There's something a little bit different about Masa Toyota. I'm not sure if it was the bright pink polo shirt he was wearing when we first met, his big toothy grin contrasting with broad shoulders, sun leathered skin and a constant stream of cigarettes, but I think we all knew he was a book certainly not to be judged by it's cover.
I had the opportunity to visit Lakeside Farm as a part of a research trip to Shinraicho- a small farming village on the shores of Lake Biwa in Shiga prefecture. The farm was founded three years ago by Toyota-san who used to be a sales person in the apparel industry. Feeling disconnected and disenchanted with his job, and bubbling with a desire for tangible skills he ventured into agriculture 8 years ago. The farm currently employs three people: Toyota, Tanaka and Moriuchi. Tanaka has been with the farm since it's inception, and is solely responsible for the management of sales and distribution. Moriuchi joined the team this year and is responsible for production.
Not being from a farm family, Toyota got his start doing short stints at various farms, shovelling cow dung and doing grunt work until a chance encounter with an older farmer, Watanabe, lead to his first job as a farm hand at Watanabe's farm. He spent 5 years learning the ropes, and also teaching his mentor a thing or two about sales and marketing, and by the time he branched out on his own, he had developed several key contacts in the industry to secure sales channels and production contracts.
The reason why we were visiting Lakeside Farm in the first place was to learn more from a 'new' farmer's perspective. There is a word 新規就農者（しんきしゅうのうしゃ shinkishuunousha）that means 'new farmer', but whose nuanced definition also incorporates a lack of familial ties to agriculture. Post WWII, Japan underwent agricultural land reform, and with it, created land use policy that makes it extremely difficult for agricultural land to be controlled by anyone but actual farm practitioners. This seems entirely reasonable until you meet the host of young people whose families don't own farm land, and are now at a loss of options when it comes to acquiring land. It is this category of farmers the government has categorized as 新規就農者 and is now targeting with policies aimed at facilitating a new generation of farmers to enter the field.
A lot of the new policies focus on supporting new farmers with start up capital (I've mentioned before that new farmers are eligible for a 100,000,000 Yen interest free loan and a wage subsidy of 1500,000 Yen/year for five years*), and encouraging municipalities to find ways to match new farmers to underutilized farm land.
*to keep the math simple, think of 100 Yen as having a street value of $1CAD, though in reality with the exchange rate it's closer to 90Y = $1CAD
To our surprise, Toyota-san didn't seem to care about any of that. In fact, he turned a lot of our stereotyped ideas of what a 'new farmer' is, upsidedown. Though his story of disenfranchised capitalist cum back-to-the-lander might seem to follow a traditional idealistic trajectory, he is actually very unromantic about his purpose: to make money. This approach might not seem particularly novel for North Americans, but in just his third year of production, he's making waves in this community for challenging status quo. My professor, clearly impressed, refused to allow the other students to categorize Toyota-san as a 新規就農者 saying that his approach was too seasoned and far too unique to be lumped in with other newbies... That is newbies like me, whose dreams are quaint rather than grandiose, and whose business acumen is acquired gradually over the years, as the reality of our current capitalistic food system slowly scrape away at our idealistic veneers. But that's getting overly sentimental. Let's start with cabbages.
If there is one thing to understand about Toyota-san's farm, it is cabbage. The finances revolve around this one crop for which he has secured several large contracts. I hadn't really thought about how much cabbage was utilized in the Japanese fast food sector, but upon reflection it's in just about every fast food chain served on the side with just about anything deep fried, as filler in gyoza, used to bulk up soup, and as a key component of okonomiyaki and takoyaki (both specialties of the closest metropolis Osaka). In 2013, he grew 80a (2 acres) of cabbage, this more than doubled to 220 a (5.5 acres) in 2014, and this year he had 480a (12 acres) of land in cabbage. His cabbage contracts are negotiated before the season starts. Each contract stipulates the amount of cabbage that will be delivered and the price is fixed. This enables Toyota to calculate and plan his finances for the season. When he faces production shortages, he buys cabbages from the local farming co-operative to make up the difference, ensuring that his orders never fall short of what he's promised.
