A Filipino technical intern picks strawberries from elevated beds as he backs down an aisle on a swivel chair in a greenhouse — a common scene in this mountainous area of central Japan known for highland agriculture.

Farmers from Benguet, an upland province on Luzon Island that is also a major vegetable producer, have been interning under a program sponsored by the government in the Yatsugatake region of Nagano Prefecture, which has a similar environment.

At the strawberry farm in the village of Minamimaki, six Filipinos work from 5:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the harvest season from summer to fall, picking fruit as well as leaves to ventilate the plants, under the tutelage of Tatsuo Kikuchi, the 67-year-old owner.

Their labor is indispensable to the farm, just one of many agricultural communities in Japan affected by population decline and the shrinking number of farmers.

“We cannot do farming without technical interns. Without them, it’s just my wife and me so it is impossible to do this much,” Kikuchi said. The fruit picked there is shipped straight to Chateraise Corp., a nationwide cake shop chain.

“I’d like to study how to plant the strawberries, take good care of to produce more fruits,” said Eleazar Labi, 31, who arrived at the farm in April 2018. Hailing from a family that used to grow lettuce and cabbage, Labi said he hopes to cultivate strawberries after going home if he can earn enough money.

Labi and other technical interns in the region were earning ¥821 ($7.70) per hour as of September, the minimum wage in Nagano Prefecture at that time. In the Philippines, he said, “It is 300 pesos ($5.80) a day,” adding the daily allowance back home is equivalent to about an hour’s work in Japan.

“I saw a lot of former technical interns working hard for their farms after returning to Benguet. That’s why I want to support them,” said Kikuchi, who travels to the province every year and helps the farmers if they need assistance.

Noting the quality of Benguet highland vegetables has improved greatly compared with more than a decade ago, Kikuchi said, “Now they are not inferior to Japanese lettuce and broccoli.”

The farms began accepting interns from Benguet in 2008 as part of the Japan International Cooperation Agency’s grass-roots technical cooperation program, which aims to lift the incomes of Benguet farmers engaged in environmentally sustainable agriculture. So far, 335 Filipinos have worked at about 30 farms producing highland vegetables and strawberries in Yatsugatake.

Joshua Baynes, a 23-year-old Filipino intern at a different Nagano farm, removes broccoli from the ground, separates the leaves with a knife in less than 20 seconds, and puts them in a plastic box for inspection.

Yoshio Takamizawa, a 60-year-old worker at the broccoli farm in Minamimaki, said, “I don’t just teach them how to cut or plant broccoli, but how to plan (for business) both in the short and long run, and the management.”

As a whole, Japanese agriculture has become more and more dependent on interns. In 2018, their ranks nearly doubled from about 28,000 in 2014, according to the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry.

Japan’s 1.75 million farmers had average age of 66.6 in 2018, and their population is down from 2.61 million in 2010, the data show.

Around 50 interns from Benguet are sent to the Nagano region every year. With revisions to the program recently made to address Japan’s labor crunch, they can now stay for up to five years.

The technical internship program started in 1993 with the aim of transferring skills to developing regions of the world. But it is often criticized as way to import cheap labor and is notorious for abuses, including low and unpaid wages, excessive hours, violence and sexual harassment.

Toshihiro Shimizu, a 50-year-old senior official of the Japan Agriculture Exchange Council, which coordinates the Yatsugatake training program for Benguet’s farmers, claimed this particular plan “coincides with the original purpose of the program and can alleviate the acute labor shortages at Japanese farmlands.”

The state-sponsored program also came under fire after thousands of interns disappeared from their workplaces. A survey of those who were tracked down by authorities later revealed that many left after feeling they had been mistreated.

According to the Justice Ministry, about 9,000 technical interns vanished in 2018 alone, accounting for 2.1 percent of the 424,394 in Japan that year. The ratio has been around 2 percent every year since 2014.

JAEC’s Shimizu said he believes there have been no cases of anyone going AWOL in the Yatsugatake program since it began in 2007 because the screening interviews conducted on the 100 or so candidates each year function as a deterrent.

“We only select people with agricultural backgrounds, checking whether the person’s family is engaged in the business or has an educational background in farming. I think this is an ideal model,” Shimizu said. “More than 90 percent of those who interned in Japan are engaged in farming once they go back to Benguet.”

Before the project began, Masaki Yokomori, who used to raise lettuce and Chinese cabbage in Yatsugatake, went to Benguet in 2006 to find one of the candidate sites. Afterward, he started coaching residents on how to hone their skills and increase productivity to raise their incomes.

To address soil problems caused by fertilizers and pesticide, Yokomori demonstrated organic farming techniques using wood vinegar and compost, persuading Benguet officials to build a facility to make the vinegar.

“Another issue in Benguet is the ability to ensure a stable supply,” Yokomori, now 79 and retired, said, emphasizing the importance of planned cultivation. “Planting the same crop on the same ground continuously will damage the soil.”

Yokomori stressed the significance of the Yatsugatake program, saying, “It is easier to teach those who come back home after gaining some expertise in Japan.”

Yoneo Shizukuda, 64, a lettuce farmer and Minamimaki lawmaker who accepts technical interns, said shipping methods must be improved in Benguet as the local practice of shipping lettuce without boxing it undermines its quality. He also said they can slash costs by cutting out middlemen.

JAEC’s Shimizu said shipping improvements are underway thanks to the Japanese program, with up to 2 tons of vegetables put into containers with ice and sent more than 200 km south to Manila every week.

“The vegetables are shipped more frequently with fewer middlemen. They are targeted at wealthy consumers as demand is increasing amid the country’s fast economic growth,” Shimizu said. Now those Benguet vegetables fetch prices up to 1.5 times higher than those sold in the capital, he added.

Carmi Agmaliw, 25, who has been working at a lettuce farm in Minamimaki since April 2017, said she learned the quality of Japanese vegetables is good because of the attention paid to time management.

Agmaliw, whose family grows bok choy, a Chinese cabbage, said Filipino farmers often rush the harvest.

“In Benguet, when the price of the vegetable is high, people harvest, although the fertilizer (has not yet been absorbed by) the plants” and the quality is not so good. “But I learned that for good quality, they should wait to harvest,” she said.

She said her plan is to inherit the family business back home.

“I am putting my earnings in the bank. I am planning to plant bok choy or lettuce in a greenhouse if I have enough money. I’ll try to invest,” she said.