September 24, 2007
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Beautiful and mysterious: those words come to me first when I think about my recent visit to Japan. I returned last night after a week long tour of agriculture there at the 51st annual Congress of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists.
Beautiful, because of the people — yes, the people are beautiful - but the carefully mannered, humble way they treat each other. We were in a five-star restaurant last Wednesday, guests of the Mayor of Sendai and local business leaders. After a fantastic traditional Japanese meal including out-of-this-world Wagyu beef, our hosts called for the chef to come greet our group. He did so and promptly fell to his knees, bowing over and over as we applauded his work. Would you ever see that in an American restaurant?
Mysterious, because the Japanese struggle to blend their ancient culture with an ever-modernizing world. In the case of automobiles and electronics, Japan succeeds. But with its own food supply, it struggles.
Let's start with scale. Most farms here are extremely inefficient, at six acres or less. Japan has roughly 2 million farms, and over half of them are part-time or subsistence operations with annual gross sales of about $8,700. About 700,000 farms have sales around $43,500 per year. About 150,000 farms have sales from $43,000 to $86,000 per year.
The next challenge is an aging farm population. Our readers at Farm Futures magazine are, on average, 55 years old. In Japan, 60% are over 65 years old, and 75% are over 60 years old. "Farming is no longer attractive to young people,bCrLf says Kazunuki Ohizumi, professor of agriculture at MiyagiUniversity in Tokyo. "The Japanese government should promote teaching them to be business farmers, but right now they are considered just producers, not farm managers.bCrLf
To me, the professor's comment reveals part of the problem. Everything in Japan revolves around the government and its policies. And right now Japan's agriculture department is in deep crisis. The most recent ex-ag minister committed suicide. They have had three ag ministers in the last four months.
No one said this out loud on the tour, but it seemed as if everyone took their direction based on what the government told them to do. Nowhere did we meet young, innovative farmers who were breaking out of the mold, growing new crops based on market signals. It just doesn't happen here, and that's a problem in a nation where domestic growers provide only 40% of the nation's food.
The country's stated food policy is as follows: 1) Obtain a stable supply of food from overseas; 2) supply their own food; and 3) store food in case of security problems. Japan's consumers love anything their own producers grow. So there should be plenty of opportunity for Japanese farmers to make up that 60% gap.
The other reason why innovation doesn't happen — at least in agriculture - is Japan's culture. In Japan, you are not supposed to stand out in the crowd. In Japan, you are not considered mature until you are at least in your late 30s. Can you imagine if this was the case in the United States, where a young free-thinker like Bill Gates created Microsoft out of his garage as a 24-year-old? No wonder there's little interest in farming if your father is still holding on to the land and making the decisions into his 80s.
The government does have a vision for agriculture — it's called consolidation. Professor Ohizumi says the plan is to reduce those 2 million farms to about 400,000 farms by year 2015. The success of that plan may be based on what kinds of alternative jobs there are available in the rural areas.
Japanese officials seemed puzzled and troubled as to why the younger generation does not seem interested in farming. The answer, in one word, is PROFIT. Give people opportunities to innovate, increase scale of operations and open markets. Then maybe those young people will come back to agriculture.
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