Toyota's solution to the land issue is interesting. He seems unbothered by the lack of tenure he has and utilizes his temporary land occupancy to his advantage. Here's how he works the system to his favor: The farmers in Shinraicho and neighboring villages are predominantly rice farmers. Because of the overproduction of rice in Japan, the government has stipulated that farmers must utilize 1/3rd of their rice production land base to grow anything other than rice. Typically farmers choose wheat and soy as their non-rice crop, as they have similar growing requirements and don't require specialized equipment. Thus, for most farmers, on a third of their land base, they will follow their rice crop with winter wheat, then soy during the summer. This leaves fall/winter for the field to be fallow before the next crop of rice get's planted. Toyota-san, exploits this gap by offering to 'lease' this fallow farmland for the 5 month gap and plants his cabbages. The cold weather ensures that his cabbages are sweet and minimizes pest damage, and the fact that the land base rotates annually means that he doesn't have to worry about soil dwelling diseases.
Aside from all of the temporary land parcels he leases around town, he has one 'home' farm base. He has a 10 year lease on the property, and it was granted through the agricultural council we had come to Shinraicho to study. The land itself has interesting origins. For reasons I can't remember, at some point, the village decided to fill in a part of the river. Not knowing the fairest way to deal with land ownership over this newly created land, they divided it in equal parts amongst the 200 some odd residents of the village. Most of the residents didn't know what to do with a tiny sliver of river side property, so most is now slowly turning into forest. Toyota-san's 1.2 acres was negotiated through the council, who located the 17 separate land owners and had them sign lease agreements. He has set up three greenhouses and has several production fields on this site. Unfortunately, the area is not connected to the area's water supply system so Toyota-san had to dig his own well to irrigate the area. I was properly shocked to see that he had dug the three meter well by hand. The day we visited, he showed us the damage from someone coming and stealing one of his two main motors used to pump water from the well into his greenhouses. I guess that even Japan isn't exempt from nimrods.
Toyota-san has a motley crew of farm equipment- all used- and jimmy rigged to meet his preferred specifications. Some of the other students, children from farm families, were surprised that for the revenue he was generating, how basic Toyota-san's equipment was. No frills, he seems more concerned with function than comfort, doing without the canopy that would shield him from the sun or bought attachments when he could re-wire or re-outfit his own.
Looking out over Toyota-san's fields, I was struck by how many weeds there were and how unperturbed he seemed at how untidy his site was. This is very a-typical of Japanese farms where each row is straighter than I could ever walk, and where even stray weeds seem to fit into a beautiful manicured aesthetic. But to every mayhem, there is a logic. He walked us through pointing out that with all of the weed seeds in the soil, his best bet was to plant at times where he could get a jump start on the weeds rather than spend money spraying the heck out of his fields. He said he plants corn because they suck up nutrients but also prevent soil born diseases. He told us about letting certain crops just fail, because the opportunity cost of allocating that time to something more productive was too high. I asked why he wasn't growing organically, and he said if he could get similar buyers who demanded organic, he most certainly would, but that it didn't make sense financial sense at the moment. He emphasized that his goal was to grow a business that could support and cultivate the next generation of new farmers, and that in order to do that, he needed to bring in the bucks. He wanted all of his employees (including himself) to earn a decent living wage, and was going to engage in business practices that enabled him to do so.
I am a person, for better or for worse, that is often strongly influenced by my emotions. Attachments I have to investments I have made into projects or friends, mean that I have a hard time making logical decisions. Listening to the deliberate and cut throat approach that Toyota-san employed on his farm really made this stark difference in our personalities evident. The pre-farmer Emi might have been unimpressed by the calculated approach Toyota-san utilizes to govern his business, but having done it the other way, I am instead very impressed and envious of the clarity and singularity with which he farms.
Emi Do: Exploring ideas in small scale agriculture: feasibility, viability, relevance and resilience.