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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Younger farmers blogging their way to success

Internet seen as tool to make agriculture attractive, profitable


Staff writer

Hard work, low pay and a gloomy future. That's the image many young people have had about farming.

News photo
Easy listening: Shinichi Soga, a 31-year-old farmer in Niigata Prefecture, examines tomatoes at his farm while listening to music. COURTESY OF SHINICHI SOGA

Figures back this point. In the next 10 years, the majority of farmers in Japan will be 70 or older according to an Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry survey, mainly because the younger generation doesn't want to take over the family business, many young farmers said.

But a growing number of young, savvy farmers are trying to make the industry more attractive and profitable through the Internet — a modern contraption through which they hope to paint a rosier picture of agriculture.

Shinichi Soga of Niigata Prefecture may be one of the most successful farmers so far. His tomatoes are selling like hot cakes thanks partly to his popular Web log, which he started in 2006.

Soga, 31, initially began blogging as a way to connect with customers and other farmers. The blog, titled Furyo Nomin (the Delinquent Farmer), depicts his life in rural Niigata and is viewed more than 10,000 times a month.

"I started blogging because I also felt lonely, surrounded by much older farmers," said Soga, who traveled to the United States, Cote d'Ivoire, Senegal and France over five years to learn the trade.

In a recent entry, he used photos to explain that after harvesting asparagus, some of the stalks need to be left in the ground to grow like bushes so their roots will accumulate nutrition for the next year.

He also uses the blog to reveal his thoughts on working with nature, one of the fringe benefits of the job.

"There's one thing I felt was pretty as I lay on the ground," Soga wrote. "The light coming through the asparagus bush looks like the Milky Way. It's very beautiful."

Jokingly, he added that he might be mistaken for a corpse if he lay there too long.

Thanks to the popularity of the blog, Soga published the book "Gachinko Nogyo Seikatsu" ("Hard-core Agriculture Life") in August. It sold around 6,000 copies, which is considered a success for a book on farming, said Masaki Inaba, editor of publisher Blues Interactions, Inc.

"We contacted him because we thought this would be the first and last book written by a farmer in his 20s," he said, adding that Soga's witty writing appeals to young readers. "After publication, other young farmers like him also began blogging about farm work."

Soga is also challenging some of the traditions of Japanese agriculture by selling his harvest only at his shop or at a nearby farmers market, where he can price his produce at his own discretion instead bowing to the whims of the powerful Japan Agricultural Cooperative.

"Previously, Japanese farmers concentrated only on producing food," Soga said. "But I grow my own food and I also sell it at my own shop because there is great flexibility and potential in this method."

Most farmers traditionally rely on JA to sell and distribute their products. This is usually a boon to small farmers operating in the mass market because it reduces their workload and ensures they get a stable price.

But farmers dealing in premium-quality crops stand to lose money because JA mixes the good with the bad for mass distribution. Critics say this discourages farmers from being creative and producing more value-added products.

Although Soga admits his profit remains modest, the brisk tomato sales prompted him to accept mail orders as well.

Farm products are one of the most popular items sold online, said Masahiro Kobayashi, acting manager of the gourmet division at Rakuten Inc., which runs the nation's biggest online shopping site.

According to Kobayashi, sales of farm products rose 20.9 percent compared with last year, and organic foods are particularly popular.

"Online shoppers put priority on safety over the price," he said. "On the Internet, you can see who produced which products, so even if the price is high, shoppers will buy them."

Toshimitsu Sakurai, a 20-year-old rice farmer in Miyagi Prefecture, also sees a future in direct sales.

Last November, Sakurai launched his own rice brand, Tome, named after the city where he lives, with a cafe-owner friend because mass market prices are too low to live on. This has been a major gripe among longtime farmers.

"The average hourly wage of a rice farmer is only ¥179. It's much lower than that of high school girls working at McDonald's," Sakurai said.

The rice is provided by Sakurai and one of his friend's relatives, who sell it online as Tome but bag it separately so customers can taste how the flavor of the rice varies depending on the field, he said.

The bags of rice, delivered in a fancy box, raised eyebrows with the hip, custom-designed logo from Miyagi. His eco-minded customers also reuse the stylish box as storage receptacles for CDs and records.

The rice was so unusual, in fact, that it was mentioned in the lifestyle magazine Brutus.

"I'm glad people who don't know much about farming got to know about our rice," he said.

At ¥4,500 for 5 kg, Tome is much more expensive than supermarket rice, and orders have been slow. But Sakurai said people impressed by the fancy design are showing an interest in buying.

Former pastry chef and Tokyo businessman Tomoharu Ishii, 25, is attempting Internet sales of his family's tried-and-true Koshihikari, the nation's most well-known rice brand.

Ishii, who just returned to his home in Niigata six months ago, said he would not be able to survive by copying his father's generation of farmers, who simply concentrated on production. He said today's farmers must approach the market in a new way.

"Young farmers are also trying to cultivate a way to reach customers," Ishii said.

Like Soga, he maintains a blog to share his daily farming experiences and explain how he grows his crops.

"Sales would increase if we actively share information and connect with consumers," he said, adding the Internet can be a tool to do just that.

Although blogs may have become an everyday tool or hobby for many people, they are still scarce among the older generation of farmers.

According to Ishii, only four farmers, including him, are in their 20s in a village of 8,500 people mostly engaged in agriculture.

He hopes more young people will enter the agriculture industry but admits it will be difficult unless they can be shown that farmers can make a comfortable living.

"That's why, within a few years, I hope to show young people that we can."



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