I recently read an article over at the Financial Times about rice farming in Japan titled “Japan: End of the Rice Age” which did a fairly good job of outlining many of the national and global problems facing rice farmers in Japan, most notably the threat posed by the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership), the rising average age of Japanese rice farmers, the inept stranglehold that JA has on farmers and farming policy, and the falling domestic demand for rice due to, among other reasons, the shift in the national diet toward other staple grains like wheat. Much of what I read rang true to my experience farming in rural Sado Island.
I thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at one of the major problems I see facing Japanese rice farmers: namely poor land management. The article above mentioned this a bit citing the huge percent of farmable land that is left fallow and overgrown–1 million hectares of 2.5 million farmable hectares. It’s not necessarily the amount of unfarmed land that is the problem. I’m not an economist so I don’t know the reasons governments pay farmers to not farm land. Rather the problem is how the land is distributed and maintained.
My example comes from a strip of land close to my boss’s jikka (family home), which is our base of operations. In this picture, you can see the strip of land down the middle, split by the small path. There are fields on both sides of the path (I marked my car in the driveway in the upper left). Not exactly sure when this picture was taken, but it’s possibly early summer right after planting since there’s just the slightest hint of green in the rice paddies that are not fallow (the mostly brown areas). But you’ll notice that the area is dominated by a lot of green squares and rectangles, which are unplanted, overgrown fields and a bit of forest in between.
In the middle of summer, the unplanted fields become severely overgrown with weeds, bamboo, trees, and vines.
The top left picture is facing South looking down the path between the fields. In many of the overgrown fields, the weeds are almost 2 meters tall and very thick. It’s hard to tell in the picture in the middle left hand side, but even when the weeds aren’t really tall, the fields are flooded with water from un-maintained drains. The bottom left picture is of some fields that have only gone unfarmed in the last year or so. The last picture in the bottom right is the same area facing North.
When fields are not farmed they quickly become an unmanageable mess. For our own part, the fields that we do not plant (known as gentan in Japanese) we try to keep as free of weeds and overgrowth as possible. I spend a fair amount of time in the summer cutting weeds in the gentan fields using my trusty buzzsaw weed whacker!
This next picture I’ve marked the strip of land with the boundaries of the rice fields. The white shapes are fallow fields. The green and yellow shapes are fields farmed by neighbors and the pink square is a field that we farm. There are 28 fields there over various sizes and shapes. 8 of them are farmed by 3 different farmers. 20 of them are fallow. Those 20 fallow fields are owned by 6 different families, each family owning 1 or 2 or however many.
One of the things that the Japanese government has been trying to do over the past few years is consolidate many of the small fields into larger ones. They’ve offered tax credits to land owners to do so. In fact some of the fields that we rent have been merged together making the planting, harvest and maintenance of the fields much easier. This is a good idea by the government. In theory. Always in theory. Because, as has been my experience in dealing with JA and the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, it seems like the people in charge of policy decisions have never been farmers and, strangely, are unfamiliar with how farming works in this country.
The above picture illustrates this nicely. There is no huge variation between the height of the North side and South side. The width is relatively even, in that you could easily make 4 “squarish” fields out of the 28. There is easy access to water on both sides of the path as well as easy ingress and egress to the fields for tractors, combines, and planting machines. This strip of land is ripe for consolidation. Looks great on paper.
However, in order to consolidate these fields, you have to get the nine families that own the different plots to agree to sell their land so that it would make sense. If you have 7 willing to sell, but 2 not, what then? What if you have 8 willing to sell, but only 1 not? What if the families unwilling to sell have their fields in odd places around that strip so that consolidation doesn’t make sense?
This is just one small area on Sado, but this type of arrangement–many small fields owned by different people–is the norm throughout the country. Even when you get out into the vaster, flatter spaces in Japan where the fields get much bigger (granted nothing like the square kilometers of middle America), you still run into the problem of different families owning different plots here and there. One “no” and consolidation doesn’t make any sense.
I’ve asked my boss why families that aren’t farming the land and just letting it overgrow refuse to sell to farmers willing to farm the land. He says it’s a mix of tradition (land has been in the family for generations) and stubbornness. There are other reasons as well, I suspect. The article above mentions that JA counts as members people who don’t even farm their land, so there’s a bit of that kind of shady bookkeeping involved as well.
It is frustrating. Japan says they want to modernize their farming and make it more efficient. But what they say and what is practiced seems to be at odds and, in my view, irreconcilable.