Food & Drink | Food Sustainability in Japan

For Eat Local Kobe, it's important to stick close to your roots

by Joan Bailey

Contributing Writer

Six years ago, Hiroaki Koizumi began a census of Kobe farmers. As part of a consulting team hired by the city to promote Kobe’s agriculture, Koizumi’s assignment was to locate farms within the city limits. He was astonished at his expanding list of growers and producers, and equally astonished to realize how difficult it was to actually purchase their food.

“There were all these farms in the city, but they had no community representation,” Koizumi says. “Japan has a big infrastructure for food, but the vegetables in local supermarkets are from far away. The current vegetable transport system is not working for young or organic farmers.”

Most food in grocery stores arrives courtesy of Japan Agriculture (JA) Cooperatives, a nationwide farmer cooperative that handles everything from production and packaging to marketing and distribution. JA efforts lean toward larger farms growing standard varieties of popular crops that are uniform in shape and size for easy shipping.

However, the organic farmers Koizumi met grew a diverse range of crops and varieties on small farms. And, although JA offers organic certification, participation is low: Of the 12,000 organic farming households the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) surveyed in a 2010 census, only 4,000 are officially certified through JA.

Recalling the local food movement he witnessed while living in the U.S. in the late 1990s, Koizumi and five other Eat Local Kobe organizers visited markets in San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, to get advice and, in June 2015, opened the first Eat Local Kobe Market. Koizumi estimates about 600 people came that day. That fall, the market opened for six consecutive weeks and visitor numbers steadily increased. Toward the end of that period, customers asked to keep it going and, in 2016, the market ran nearly every week.

Currently, the Eat Local Kobe farmer’s market is held 42 times a year in a 10-week on, two-week off cycle, with upward of 1,000 visitors each time. It also offers classes and organizes farm visits and special events, such as the annual Farm to Fork festival in November. A total of 200 sellers participate throughout the year, 70 to 80 of which are farmers while the rest include bakers, ranchers, fishermen, restaurants and artisanal food vendors. Koizumi estimates that 80 to 90 percent of them are from the Kobe metropolitan area. This keeps things local, but also meets Koizumi’s other goal: creating a community.

“I’m trying to build an infrastructure for younger farmers. I want to get different people involved, not just for sales but to make connections, like restaurants buying from farmers,” Koizumi says. “Young farmers tend to be alone. Here they meet other people on a regular basis, get to know each other and talk.”

“If young farmers participate, we hope the younger generation will take an interest in farming,” Koizumi continues. “We need more farmers.”

This is no understatement. According to the MAFF, Japan’s food self-sufficiency, the rate at which domestic production meets domestic food needs, stands at 36 percent, and the average age of farmers is 67. Koizumi calculates that roughly 80 percent of Eat Local Kobe’s participants are young farmers, which he defines as someone who has been farming for fewer than 10 years or is between the ages of 30 and 40.

Eat your vegetables: Farmer Michihiro Maruyama holds up a bunch of Brussels sprouts at the Eat Local Kobe farmer's market. | JOAN BAILEY
Eat your vegetables: Farmer Michihiro Maruyama holds up a bunch of Brussels sprouts at the Eat Local Kobe farmer’s market. | JOAN BAILEY

“It’s difficult to do all of this alone,” farmer Michihiro Maruyama says. Maruyama started selling at the market three years ago when he first began growing organic vegetables and rice. He soon met fellow organic farmer, Junko Osara, who invited Maruyama to join her Community Supported Agriculture group. Six farmers, including Maruyama, provide a weekly supply of food to 30 member families for pick up at the market or other pre-determined locations.

For growers Shingo and Maiko Nakano, the market is important not just to sell the 80 kinds of vegetables and rice they grow, but to educate consumers. As natural farmers, they don’t till the soil or use fertilizers or pesticides. Farming for 15 years, the Nakanos have established outlets, such as a monthly stall at Kobe’s Patagonia store, but the market gives them an opportunity to regularly meet customers.

“In Kobe, natural farming is rare, but by talking with customers I can give them an idea of what it is and talk about the vegetables, too,” Shingo says.

In March 2018, Eat Local Kobe opened the Eat Local Kobe Farmstand. The combination cafe-supermarket offers a complete array of fresh produce, meat, dairy, eggs, fish and baked goods. There, visitors can shop, enjoy coffee, tea, craft beer and lunch. Open daily, the Farmstand expands on Eat Local Kobe’s goal of promoting “local production for local consumption.”

“Meals are made from the vegetables and other items left over from the day before,” says Tae Okubo, the main cook and one of the Farmstand’s three staff. The set menu includes a main dish, miso soup, pickles and rice, while side options include meat or fish.

“We decide the menu each morning,” Okubo says, “so it always has the taste of the season in Kobe.”

For more information about Eat Local Kobe, visit eatlocalkobe.org.