Decades ago, small family operations dominated Japan’s agriculture industry, but today, the gradual shift to large-scale farming is creating many new challenges.
Facing a labor shortage and a rapidly aging workforce, the industry is trying to make its business more attractive to newcomers, attempting to cast aside the deep-rooted image that farming is all hard work.
To bring in new blood, farms are reforming work practices, nurturing an entrepreneurial spirit, automating with robotic innovation and taking advantage of evolving information technology.
“I can take a day off, as well as a longer holiday, so it’s like working at an ordinary company,” said Shizuka Ninomiya, 24, who has worked for over a year at a tomato farm in Saitama Prefecture.
The farm is one of those run by Aeon Agri Create Co., based in Chiba Prefecture, that grows vegetables for retail giant Aeon Co., its holding company, and group stores.
In March, the company introduced a system to enable workers to flexibly arrange their work hours weeks or months in advance. For instance, workers can take more days off during a rainy week and make up the hours later when the weather improves.
The system aims to be flexible to take into account the fact that farmers are at the mercy of the weather.
According to the company, the total working hours of its employees fell by some 25 percent after the introduction of the system.
The company also offers employee benefits on par with those at the holding company and its employees can take child care leave, maternity leave and long paid holidays, according to a public relations official.
Ninomiya said she joined the company “because I want to continue farming long-term.”
Yasuaki Fukunaga, president of Aeon Agri Create, said, “It’s no good if only agriculture has a unique way of working.”
“We should change how farmers work so that agriculture is a viable career option for young people,” Fukunaga said, referring to the fact that farming is partly exempt from the Labor Standards Law, which is not applied in areas such as work hours and non-working days on farms.
The number of agricultural operations, including family and incorporated farms, fell from around 2 million in 2005 to about 1.37 million in 2015 and is expected to continue to decline, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
However, reflecting moves to consolidate abandoned land into existing working farms, the size of the area under cultivation per operation, as well as the cattle and pig head count reared per farm is trending upward. The number of agricultural corporations also increased from 19,000 in 2005 to 27,000 in 2015.
Still, the farming industry remains severely short-handed with people tending to shun agriculture as a career due to the assumed difficult working conditions.
In Nagano Prefecture, more than 20 young aspiring farmers work at Topriver, a company that supports people who are attempting to start their own farming businesses. The company provides not only expertise in cultivating crops, but also managerial skills.
Topriver produces vegetables such as lettuce and cabbage for restaurants and convenience stores.
The company divides its employees into several groups that are put in charge of their respective farms.
Employees learn farming practices in their first two years and afterward take responsibility for making a cultivation plan, as well as managing staff turnover, assignment and recruitment. After about six years, their training and preparation is complete.
Since the company was established in 2000, more than 30 workers have gone on to set up their own farms.
Naoto Myokan, 29, entered the company five years ago and plans to start his own farm next year in Nagano Prefecture.
Despite having no experience in the industry, Myokan pursued farming in order to fulfill his dream of running a company. He said at the start, that he was worried about whether or not he could make a living.
But, by gaining experience, Myokan said he realized he can turn a profit by using the experience gained at Topriver.
“Institutional farming will replace family-run agriculture in the future,” Topriver President Hideki Shimazaki said. “It’s important for the managers of farming entities to consider how to hire and cultivate both full- and part-time employees.”
Efforts to utilize advanced technology to reduce farmers’ workload are also underway.
An Utsunomiya University research team in Tochigi Prefecture has a robot under development that can pick strawberries off the plant without damaging them.
Masaru Kashiwazaki, associate professor of agricultural engineering, and other team members launched the program 10 years ago to enhance the commercial value of the industry in Tochigi, which produces the most strawberries in Japan.
Strawberries degrade when touched by human hands and lose their taste accordingly. A robot under development is designed to select ripe strawberries using a camera to judge their size and color, determine the position of their stems, pinch the stems with one of its arms, remove them from the plant without touching the fruit and place them in a container. This allows the fruit to be kept fresh longer and sold as a higher grade.
The team aims to put the robot into operation by 2022. Fruit quality is expected to significantly improve if strawberries are picked at night and immediately refrigerated.
Simple calculations estimate the technology will boost sales 2.5 times and cut labor by 30 percent, according to Kashiwazaki.
“Robots aren’t cheap, but we hope growers will be eager to install one when we show the potential profits,” he said.
Nakao livestock farm in Mie Prefecture introduced an IT system last spring to help prevent its cattle from dying just before shipment.
The farm raises more than 2,000 head of cattle for Matsusaka beef. The animals grow to weigh 600 kilograms by the time of delivery and can die from pressure on their lungs if they roll onto their sides, as they sometimes have difficulty getting back to their feet.
In the past, a dozen cattle died each year, despite workers patrolling the farm at 4 a.m. every day to prevent such incidents, which tend to occur at night. Some workers complained of the toll the patrols had on them.
With the new system, sensors placed on 150 head of cattle send an alert through a smartphone app if a cow lies down for a long time, endangering its life.
“It’s terrible if cattle die after being raised with such great care,” said Yoshitaka Nakao, the farm’s senior managing director.
Since the system’s launch, almost no deaths of this type have been recorded.
“Moving forward, we only have to check the cattle when the alarm goes off,” Nakao, 33, said, adding the farm plans to stop early-morning patrols as soon as all cattle are fitted with sensors.
Kazue Sato, head of the Young Farmers and Women Division of the agriculture ministry’s Management Improvement Bureau, says it is essential to change the mentality of those who manage farms.
“Although it may be difficult for small-scale businesses to carry out large-scale farm reform, I want to encourage them to do whatever they can,” she said.