HAKUI, ISHIKAWA PREF. - A young entrepreneur is striving to create a network of consumers and farmers promoting pesticide-free agricultural products.
Kazuma Nishitsuji, 33, was born into a salary worker’s family in Fukui Prefecture and had little to do with agriculture as a young boy. But he became interested in farming while in high school when idle rice paddies began to rise in number as the government pared back rice production.
Nishitsuji then joined the agriculture facility at Kyoto University, where he came to learn that one of the biggest problems faced by Japan was its farmers were aging with few young successors.
In 2007, he founded My Farm Inc. in Kyoto to achieve his goal of making effective use of farmland while encouraging new entrants into the industry. He also thought increasing the number of people who grow crops for local consumption would help the public fully realize the importance of agriculture.
Despite finding it difficult to lease farmland, even idle fields, from owners, he managed to start a program in which people can learn about agriculture from farmers. He upgraded the program to a farm school where he teaches organic, pesticide-free agriculture.
My Farm now has 100 farms across Japan that teach the basics of agriculture, and nearly 700 people have graduated from its school.
“It is my dream for graduates to become economically independent and leaders in their localities,” Nishitsuji said.
On a recent visit to Hakui in Ishikawa Prefecture, he met with graduate Satoshi Nitta, 47, who grows crops such as renkon (lotus root) and shiitake.
Nitta was one of the first graduates of My Farm’s six-month, ¥200,000 weekend course in the Kanto region. After finishing the course, he quit his company and moved to Hakui with his family in 2013 to work in agriculture.
However, he makes only ¥2.1 million a year in revenue from the farm business, and is supported by an annual ¥2.25 million government subsidy under a five-year program offered to new entrants in agriculture.
“I will decide whether I should continue agriculture before the subsidy program expires,” Nitta said.
Nishitsuji said he recognized the hardships faced by new entrants like Nitta, especially in their first year. It’s why My Farm buys their crops at asking prices, given the farmers do not have full access to established marketing channels.
“We plan to lease agricultural equipment to help them cut production costs,” he said.
My Farm was on the verge of bankruptcy after the Fukushima nuclear crisis, which started in March 2011 after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and fanned public fears about the safety of open-field cultivation.
After the disaster started, Nishitsuji participated in voluntary activities to improve crop soil damaged by the tsunami in Miyagi Prefecture, irking employees at My Farm who wanted him to focus more on rebuilding the company.
Half of its workforce quit the company and Nishitsuji temporarily stepped down as president.
“I was sticking too much to what I thought I should do,” Nishitsuji recalled.
Returning to the post of president, he now makes sure to discuss the role of My Farm with employees at a farm it owns in Miyagi every summer while harvesting crops.
The outlook for Japan’s agriculture is unclear. In addition to the decreasing number of farming households, the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade accord, when it takes effect, will promote large-scale farming operations in Japan, making the business environment tougher for farmers clinging to the production of safe products for consumers.
“For the survival of such farmers, graduates from My Farm’s classes need to be networked for mutual support and to establish closer ties with consumers,” Nishitsuji said.