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Thursday, July 29, 2010
Fresh vegetables in heart of the city
More consumers head to farmers markets for fresh produce and a friendlier service
By MELINDA JOE
Special to The Japan Times
O n Saturdays and Sundays, a small group of vendors sets up stalls filled with fresh vegetables and fruit outside the Kotsu Kaikan Building, a shopping complex in front of Yurakucho Station, in central Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. The Kotsu Kaikan Marche, which started in April, is the latest of a growing number of weekly farmers markets that offer the chance to purchase fresh produce directly from producers.
Although such markets have been around for decades in Western countries such as France and the United States, the concept has only recently begun to take hold in Japan. Thanks to concerns about food safety and an increased interest in organic products, the farmers markets have been gradually gaining popularity.
"At supermarkets, everything is self- service. There's no one to ask if you have questions about the produce," says organizer Kazuki Iimura. "People are tired of this system and looking to return to the old market style, where you can have face-to-face communication with sellers."
Compared with some of Tokyo's other farmers markets, the Kostsu Kaikan Marche is small — a cluster of stands occupying a corner outside the Sanseido bookstore. But so far, the project has been successful. Most of their customers work in the area or stop by after shopping in nearby Ginza. The market has grown to include between 20 to 30 producers and, according to Iimura, around half of the vendors return every weekend.
Kenji Yoshihara, the chef at Ma restaurant in Ushiku City, Ibaraki Prefecture, travels to Tokyo every Saturday morning to sell produce on behalf of the contracted farmers who supply his restaurant.
"We want people to know what Ibaraki has to offer — beautiful nature and delicious fruit and vegetables," he says.
Yoshihara sees the market not only as a place to sell produce but also as a way to promote Ibaraki and to encourage people to visit the area.
Another benefit, says Chiba-based organic farmer Yoichi Nitoji, is that farmers markets allow producers to sell their perfectly tasty but irregular-looking vegetables that would otherwise be wasted because of the strict shape regulations imposed by farmers co-ops and supermarkets.
"Here, you can educate the consumer about the produce," he explains. "You can understand their needs."
F armers markets got a boost last September from the government- supported Marche Japon project, which created 20 farmers markets in major cities around the country — from Hokkaido to Fukuoka. The project, however, was scrapped in January, shortly after the Democratic Party of Japan came into power, and the ¥1.6 billion originally intended to fund it was reallocated in March.
Despite the loss of subsidies from the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food, the farmers markets have continued to operate with the help of nonprofit organizations and corporate sponsors. In fact, many are flourishing.
The popular UNU Farmers Market in Aoyama is run by marketing company Mindshare and receives direct support from the United Nations University. In an article published this January on the United Nations University Web site, Terao Kurosaki, one of the event's organizers, hinted at plans to expand the weekend market to open on weekdays.
On Saturday afternoons, the UNU Farmers Market is bustling. Vendors selling purple carrots, yellow beets and Swiss chard enthusiastically peddle their wares. Young couples and families with small children stroll through the tents, sampling peaches from Yamanashi Prefecture, fresh edamame (soybeans) from Kanagawa Prefecture and homemade la-yu (chili oil) from a Tokyo producer.
I n nearby Ark Hills, Roppongi, the Hills Marche is just as successful. Organized by the farming nonprofit organization Refarm in cooperation with the Mori Building Company, Ltd., the weekly farmers market exudes the cheerful atmosphere of a festival. It features food stalls offering fresh coffee and baked goods, cooking demonstrations led by chefs from the Ark Hills complex and a children's play area stocked with plastic toy fruits and vegetables. Many of the shoppers in the crowd, a mix of Japanese and non-Japanese, most of whom live in the neighborhood, are regulars.
"I came every weekend when the weather was cooler," says Masako Suzuki, who walked to the market from her home. "I can find more delicious vegetables here than in the supermarket. It's a bit pricey, but I can get things in season."
Roppongi resident Erika Livingstone has been going to the farmers market every weekend since it opened, and she has no plans to stop.
"The fruits and veggies here are awesome — fresh and just wonderful," she says. "The market keeps getting better and better."
Yusuke Miyaji, president of Refarm, says that the number of participating vendors and visitors to the Hills Marche has increased steadily and business is going well. But the profits, he says, are secondary to fostering a respect for agriculture among both consumers and producers. The ultimate aim of the farmers market events, he says, is to revitalize the agricultural industry and rural areas.
"One problem with the industry is that prices are determined based on market quotations and market standards alone. Taste doesn't figure in the evaluation, so consumers are likely to choose produce based on things like shape," Miyaji explains.
"Another problem," he continues, "is that the producer's name is frequently removed from the product. Therefore, producers can never receive positive feedback directly from the consumers, so they get no sense of satisfaction from their work."
He maintains that focusing on quality and establishing a strong brand identity will allow farmers to increase the value of their produce and thus make agriculture a more profitable enterprise. Miyaji hopes to persuade young people to return to the countryside by demonstrating that agriculture can be a viable career option.
Whether farmers markets will have such far-reaching effects is still unclear, but one thing is certain: They're not going away any time soon.