In modern times, when we think or hear about major theme parks, what often comes to mind are successful franchises like Disneyland and Disneyworld, Universal Theme Parks, SeaWorld or Six Flags.
Successful international theme park operations include Merlin Entertainment Group in the United Kingdom and OCT Parks in China.
But a growing independent group of specialized theme parks in Japan are catching the attention of not only corporate officers in an Asian, business-oriented society but also a food-wise general public that is flocking out of densely-populated urban areas to the Japanese countryside in search of entertainment, fresh food and the feel of the great outdoors.
You won't find roller coasters or carnival midways, but visitors are treated to a full menu of restaurants, good food, and direct sales shops for agricultural products (with many featuring processing facilities where families learn how their food moves from field to factory and how it is distributed). Many visitors opt to get their hands dirty by volunteering a few hours in the field.
The rapidly growing number of agricultural theme parks in Japan offers diversity from one park to the next. Some reportedly offer musical entertainment, cultural experiences like animal exhibits or petting zoos; a few even offer tours of farmland and other types of entertainment designed for all ages.
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Farm support groups report that interest in these types of theme parks is growing rapidly, many visitors returning often to purchase fresh foods. Some are even supported by or operated by corporate involvement or partnerships.
DIVERSE AG PARK THEMES
For example, Namegata Farmers Village is a sweet potato theme park that opened last fall in Namegata, in Ibaraki Prefecture, an area noted for sweet potato production. The theme park is operated by Namegata Shirohato Farm, an agricultural corporation founded in part by Shirohato Food Corp., which produces and sells confectionery made from the potatoes.
The JA Namegata agricultural cooperative and local farmers came up with a total investment of 300 million yen ($2.7 million) to operate the theme park. According to park officials, the drive behind the development of the park was to promote the failing popularity of sweet potato products.
“The number of sweet potato producers has dropped due to the aging population. We thought up the idea to convey the charm of agriculture to young people who moved to urban areas because they didn’t want to take over from aging farmers. [We hoped] to secure a stable future for sweet potatoes,” said Toshikazu Nagao, president of Shirohato Food Corp.
Namegata Farmers Village covers a total area of about 33 hectares, or 82 acres, and utilizes abandoned farmland. A former primary school is used as the main facility. The park features the Yakiimo Factory Museum, a restaurant, a direct sales shop for agricultural products and rental farmland. Classes for making sweet potato cakes are popular among families with children.
LOCAL FARMERS INVOLVED
By involving local farmers and agricultural and food corporations, partners say they can share in the expense of operations and the benefit of reaching consumers to teach the value of fresh foods and the complexity of bringing food from farm-to-market.
“Agricultural parks and experience-oriented facilities are designed to vitalize local communities and promote local production for local consumption. People living in urban areas support [these facilities], saying they can feel the change in seasons here,” reports Seiji Yoshioka, a senior official of the Organization for Urban-Rural Interchange Revitalization, a general incorporated foundation.
In Japan, the concept is known as the “sixth industry of agriculture,” in which production, processing and distribution - the primary, secondary and tertiary industries - are vertically integrated.
The concept of an agriculture theme park is not new in Japan. Iga no Sato Mokumoku Tezukuri Farm pioneered the concept of agricultural theme parks in the mid-1990s. About 500,000 people annually visit the theme park in Iga, Japan, today. The farm opened in 1988 when Moku Moku Tezukuri Farm Co., an agricultural corporation, opened a ham factory to improve the added value of Iga pork, a local brand. Chairman Osamu Kimura, a native of the area, was instrumental in its foundation.
Local beer, bread and tofu are now produced at the 14-hectare farm. The agricultural corporation also operates tomato and strawberry farms in the neighborhood. Visitors can experience making sausages in a factory, enjoy being close to animals, and eat at a restaurant. The company has been producing its brand of rice in cooperation with contracted farmers since 1995. It has a yearly turnover of about 5.4 billion yen (about $50 million USD) as a group.
In more recent times, Japanese visitors have had help in the success of the theme park. Since the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact was officially agreed upon, Chinese, South Koreans and other foreigners have been visiting the theme park to observe its operations as a result of its success.
“I think the sixth industry is the future direction of agriculture. It should also lead to the preservation of the local rustic scenery,” President Naoyuki Matsuo said.
In the United States, while there seems to be a lack of community, corporate and farmer partnerships so far, agri-tourism, a term used often in the states, is making its mark by helping many farms and ranch operations generate what once was termed an alternative income source.
In more recent years, many young farmers have focused on agri-tourism as a primary source of income, opting to minimize commercial farm operations in favor of pumpkin patches, hay rides, farm tours, corn mazes and other assorted attractions. Some have been successful; many still operate “pick your own” farms and add farm attractions to generate revenue from multiple streams.
Whether the theme park concept flourishing in Japan would ever work in the U.S. remains to be seen, but for those in Japan, at least, thinking outside the box is paying good dividends to farmers and food corporations alike.