National

Companies finally learning women make up half of all farmers

by Miya Tanaka

Kyodo

Ask a female farmer about the equipment available to her and she may well complain about the lack of attractive working clothes or machinery that is just plain difficult to handle.

But now she can expect some improvement. The government is stepping up efforts to highlight the fact that although the sector might seem a male pursuit, women match them in number.

There are 1.21 million women in farming, about half of the workforce, the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry says.

The government is launching a project that encourages companies to collaborate with female farmers to develop new products and services.

New products so far include more colorful trucks and neater work wear. There have even been trials of a portable toilet developed with a lady in mind.

Although the project is not subsidized, the number of participating companies has roughly doubled from nine since its inception in November 2013.

“Given that the overall farming population is declining, the size of the market targeting female farmers may not be promising . . . but to some companies that have overlooked its existence, it is a discovery,” said Kazue Sato, a farm ministry official in charge of the project.

Female farmers often pass unnoticed because they tend to be seen as a back-seat player in a family business, with the father or husband usually having a greater say on farm planning or equipment purchases, Sato said.

Small pickup trucks are one example of how farming has a male-dominated image. For more than 50 years Daihatsu Motor Co., a leading provider of minicars, has marketed its Hijet Truck as a man’s vehicle, focusing on its toughness and durability.

“Half of minitruck users are farmers, and 90 percent of the registered owners are men. But when looking at the actual percentage of women in farming, we thought we might have had underestimated (female demand),” said Hiroshi Otani, who heads the Hijet domestic sales division.

Its latest Hijet is a fully remodeled version — the first redesign in 15 years — and reflects feedback from female farmers. Some complained that it is “boring to ride in a white minitruck just like others do”; others suggested the addition of “a mirror to redo makeup and to check for sunburn.”

The new Hijet is available in eight color variations, including pink and orange. Options include windows that filter out ultraviolet rays and a vanity mirror attached to the sun visor on the driver’s side.

Sales have been “better than expected,” Otani said, with 17,000 orders in the first month following the model’s debut on Sept. 2 — three times higher than the target.

MontBell Co., an outdoors clothing and equipment maker, has released its first-ever items targeting farmers. The line includes brightly colored waist aprons and waterproof overalls.

As the project entered its second year, more companies came on board, including Toho Co., an Osaka-based maker of cleaning products.

Takeshi Nishimoto of Toho’s product planning department said the company initially thought to decline the ministry’s invitation to join the project, but it changed its mind after deciding there is a need to develop products for female farmers.

“First, I couldn’t imagine how cleansers can contribute to the farming sector. But when I talked with the farmers directly, I noticed they’ve been troubled with dirt or grime we hardly imagined, such as that coming from pollen or vegetable harvesting,” Nishimoto said.

Toho uses soiled farmers’ clothes in experiments on how to clean them, and hopes it may develop a new kind of detergent.

“This is a challenging project for us . . . and we might not see much rise in profit. But if we can help female farmers start their days with clean clothing and if that kind of environment would help bring in the younger generation, including women, to the aging industry, we think it’s really worth doing,” the official said.

But cost is sometimes an obstacle in making female farmers’ ideas come about.

Nikken Corp., a rental company, created a prototype portable toilet that women might prefer to use in the field. It is decorated with floral-printed wallpaper and has a washing stand, enough space to change clothes, and an air conditioner.

The product aims to resolve a problem women face: embarrassment at having to use the shelter of a nearby bush because home is too far away. Even if there is a toilet nearby, it might be dirty.

But the prototype “cost several million yen,” a company official said, acknowledging that the price will need to come down.

Sato said she believes eye-catching products have helped draw attention to the presence of female farmers but noted that some rural areas don’t make it easy for women to advance their interests.

One young female farm owner said she is shunned by the local community when she does something that stands out because it is still often perceived as a virtue to “walk two or three steps behind men.”

“It could be a matter of custom or culture,” Sato said, “but I think we should continue this project to create an atmosphere in which women can feel free to play an active role in the industry.”