• Kahoku Shimpo

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Nearly a decade has passed since the 2011 earthquake-triggered tsunami hit the coast of Sendai, and in that time the central government has developed state-run farm fields damaged by the disaster, with the number of farmers streamlined as well.

The area appears to have recovered on the surface. But in reality, farmers are still coping with the aftereffects of the disaster, and now they are struggling with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic as well.

Kahoku Shimpo visited agricultural businesses that have been working to restore a cooperative structure among farmers.

Farmers union

One day in mid-September, a group of men from the city’s farmers union, satisfaction written across their faces, was focusing on cultivating rice and vegetables on a 70-hectare plot of land extending across an area beside a road rebuilt after the disaster.

Yoshiichi Miura, 71, who heads the farmers union, was about to quit farming after the massive tsunami swept away his home and his paddies. But then a local agricultural cooperative and other producers offered to lend him a vacant lot, which prompted him to launch a farming group a month after the disaster.

For him and his fellow farmers to resume farming the land his ancestors lived on, government subsidies were a must.

With the financial aid, the land has been consolidated, reducing the workload needed for fertilization and managing water supply.

Government project

In 2012, the municipal government began subsidizing farmers using the government’s disaster relief fund, allowing farmers affected by the disaster to rent tractors and farmhouses for free to help them get back on their feet.

Meanwhile, the central government project, slated to be completed by the end of March, is aimed at consolidating small-size farming lots damaged by the disaster. The government project for a 1,900-hectare piece of land cost ¥31.6 billion in total, but the project allowed for the use of high-tech large farming machinery and improved water supply after piping was installed.

The program triggered other local farming organizations to be established, later turning into agricultural corporations. The number of such farm organizations had risen to 16 by February 2020, up from four in February 2010.

Before March 2011, most farmers operated as a family business and each of them were competing against one another by introducing big farming machinery.

“I had thought that we needed to move away from investing all the money into machinery,” Miura explained. “I’m glad that I can now share them with other union members.”

But even though they seem to have moved on, debris unearthed from the soil from time to time reminds Miura and his fellow farmers of the disaster.

Farmers still discover roof tiles, large rocks or car parts that were swept away by the tsunami, and Miura worries the debris, piling up at a nearby drainage pump station, will continue to be unearthed forever.

Even though farming has not yet fully recovered, Miura’s union operates several farms where they grow vegetables.

Since incorporating the businesses in 2015, Miura’s union has regularly shipped lettuce and other leafy greens from spring through fall, green soybeans in the summer and yukina, a leafy vegetable that withstands freezing temperatures, in the winter.

Miura needs to makes sure he has stable income and work throughout the year now that he has hired workers.

Farmers at a local agricultural cooperative in Sendai's Shinhama district harvest rice in September. | KAHOKU SHIMPO
Farmers at a local agricultural cooperative in Sendai’s Shinhama district harvest rice in September. | KAHOKU SHIMPO

But the novel coronavirus pandemic poses new challenges for farmers who are still faced with the effects of the 2011 disaster.

Last spring, farmers saw a significant decrease in demand for fresh produce, as many hotels and restaurants were temporarily closed following the declaration of a state of emergency. As a result, wholesale prices of lettuces and other leafy greens dropped by half.

Paying workers’ wages and covering the cost of cardboard and other packaging for shipping would make the organization go into the red. But Miura had no choice if he wanted to continue to grow crops.

While there is no end in sight for the new challenges emerging due to the pandemic, Miura sees the benefits of cooperative farming.

“If I still ran my family business, I would be left with all the work on my own,” Miura said. “I hadn’t thought about setting up a farming company, but now we’ve started it, we can grow the crops with help from others.”

Good soil takes time

Rice farmers in Sendai are also struggling with deteriorated soil damaged by the tsunami.

A local agricultural cooperative in the Shinhama district, which has been farming rice since 1982, was unable to plant rice crops on its 50-hectare land for three years after the disaster due to tsunami debris and the need to desalinate the soil.

Though rice planting resumed in 2014 in the now 55-hectare area, the decreased quality of the soil was palpable.

Much like how Rome was not built in a day, soil in an agricultural field is the product of years of accumulated natural ingredients.

“Agricultural fields along the coastline have sand in the soil from the start, but it adapted itself suitable for farming soil through accumulating the roots of crops for years. The tsunami washed all of that away,” said Hisashi Hirayama, who heads the cooperative.

The government is also aware of the issue. The agriculture ministry’s regional branch introduced a policy of bringing soil from other areas to coastal fields within the city. Nevertheless, the producers are skeptical of the policy’s effectiveness for their land.

“The field gets stiff even right after we irrigate and plow the field (before rice seedlings are planted). Since the soil cannot retain water well enough, we have to use additional fertilizer and herbicides,” said Hirayama with a sigh. “If we were to use machinery such as tractors, it’s like using sandpaper against sand, wearing out the machinery parts.”

But the tsunami was not the only problem they faced in the past decade.

Abolished policy

At the end of 2013, the government announced that in 2018 it was going to abolish a long-standing policy of subsidizing rice farmers to control rice yields — a major policy change that has been in place for the past 50 years.

In 1971, the government started subsidizing farmers that grow wheat and soybeans instead of rice to maintain the price of rice in the market. In 2010, the government also started funding rice farmers who did not harvest rice in their fields. But it stopped subsidizing rice farmers who didn’t produce rice in 2018, although subsidies for those who switch to other crops remain in place.

The government touted the policy change as a way to nurture producers. But most farmers in the disaster-hit areas, already struggling to stay afloat, felt their prospects becoming extremely bleak.

The Shinhama cooperative is now working to stabilize its sales. Targeting restaurants, stores offering ready-made meals, they started harvesting Yumiazusa, a new rice brand that can be cultivated in larger amounts.

Compared with brands such as Hitomebore, whose price fluctuates, Yumiazusa’s price is fixed, making it easier to calculate revenue.

However, the commercial demand for rice has been on a downward trend due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the price of 2020’s yield showed a decline for the first time in six years.

In order to better control supply and demand, the government is pushing for rice production for different purposes besides staple food. In response, the cooperative immediately redirected 9 hectares of already planted rice crops to rice flour.

Looking back, Hirayama believes the policy change did not bring about any benefit for him and his fellow farmers.

“The government is being slick. Even after the abolition of the policy, we still have to give up planting rice (without any subsidies),” said Hirayama.

The business and production of rice farming has become considerably more difficult compared with the situation before the disaster.

“Nevertheless, the only way to rebuild this area is to plant rice,” Hirayama said. “That’s why we are harvesting rice.”

This section features topics and issues from the Tohoku region covered by the Kahoku Shimpo, the largest newspaper in Tohoku. The original articles were published Nov. 6.

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