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First of two parts

Masachika Ogihara once dreamed of becoming an engineer, but now he’s convinced he made the right choice to be a farmer — a career the 29-year-old sees as having a huge potential for growth contrary to the common notions.

“Farming is exciting and cool. A lot of money can be made if you are creative enough,” said Ogihara, who manages about 65 hectares of paddies and fields in Nagano Prefecture. “But not many people know this.”

That may be so, but there are signs of budding interest in farming, especially among young people. And it isn’t necessarily because a long economic winter appears to have set in.

Farming has suffered from a negative image over much of the past half century, a period in which the economy grew mainly on the back of a successful manufacturing sector.

Farming has often been portrayed as ailing, unprofitable and wearisome, among other things.

It is nothing out of the ordinary for lawmakers and government officials to lament the aging workforce, noting that about 60 percent of the nation’s commercial farmers are over 65.

But what shouldn’t be overlooked is that the percentage includes the people who farm as a side business.

When it comes to the 1 million so-called business farmers, who draw more than 50 percent of their income from crops, about 70 percent are under age 65, according to the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry.

A ministry study found that nearly 10,000 people 29 and younger started farming careers in 2007, of which about 2,200 were women.

Whether these numbers are large enough or too small remains to be seen, but the future of farming does not appear to be all doom and gloom.

Although the number of commercial farmers has fallen to about 3 million from a peak of about 15 million in 1960, the supply of domestic agricultural and livestock products hasn’t changed much. This means per capita productivity is five times better.

It is also becoming more common for people who used to work in different industries to enter agriculture as a career, even before the financial crisis swept the globe last year.

Susumu Tanaka, 37, who used to make a fortune in the financial sector, is one of many who believe farming has good prospects.

After working at a Japanese bank and a foreign insurance company for 10 years, Tanaka turned to farming and set up his own company, Salad Bowl, in Chuo, Yamanashi Prefecture, in 2004.

“Like any other industry, farmers who use their brains and have the ability to supply good products are capable of rapidly expanding their operations,” Tanaka said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Protection in the agriculture sector from stiff market competition means there is room for growth for him and other entrepreneurial-minded farmers, he said.

Salad Bowl’s farmland has increased from 0.6 hectare to 9 hectares in the last five years, with eight people between the ages of 19 and 32 currently working there to grow about 30 kinds of vegetables.

Tanaka also formed a nonprofit organization in 2005 to run an agriculture school on the farm.

“Until I started my business, I was not aware so many young people were hoping to engage in agriculture,” he said. “A weak point of the sector is a lack of practical training programs for those wishing to be farmers.”

The school has been teaching the basics to about 100 students a year.

Nahoko Takahashi, 27, who grows rice and vegetables in Murayama, Yamagata Prefecture, has been training female university students for two years.

Giving them the opportunity to experience the pleasure of farming has reinforced her belief that women can play a big role in changing the industry’s image.

This spring, Takahashi will launch a “young women’s only farm.”

“Women are sensitive to the latest trends. I think we can breathe new life into agriculture,” said Takahashi, who will run the new farm with “nice-looking girls” and take advantage of this branding strategy when selling their products in Tokyo.

To start with, she has secured a hectare of land to grow sweet tomatoes in five different colors — orange, yellow, red, green and black — and rice. She plans to use herbal medicines as fertilizer, the latest thing in farming.

As part of efforts to give added impetus to the changing environment, Ogihara, the young farmer in Nagano who also serves as head of the National Liaison Council of Rural Youth Clubs, is getting ready to publish a stylish farming magazine targeting readers under 35.

The first edition of the quarterly Agrizm, which will feature the life stories of young farmers, is expected to hit bookstores and convenience stores nationwide in June.

“The publication is not only aimed at strengthening the unity of young ambitious farmers,” said Ogihara, who has become its editor in chief. “The main aim is to promote better understanding of who we are among nonfarmers as we have been treated as if we don’t exist.”

As to his main business, he has a dream of expanding the arable land of Shinshu Farm Ogihara to 100 hectares — about 100 times more than the national average.

He has successfully developed the farm’s own marketing channels with his family and four employees around his age, selling all of its rice through wholesalers or on the Internet instead of relying on agricultural cooperatives, which is still the most common route.

In February, he traveled to Vladivostok, Russia, to explore overseas business opportunities.

With nine years of farming under his belt, Ogihara has come to realize his occupation is quite similar to engineering.

“I’ve been fascinated by the process of making something from nothing,” he said. “If you have good techniques, high-quality products could also be produced in many different locations inside and outside Japan.”

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