Big business creeps into agriculture as farmers dwindle

by

Kyodo

With traditional family farms on the wane, corporations are increasingly entering the agriculture sector, taking advantage of an updated law allowing them to lease farmland across the country.

At the end of 2015, more than 2,000 companies were operating in the farm sector, a roughly five-fold increase from before the farmland law was revised in 2009, according to the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry.

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Among them is Morishige Bussan Co., a food wholesaler in the city of Saitama that’s growing perilla on a 6-hectare patch of hilly land in Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture.

“We have doubled the patch since last year and are growing perilla all over the field,” Bussan President Shigeru Yajima said in early July.

Perilla plants are grown from seeds raised in vinyl greenhouses; those planted outside two weeks earlier were already 10 cm high.

“We have leased deserted arable land introduced by the Saitama prefectural and Chichibu municipal governments,” Yajima said. “Local people helped us improve the land.”

Oil obtained from perilla seeds is in booming demand as it is considered good for health and beauty, Yajima said.

“Though perilla seeds produced in China and South Korea are available, we stick to homegrown seeds,” he said.

Fukushima is known for perilla production, and Yajima began cultivating the plant in there in 1999 after learning skills from local farmers. But he pulled the plug on the operation following the triple core meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in 2011 during the quake and tsunami disasters in March that year.

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Chichibu is suited to perilla cultivation because of its wide temperature variations, like Fukushima, said Yajima, who works the fields and processes the crops with five employees. Production of perilla and related business contribute to some 40 percent of Morishige’s annual sales of around ¥100 million.

To meet growing demand for perilla oil, Morishige farms out production of the plant to farmers in Gunma, Nagano and Miyagi prefectures.

Among other firms that have entered the farm sector, Kawaguchi Construction Co., a water supply and road construction company in the town of Minobu, Yamanashi Prefecture, grows Akebono Daizu (Akebono soybeans), a local specialty produced in a cool climate along the Fuji River in the southern part of the prefecture.

“We become busy with public works at the end of each fiscal year,” said Osamu Mochizuki, president of the company. “But as we have lots of time to spare early in each year, I decided (to farm soybeans) to protect jobs for employees.”

The amount of deserted arable land has been growing in Minobu, like other places, in line with the dwindling ranks of Japan’s aged farmers and the lack of successors. The prefectural government offered some 3 hectares of such land to Kawaguchi Construction.

“I decided to grow Akebono Daizu soybeans to help revitalize the local economy, hoping to develop them into a popular brand,” Mochizuki said.

Paste, curd and toasted flour made from dried soybeans are becoming popular. During an annual autumn fair to promote Akebono Daizu, many people visited the town to experience harvesting soybeans.

Of the roughly 2,000 corporations that have entered the agriculture sector, food companies accounted for 23 percent, agriculture and stock-breeding companies 22 percent and construction firms 10 percent.

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Meanwhile, schools, medical institutions, social welfare corporations and nonprofit organizations represent a quarter of new institutional entrants into agriculture, according to Shinichi Shogenji, professor at the Graduate School of Bioagricultural Sciences at Nagoya University.

“It is a welcome development for them to use agriculture to support the independence of people with physical or mental disabilities, such as creating job opportunities,” Shogenji said.

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