Tamezo Nara looked dejected as he puffed a cigarette and wondered aloud whether he was “going to be the last farmer.”

The 67-year-old is the only farmer who plans to grow rice this year in the village of Minmaya, on the northern tip of the Tsugaru Peninsula in Aomori Prefecture.

Minmaya (pop. 2,700) is not alone in losing farming households. The farming population in Japan totaled 26.59 million in 1970. The number has decreased by around 10 percent every five years to 13.46 million in 2000.

The agricultural industry is in crisis because 28.6 percent of farmers are aged 65 years or older.

They face an even gloomier reality now that the government’s six-year relief package — worth about 6 trillion yen — ended Saturday with the end of fiscal 2000. The measure was designed to help farmers after Japan accepted the 1993 Uruguay Round of free trade negotiations on farming and other fields. The accord led Japan to partially open its doors to foreign rice.

Nara grew up watching his father plant and harvest rice in Minmaya, which overlooks the sea that separates Honshu from Hokkaido. Nara left the village when he joined the public service but made a point of helping his father harvest the crop every autumn.

Village farmers were active growing rice for many years, he recalled. Ears of rice occupied paddies for as far as one could see, and “the blue sea and golden rice provided a really beautiful (scene).”

Minmaya fisheries and tourism officials said there were 38 rice farming households in 1970, but the number had plunged to three by last year. And now, Nara’s household is the only one left.

The officials said that one of the reasons for the reduction was the government’s policy of cutting back rice-cultivated acreage following declines in rice consumption in Japan.

The government policy, which swung into full gear in 1971, has deprived Minmaya of paddies every year. The village faces a paddy cutback of 4.69 hectares this year, leaving it with 1 hectare of paddy — which belongs to Nara.

Also, improvements in technology have increased rice yields and resulted in a glut of the grain. The officials said another reason for the reduction in rice farming households was the Seikan tunnel between Aomori and Hokkaido.

Construction of the 53.9-km tunnel, of which 23.3 km is beneath the sea, began in earnest also in 1971. Many farmers in Minmaya stopped tending to the paddies and became tunnel construction workers.

“They got more money (working on the tunnel) than growing rice,” Nara said. “Even after the completion of the tunnel (in 1988), they stayed away from the paddies and worked as migratory workers.”

Nara’s income from rice amounted to about 80,000 yen last year, after paying for such expenses as fertilizer and excluding the grain for consumption at home.

To make up for the small income, he supported himself and his wife, Kimie, 59, with an annuity and other earnings.

“It cannot be helped if young people abandon the paddies and the village in search of affluence,” Nara said with his eyes downcast. “I would like to grow rice as long as I can work, but I don’t know how long I can last.”

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