.

The government has claimed domestic mikan have become more competitive since many developed into varieties that don’t compete with imported oranges. But that is partly the result of reduced production. Mikan output nationwide is now about 27 percent of its heyday in 1974, when about 173,000 hectares of orchards produced the fruit.

The figure shows that, in terms of sustainability, mikan production was a failure.

For Yamashita, diversification helps reduce the risks of farming.

Last month just before the harvest season, Yamashita learned that monkeys had been devastating his mikan grove. He had placed electric fences around his trees but the batteries died.

“It’s my fault,” said Yamashita, who seemed unfazed because the damage would have been greater had he only stuck to growing mikan.

“I won’t make big money out of it. Farming is a way to make ends meet,” he said, calling himself a peasant farmer.

For farmers who aren’t looking to rake in lots of cash, expanding business just spells more headaches.

An acquaintance with a large mikan greenhouse operation had told him he was able to slash more than ¥4 million in fuel costs because of the decline in oil prices.

“But when oil prices rose, he was suffering from ¥4 million (in) losses,” Yamashita said. “Profiting and losing (due to fluctuations) in the oil markets . . . is that farming? It’s like a market dealer.

“I just don’t want my life to (revolve) around money,” he said, adding that expanding the scope of farming or encouraging corporations to join agriculture won’t protect farmers in Japan.

Yamashita now wants to live a quiet life surrounded by family and hopefully hand his business down to his son.

Yamashita’s oldest son, who became a salaried worker after his father cut back on mikan farming, helps out during the busy seasons and vows to “eventually come back” to the farm.