At the Oasis 21 Organic Farmers Asaichimura morning market in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, Takako Yoshino weaves past stalls brimming with fruit and vegetables, greeting farmers and customers. She answers a question from a market volunteer and then heads to a small table to shake hands with a young man who wants to talk about how to become a farmer.
For the founder and manager of the 15-year-old weekly market that serves as a hub for a growing network of organic farmers, customers and apprentice farmers, this is a typical day. Supporting the growers and producers here, Yoshino believes, makes a real difference.
“The average age of a Japanese farmer in 2018 was 66.6 years old,” Yoshino says, “which means most farmers are elderly. About 40,000 people become farmers each year, but only 10,000 of them are under 40. The rest are over 50 and returning to their parents’ farms after retirement. If this continues, it is clear to me that the number of Japanese farmers will decline dramatically in 10 years.”
Yoshino, though, is not a farmer. Born in Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, she grew up in Tokyo and Kanagawa Prefecture. At 16, a serious illness struck, but a switch to an organic diet gradually restored her health. After earning a degree in psychology from Gakushuin University, she worked at Mitsubishi until her marriage in 1984. Following a move to Nagoya in 1989 for her husband’s job, she found work at a small company that distributed produce for organic farmers. There, she discovered the challenges facing organic farmers, one of which was finding customers.
“I learned that many new organic farmers quit because there were few channels for distribution of their vegetables,” Yoshino explains. “I thought, ‘someday I would like to create opportunities for them.'”
Another job transfer took the couple to Yokohama in 1994, where Yoshino enrolled in Tokyo University of Agriculture for a second degree. After graduation, she began writing for The Japan Agricultural News, a publication covering farming and food in Japan. In 2004, her husband’s company returned them to Nagoya and Aichi Prefecture became her beat. She visited farms, talking with farmers and gaining firsthand knowledge of their work. When city officials approached her about establishing a market, Yoshino jumped at the chance.
The first market had 14 vendors and few visitors. Undeterred, she undertook a one-woman grassroots campaign, walking the nearby streets and delivering flyers on Fridays before the market to every household for a year.
Today, the Saturday farmers market hosts 20 to 35 of its 70 member farmers at any one time, and customers wait in a line nearly 100 deep for the bell that signals the market’s opening. Yoshino estimates about 1,000 customers, mostly regulars, visit each week. A farmers-only market, there is no bread, pastry, beverages, or arts and crafts items. While excluding non-farmers seems risky, Yoshino finds it beneficial.
“The farmers here are friends, but also rivals. They see what others are doing and change their work. Their produce has improved over the years,” she says, gesturing to the 30 tables brimming with seasonal fruit and vegetables, honey, jam, homemade pickles, tea and pork.
Yoshino added a New Farmer Program in 2009 that pairs experienced farmers with new ones for a yearlong apprenticeship. The young farmers live and work on the farm, learning about planting, tending, and harvesting. They also help sell at the market, allowing them to meet potential customers and establish a reputation. To date, 35 new farmers have gone through the program and four more will graduate this year.
In 2013, to accommodate the increase in farmers, Yoshino started two more weekly markets in front of Nagoya Station Meitetsu Department Store and Minami Seikyo Hospital. More outlets mean a more stable income for farmers, and more community members who value their produce.
It also means Yoshino is busier than ever. In 2014, she left The Japan Agricultural News to give the markets and affiliated programs her full attention.
“The markets are a gateway to farming,” Yoshino says. “People from rural villages and cities meet and connect. It’s a place where farmers can earn money. The children who come here and eat this food want to become farmers. Many things are still possible,” she adds. “I want to keep trying.”
Oasis 21 Organic Farmers Asaichimura is held every Saturday from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. at Oasis 21 (Higashisakura 1-11-1, Higashi-ku, Nagoya 461-0005). For more information, visit asaichimura.com. Women of Taste is a monthly series looking at notable female figures in Japan’s food and restaurant industries.