Women help bolster Japan’s farming industry

by Rebecca Bender

Kyodo

Atsue Durrant spent most of her career as an office worker, but she always felt like something was missing.

She was a multi-discipline artist and used photography as a form of self-expression. However, it wasn’t until she quit her office job, with the support of her husband Cameron Durrant, that she was able to indulge her creative side by starting a farm in Mizuho, western Tokyo, just outside of the U.S. Yokota Air Base.

With a partner able to support and encourage her, Atsue felt she could finally spread her wings and try something new, and although she considered farming as a hobby, she says she now feels right at home with the work.

“When I was younger I wanted to farm, but I wasn’t good enough,” Atsue, 39, says during a recent interview. She had a small garden at her parents’ home in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, where she used to try to grow vegetables, but hadn’t quite developed a green thumb.

“I would try, but they would always die.” she says, laughing about her unsuccessful attempts to farm as a child.

It was when Astue needed a change from the everyday grind of office work that she decided to explore other professions. She had recently married in 2011 and felt a desire to get closer to nature and reconnect with the curiosity she once harbored when in her family’s garden.

“I quit work and visited some single female farmers in Japan to see what it was like being a farmer,” she says. “I thought, ‘I think I can do it!'”

Atsue knew that the community of farmers she would join was predominantly male, but a strong group of female farmers in her area helped her feel empowered and confident.

After visiting female farmers around the country in 2015, she worked for two years at Kondo Farm in Mizuho. There she learned how to grow green onions in the winter to spring months and then tomatoes in the summer, while her husband continued working as an English teacher.

As a member of the “Women Who Farm” project, organized by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Atsue is connected to a network of other female farmers around Japan. The project’s website states that its members believe there can be an “organic farming revolution” and that they work together to become “strong women of sustainable agriculture.” The members organizes events and publish articles about their farming experiences.

According to a government study, professional women farmers accounted for 43 percent of full-time agricultural workers in Japan in 2015.

“I’ve never been told that I can’t (be a farmer) because I am a female, but some female farmers feel it is harder to be a woman and there are some landowners who don’t want to rent to them. I was aware that it happens, but I feel a lot of people want to see me succeed,” Atsue says, adding that many of the farmers in her area are considered “hobby farmers” rather than commercial ones.

“I feel like people cheer for me,” she says. “Our farm is in a very equal place and people just see me as a farmer.”

The Durrants’ Base Side Farm — four rented plots outside Yokota Air Base, measuring 330 square meters each — is one of the largest farms surrounding the base perimeter. Commercial farmers, of course, have bigger plots than hobby farmers, but the Durrants’ land is nothing to sneeze at.

To promote their produce, Atsue uses social media to communicate with customers both on the base and in the local area. She learned to speak English after traveling abroad and her husband, Cameron, 41, is from Australia. Their farm is one of the few English-speaking ones in the area but it’s not affiliated with the base. Nevertheless, to help improve relations between the local community and the U.S. base personnel, Atsue allows active-duty military members from the base to occasionally help out on the farm.

The farm sells pesticide-free dried corn, which can be used as a healthy alternative to store-bought popcorn, and customers are given the opportunity to dig up their own peanuts to take home. Atsue also sells produce at a local farmers market called “Fresh House,” located minutes away from the farm.

Although Base Side Farm has only been around for a little less than a year, Atsue believes it has already had an impact on the military base community, whose members often seek off-base grocery items cheaper than those shipped from abroad and sold at the commissary.

“(Atsue) grows amazing veggies that are pesticide free. I love going to pick them up knowing they’ve just been picked,” says one customer from the base. “She has even sent me recipe ideas for veggies I’m unfamiliar with.”

It took a leap of faith for Atsue to get away from typical office work and become a farmer, but with the aging farming population in Japan, she is hopeful more women will follow in her footsteps to get closer to nature and express themselves through agricultural work. She believes that it is important that women continue to consider farming as a profession, not only to improve gender equality but also to help stimulate the agricultural industry.

The farm has also become an outlet for Atsue’s love of photography, and she posts photos of its vegetables and her cooking creations on her Instagram page (@BaseSideFarm).

“Farming is self-expression,” she says. “It’s not just produce, it’s showing a bit of you.”