Food & Drink | Food Sustainability in Japan

Kei Kawana is one of several dozen Tokyo Metropolitan Government-supported young farmers growing fresh produce for their neighborhood in the heart of the metropolis.

Breaking ground: Young farmers embrace urban agriculture in Tokyo

by Chiara Terzuolo

Contributing Writer

Kei Kawana’s kingdom is Neighbor’s Farm, a 2,000-square-meter plot overlooked by the Tama Monorail, which regularly zips by overhead. This March, she celebrated her first year of agricultural activity, the culmination of many years of patient work, planning and wading through bureaucracy.

Kawana, an alumna of the University of Tokyo Graduate School of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is part of a growing trend of young farmers from nonfarming backgrounds seeking to enrich their communities by producing healthy, locally grown fruits and vegetables. At just 28, she is bringing fresh blood into a business where the typical Japanese farmer is swiftly approaching retirement — as of 2015, Tokyo farmers had an average age of 63.9, only slightly lower than the national average of 66.4.

Although the number of farmers in the greater Tokyo area is dropping, there are still around 12,000 active farms, growing a variety of produce ranging from komatsuna (mustard spinach) in the relatively central wards of Setagaya and Edogawa to the more exotic passion fruit of the outlying Ogasawara Islands.

Tomotoshi Nose, from the Agriculture, Forestry and Fishery Division at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, explains that while it is certainly not easy to make a living cultivating crops on some of Japan’s most expensive real estate, Tokyo’s large budget dedicated to supporting farmers means that farming in the capital does have its perks.

The Tokyo Agriculture Promotion Plan, last updated in 2017, takes a four-pronged approach to secure the future of agriculture in the prefecture. It aims to preserve and increase land for agriculture, reduce the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, find appropriate solutions for the area’s surprisingly diverse ecosystems and, most importantly, provide support for new farmers.

Generous grants cover most of the costs farmers need to purchase machinery, infrastructure or other equipment, or to restore abandoned or paved land into fertile soil. “But finding land to rent is difficult for aspiring farmers who do not have a background in agriculture,” explains Nose, who says there are currently between 50 and 55 such “new farmers” in the program.

Another such perk is that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has put its money where its mouth is: The staff cafeteria in the second Tokyo Metropolitan Government building features Tokyo-grown produce in its daily specials.

The small farms dotted around Tokyo are protected by the Law on Productive Green Areas (seisan ryokuchi hō), which was established in 1992 to relieve the tax burden on farmers. These laws also made it almost impossible for landowners to sublet their land, even to younger newcomers interested in breaking into the field: Renting out a plot would make them ineligible for tax breaks and, even if they could, rights over the rented land were limited.

Kawana was initially advised to give up when she began looking for a plot to rent in 2016. She finally got her lucky break in 2018, when the law was changed to make it possible for farmers to rent out their land while still benefiting from the tax breaks.

Interestingly, the change in law did not automatically lead to an increase in agricultural land for rent. Landowners are often wary of renting out any idle parts of their land to new farmers, and the cost of rent in areas near the city is high: In 2018, the average cost of a square meter in Tokyo was about ¥1 million.

Home-grown: Currently, Neighbor’s Farm grows a range of leafy vegetables, including komatsuna (mustard greens) and norabōna (a variety of rapeseed). | COURTESY OF NEIGHBOR'S FARM
Home-grown: Currently, Neighbor’s Farm grows a range of leafy vegetables, including komatsuna (mustard greens) and norabōna (a variety of rapeseed). | COURTESY OF NEIGHBOR’S FARM

“It took me two years to finally find this plot,” Kawana says as she overlooks her bright green komatsuna and leafy heritage norabōna (a variety of rapeseed). “I was very fortunate. I don’t think many places like it exist anymore, especially so close to (Takahatafudo Station). The landowner was interested in my ideas, and we fortunately developed trust quickly.”

Although Kawana spent the last year growing a variety of seasonal produce, her ultimate goal is to focus on growing greenhouse tomatoes, a crop she became passionate about during her time working at a large tomato farm in Fukui Prefecture. “It’s a crop that really thrives under carefully controlled conditions,” she says. “I love that the more effort you put in, the more delicious the flavor becomes.”

Kawana says that the Tokyo Chamber of Agriculture provided invaluable assistance when she sought a 30-year rental contract for the land to establish Neighbor’s Farm, and that receiving economic support from the Agriculture, Forestry and Fishery Division and the city of Hino, where the farm is based, is the only realistic way for a new farmer like her to start up a business.

But she expresses some concerns about the promptness of decision making and subsidy payments. Despite hoping to start growing tomatoes this year, she is still waiting to hear whether her grant application to build the necessary greenhouses has been approved.

“It’s not clear when decisions will be made or when we can expect to hear back. This makes deciding the planting schedule for my business very difficult, as farmers on small plots need to plan a year in advance,” she says.

Kawana’s current efforts, however, have not gone unnoticed, and she already has a steady stream of customers from nearby households, who regularly pop by to ask when she will refill the vending machine near her fields with fresh produce. “I’m excited about creating a solid local economy, and love being able to talk directly with the people who buy my vegetables,” she says.

Much like Kawana, local residents are also waiting with bated breath for the day they can finally taste her Hino-grown tomatoes.

For more information about Neighbor’s Farm, visit neighborsfarm.com.

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