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Sunday, May 22, 2005

Retirees lead the way back to nature

Staff writer

Yoshishige Nagayama started farming when he retired nine years ago at age 60.

News photo
Yoshishige Nagayama

He had no experience in agriculture except for the time he spent helping out on a vegetable patch in Nagano Prefecture, where he spent several years as an evacuee during World War II. Until nine years ago, he was working for a camera manufacturer designing lenses for cameras, telescopes and suchlike.

But Nagayama had no doubts about his desire to cultivate land and grow vegetables in his retirement.

"I don't know why, but I was so sure about the lifestyle I wanted after leaving the company. I wanted to grow vegetables and crops for my daily meals. Probably something in my DNA was telling me to do so," Nagayama said.

Now, in the modest field near his house that he rents from a local farmer in Kawasaki City, Kanagawa Prefecture, he enjoys growing corn, tomatoes, strawberries, cucumbers, eggplants, spinach and mint which make his pension-dependent life easier both economically and psychologically.

"This is a great leisure pursuit for us retired folks," Nagayama said. "Plants do not betray the owners if they are looked after well. And the produce is fresh and tastes good. Also, I can give some to friends and neighbors as my family cannot eat it all. Life around this field is so enjoyable."

The area that Nagayama cultivates is one-hundredth of a field -- about 2 sq. km -- that the farmer decided to rent out. Of the approximately 100 people with plots in the field, about 70 percent are retired like Nagayama. As a result, the farm is also a great place to hang out and have a chat with like-minded people while also enjoying cultivating crops. Nagayama goes to the field a few times a day to work and to meet his friends.

"Interestingly, each year, there is a different trend in the vegetables people tend to grow here," he said, "This year's trend is goya (bitter gourd). We farming friends exchange information and discuss problems about growing vegetables. We have a party here celebrating our harvest in autumn, too."

Spike in applications for farming land

Nagayama was lucky to get his plot, which is located near his house. Recently, an increasing number of people have tried to rent land for cultivation, which has led to a long waiting list in the Kawasaki area, he said.

Kawasaki is not the only area in Japan to experience a spike in applications for farming land. According to Tateo Igarashi, a counselor at the National Chamber of Agriculture, large numbers of retired people are contacting the chamber with a view to taking up farming.

"Especially over the past couple of years, we have had an increasing number of inquiries from people who are planning their life after retirement, and people who have recently retired and are looking for information on farming," Igarashi said.

Some are serious about getting a job in the industry, and others are just interested in growing vegetables and crops for their meals.

"They seem to have dreams of spending time with nature and a life in the countryside. It's often an interest they've developed during their time working in an office. Also, some are very health-conscious and are interested in growing organic vegetables."

In prefectures across the country where local people are struggling with depopulation and a shortage of people to inherit farms, such folk are welcomed onto various training programs, he said.

"But, it is not that easy to actually start living off agriculture, partly because of the many detailed regulations concerning farming, in particular the land area that farmers have to acquire at the beginning. There is also the inherent difficulty of making a successful business out of farming."

In Okayama Prefecture, for example, in the past decade about 2,800 people have contacted the prefecture to get information on becoming farmers, but only 113 actually participated in the training programs. The prefecture's training courses are conducted on local farm cooperatives, with participants receiving about two years of instruction while being paid about 150,000 yen a month, Igarashi said. Before taking part in the training course, the would-be-farmers have to clarify their plans -- where and how they intend to start farming as a business.

In fact, to help lower the hurdle and make it easier for people to get into farming, the government has started to consider deregulatory measures, such as reducing the area of land that farmers are required to acquire when they start up their business, he said.

Businesses related to the farming industry are also paying attention to the growing number of retirees turning to agriculture. With a huge number of babyboomers approaching retirement age -- about 6.7 million people will turn 60 in 2007-09 -- they see it as a great business opportunity.

Home farming equipment

Kubota Corporation, an agricultural machinery and implements manufacturer, has started to focus more on selling portable farming equipment designed for home farming. In 2003, Honda Motor. Co. launched a portable cultivator named Salad which has achieved sales far beyond expectations -- about 11,000 in the past two years, according to a Honda PR official. The popularity of Salad, which is designed so that farming novices and women can cultivate land easily, is a clear indication of people's growing interest in farming, she said.

Igarashi from the National Chamber of Agriculture acknowledged the increasing interest, but said it is too early to assume it will lead to a revitalization of the farming industry.

"It will take a few more years before we can confirm if this trend has taken root in society and more people have actually started working as farmers and are helping to promote the industry," he said.

Nagayama said he has no intention of being a full-time farmer for a living, because of his advanced years.

"Professionals produce merchandise to put on the market. We grow our own products and enjoy them at dinner. The difference is so clear.

"But if I was under 60, I would think seriously about the possibility of being a professional farmer, because farming is not only fun and rewarding but also it's a challenging job that requires a broad range of abilities, such as management, planning and decision-making. Probably, it would be worth a try," he said.

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