School’s out for summer — and students are leaving their books behind to hit the beach under the sun.

But for Shogo Takano, it’s a long-awaited chance to hit the farm and get his hands dirty.

“There is something instinctive about the joy of holding soil in your hands and feeling like you are a part of nature,” Takano, a student at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, said.

The bearded 19-year-old is a member of Wakamono Nouentai (Youngsters Helping Out Farming), a group of university students engaged in farming activities as part of their extracurricular activities.

“If others also get a chance to experience farming, they’ll probably come to understand the splendor of it,” Takano said.

Wakamono Nouentai was launched in 2009 as a small circle of friends seeking to study and experience farming in Japan. Haruka Sato, the group’s leader, said members come from different backgrounds, with many majoring in nonagricultural studies.

Indeed, Sato is studying economics at Waseda University, while Takano is majoring in the language of Myanmar. “Our members come from 13 different universities,” Sato, 23, said.

Japan’s agricultural sector is on the verge of a fundamental makeover as negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement progress. Government estimates and predictions by the Japan Agricultural Cooperative portray a gloomy future for the nation’s farmers.

But interest in farming among students seems to have expanded, Sato said — something that is apparent when viewing the group.

Although its ranks fell to just five members at one point, there are currently over 30 members.

“Interest on domestic farming among university students seems to have grown sharply” after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, she explained.

Wakamono Nouentai’s activities include visiting farmers, mostly in the Kanto region, and helping cultivate fruits and vegetables. They also bring some of the crops back with them to Tokyo to sell, regardless of the small margin. The group also recently began growing rice in a small plot they rented near Tokyo.

“The farmers say they are proud of what we are doing,” said group member Katsura Nagamitsu, 21, an international relations major at Takushoku University. “But it’s also true that some of our friends see us as eccentric.”

Still, the students agree that there is something special about interacting with farmers who choose to do what they do despite difficult times. Farmers tend to have a strong resolve about what they grow in their fields and being in contact with them alone is inspiring, the students say.

“We once visited a farmer growing gourds. The work is strenuous, but he was determined to grow them in perfect shapes. I was in awe of his dedication to his produce,” Takano said.

Perhaps because of these experiences, members of Wakamono Nouentai have a different perspective than JA or the government regarding the potential impact of the TPP on the nation’s agricultural sector.

“We are split on our thoughts about the TPP, and we don’t have a consensus yet,” Sato said.

Obviously they would like to support domestic farmers, but whether students can stand the temptation of cheap overseas imports remains uncertain, she acknowledged. But having visited and worked with farmers dozens of times, Sato feels that many will be able to survive the change the TPP could bring.

“Some farmers are already selling their produce without the mediation of JA. I feel that they are preparing and working with fervor for whatever will come,” Sato added.

“Maybe the TPP will bring innovation. Maybe it will put domestic agriculture on a decline. But those who stick to the status quo won’t be successful for sure,” Takano said. “I guess its up to the next generation of farmers to adapt to new rules and change things around.”

As for how the farming industry can lure youngsters, Takano has some advice.

“The key is to change the perception that farming is unattractive, and give it a fun image. Because it is,” he said. “I’ve come to understand that there is tremendous joy in growing your food with your own hands, in your own land.”

Wakamono Nouentai’s activities can be found at ameblo.jp/nouentai-2/ (Japanese only.)

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