KUSHIRO, HOKKAIDO – For two decades, the Ladies Farm School in the Hokkaido town of Shintoku has been offering a unique opportunity for women interested in agriculture to gain first-hand experience and know-how through apprenticeships with local farmers.
Over 160 women had completed programs as of the 2014 school year and about 60 of them are currently engaged in farming or other related activities in Hokkaido — the food basket of the nation.
But interest in the boarding school established appears to be ebbing as it marked its 20th anniversary, with only two women graduating on March 23 in the just-ended academic year.
With a population of around 6,500, Shintoku also needs to work out ways to encourage graduates to stay on in farming in the town after they complete courses. Support may also be needed for women who face difficulties if they want to run farms on their own.
One of the two new graduates this spring, Yui Sakamoto, had enrolled in a one-year program where she says she learned how to grow a variety of crops and vegetables, including wheat, buckwheat, beets, broccoli and lily bulbs.
In late February, ahead of finishing the school, Sakamoto was harvesting gyoja ninniku, commonly known in English as victory onion or Alpine leek, at a local farmer’s greenhouse.
“I picked agriculture because I thought I could live a leisurely life,” the 19-year-old said. “Reality turned out to be different, but I have learned a lot here.”
Sakamoto said she was returning to her hometown of Takamatsu in Kagawa Prefecture after the course. But “one day I hope to have my own farm in Hokkaido,” she added.
The agricultural school for single women opened in August 1996, offering hands-on experience at local farms for up to one year. The participants are also given the opportunity to familiarize themselves with cultural and other events in the neighborhood.
“Our town has become more lively thanks to the women at the school,” said Shintoku Mayor Masatoshi Hamada.
Applicants at the school grew to nearly 50 in the first full-year courses right after the school’s inauguration but have generally been falling in recent years. In some years after 2005, enrollees fell to single digits.
In the last school year that ended in March, seven people enrolled but five dropped out in the middle of the courses. The school welcomed 14 enrollees this spring, according to a town official.
“We hope to improve our communication (with the participants) such as by meeting them in person more frequently,” Naoto Sato, head of the town office’s industry division, said as the municipality searches for ways to improve the program.
The other graduate this March was 33-year-old Hazuki Kikuchi, a native of the city of Chiba, who completed a course in dairy farming and is scheduled to work as an employee on a livestock farm in Shintoku after graduation. The town is located in Hokkaido’s Tokachi region, which is famous for its dairy products.
Kikuchi aspires to have her own farm in the future, but new female farmers face tough hurdles such as securing funding for their business.
“If only there is a way I can do this without having to marry into a farming household,” she said, revealing her concerns about the reality that it is still difficult for women to independently run agricultural businesses in Japan.
Fumio Nishio, 44, of the school’s second graduating class almost two decades ago recalled the many challenges she faced as she tried to gain acceptance and cooperation when starting her own farming business. Nishio currently runs a livestock farm in Shintoku.
“Very few women enroll in the school for the sake of marrying into a farming household,” Nishio said. “It is important that those in the farming industry as well as the local community as a whole provide their support, instead of just assuming that women simply are incapable of farming by themselves.”
In late March, a new farm called Shintoku Ayumiruku that is funded in part by a local agricultural cooperative began operations in the town. It is currently recruiting staff — regardless of gender — who will receive on-the-job training on three-year terms.
“Women who have gained basic farming techniques at the school can also (gain) further expertise and learn about management” at the new farm, said the town office’s Sato. “We hope this will help them develop their independent business in the future and also contribute to (more participants) putting down roots in Shintoku.”