Lifestyle

Mom-friendly tomato farm bears more than just fruit

by Maya Kaneko

Kyodo

Mothers raising young children are often shunned by Japan Inc. due to company concerns of the interference of family commitments. One young entrepreneur, however, has created an alternative for working parents: flexible work hours on her own cherry tomato farm.

Drop Inc. — a startup located in a forest in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture, about an hour and 40-minute drive northeast of Tokyo — currently hires a dozen women and two men to farm sweet cherry tomatoes that are sold online as well as at upscale department stores and supermarkets.

With family-friendly hours, requests from mothers to work at the company’s Drop Farm greenhouses have come flooding in.

“Women become core consumers after giving birth” because they become conscious about what their kids eat, says Ayaka Miura, 29, president and CEO of Drop Inc. “It is a plus that our company has many staff members who understand how female consumers feel.”

Miura, a mother of a 4-year-old girl, knew little about farming before she gave birth to her daughter in Tokyo, in 2014. A Hiroshima native, she had previously worked in the apparel and advertising sectors, but became interested in agriculture later, believing she could pursue a career in farming while raising a child.

When looking for land, she “fell in love with” a crop field in Mito, which was owned by her husband’s relatives who, she says, were farming burdock and rice.

“We were concerned about risks from disasters, such as floods and typhoons, and decided to rent the field from my husband’s uncle and aunt because it was located on a hill and surrounded by woods,” she says.

Farming is easily accessible to mothers, Miura explains, because tending to plants is usually non-urgent and work hours can be flexible. There’s little or no dealing with clients who have fixed deadlines.

“Even if a worker has to take several days off to care for a sick child, jobs to tend a plant can wait, and substitute workers can cover their tasks,” she says.

Many moms prioritize family time, rather than higher pay or career advancement, which often require long working hours, so employers who recognize this can attract workers, she adds.

An innovation that helped prompt Miura to begin her venture is the Imec Film Farming method, which she saw reported on in a TV program. A sophisticated system involving hydrogel film instead of soil, Imec Film Farming can produce nutritious vegetables with high natural sugar content.

The hydrogel gel used for Imec technology is commonly used in diapers or hemodialysis and absorbs water and nutrients through nanosized pores that block germs and viruses. Compared with hydroponics, it uses less water. The soil-free cultivation method was invented by Yuichi Mori, who founded Mebiol Inc. in 1995 to apply the technology to agriculture. It’s a technique that is easy to learn, even with no farming experience.

Adopted to grow crops such as strawberries, melons, cucumbers and peppers in a number of countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Imec farms have been succesful on desert land, according to Mebiol.

“As the Imec method can boost tomatoes’ synthesis of nutrients such as vitamin C, lycopene and amino acids by putting stress on them (with the low usage of water), I thought these elements could help enhance the beauty (regime) of consumers,” Miura says. “So I came up with the idea of naming our products ‘beauty tomatoes.'”

Miura’s company, which began production in 2015, now sells the “beauty tomatoes” at a price more than three times higher than ordinary ones, targeting wealthy customers with a “keen sense” in choosing products.

In the business year through last September, Drop Farm sold 20 tons of tomatoes for ¥35 million. Sales are expected to double this fiscal year as the greenhouses were expanded to about 5,000 square meters. The farm also sells tomato juice and jam.

Miura says that for small-scale farming to become profitable, it is vital to produce premium, value-added items and sell them directly to consumers with a branding strategy. If crops are sold through wholesalers, she explains, the producer loses the control of pricing power.

Drop Farm also uses cloud-based services to remotely control greenhouses by monitoring conditions such as temperature, humidity and wind direction.

“Environmental control (at the greenhouses) requires a lot of time, but we can depend on machines to a certain extent,” Miura says, who aims to make procedures accessible, so staff, including those working short hours, can collaborate efficiently.

She expects to achieve this goal by having greenhouse data sent to workers’ smartphones under the cloud-based system and keeping manuals for work procedures on hand.

Soliciting staff who can work for a few hours rather than full-time, she says has other benefits too. She had found that farmers engaged in “monotonous work can have concentration problems,” and hiring several short-time workers can enhance productivity.

The women employee also enjoy the different work environment. Ratchadaporn Takahashi, a 37-year-old Thai employee and a mother of two says, “There are many women colleagues and I can tell them anything — about my family, my children.”

Honami Kasai, 27, a graduate of an agricultural school who moved to Drop Farm after working at another tomato farm, says she finds it a “comfortable place to work” as women tend to be (more) attentive and help each other. “At my former workplace, male employees were often rough and ruined hulls when picking tomatoes,” she adds.

Miura talks about expanding to other countries as a future goal.

“Takahashi could manage a Thai farm and market the tomatoes with my advice on branding,” she says as an example.

For now, Miura is kept busy replying to questions and giving lectures across Japan about her business model, which has attracted interest from others wanting to start farming. She hopes that the mom-friendly work style at her farm will be emulated by other companies.

“It’s not our exclusive know-how,” she says. “I hope many others will adopt this model that supports both moms who cannot find jobs and farms suffering from labor shortages.”