What I learned in Japan

By: Lindsay Record

After graduating from college I spent two years teaching English in Japan in Springfield’s Sister City, Ashikaga.  It was two of the most fun years of my life. While I had worked on two farms during my college years, teaching English in Japan temporarily put me on a different path.  While my professional focus was teaching, in my free time I loved to ride my bike out to the more rural part of town filled with rice fields and giant plots of vegetables and seek out farm stands.  I always envied the large gardens filled with taro, daikon and leeks but living in a small apartment without much sun or a patio to speak of meant that, for the most part, I put my passion for food, farming and agriculture on hold.

After working at Illinois Stewardship Alliance for 8 years, an opportunity arose for me to go back to Ashikaga, Japan through the Sister Cities Association of Springfield and this time as a part of an agriculture delegation. I jumped at the chance. Learning about farming in Japan allowed me to marry my former and current lives and I was beyond excited to do it.

There were six of us in the delegation: Chad Wallace, farmer at Oaktree Organics; Rodney Wallace, Chad’s dad and a retired grain farmer; Gail Record, my mom and owner of Clarewood Farm and Bakery; Rich Ramsey, beekeeper and retired grain farmer and Janet Kenney, hobby farmer and current Sister Cities Association of Springfield board president. The trip was everything I could have hoped for and then some.  The Japanese are known for the generous hospitality and this trip was no exception. Not only did I learn a lot about farming in Japan but I learned from my cohorts as well.

Our itinerary was packed.  We visited two farms, a winery that practices value-added agriculture, a farm to table restaurant, an indoor market that included a retail store selling local produce and value added products and a separate on-site kitchen where prepared foods were made for sale in the market, a local bakery, and a traditional Japanese garden. We also had meetings and a reception with a local agricultural association and the junior chamber. I could go on but time to get to the meat of it (as they say): learning about farming in Japan!

We met with a group of 11 farmers that were part of the Tochigi Registered Farmers Group.  Most farmers specialized in one or two crops like asparagus or tomatoes and also grew rice (to eat) and barley (for beer).  As you might expect there were some stunning similarities and differences.  Here are some things I learned:

  1. Japan has a national cooperative “JA Zenchu”, or the Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives, that makes it easy for farmers to specialize in crops, grow efficiently and market their products.  Produce and other items sold through the cooperatives (that have hubs throughout the country) are distributed to restaurants, retailers and other avenues. The upside is that farmers can focus on production and the downside is they don’t get the direct market price.  Most products are sold in auction so price is out of the farmers hands.

  2. The farmers and citizens in Japan are very concerned about the T.P.P., Trans Pacific Partnership, trade agreement and they were shocked to hear that this isn’t a front page news item in the U.S. They are worried about what will happen if cheap (subsidized) commodities like animal feed floods their country and they can’t compete on price. They asked me why farmers in the U.S. aren’t concerned about this issue.  The unfortunate truth is that grain farmers in the U.S. will benefit from the trade agreement while putting farmers in Japan at risk.

  3. Ashikaga has similar weather to central Illinois although a bit more temperate (think southern Illinois) and they are able to grow some crops, like tomatoes, year-round in heated greenhouses.

  4. In general, Japanese consumers are concerned with food safety.  After the destructive tsunami of 2011, which caused a nuclear power plant to leak and cause total environmental contamination, strict food safety protocols were adopted requiring all farmers to comply with onerous record-keeping that sounds similar to GAP.  Additionally, some food products can’t be cultivated in areas near where the nuclear accident took place.  For example, in Ashikaga, the winery also produces shiitake mushrooms but they are unable to grow and market them to this day!

Part two: 4 more things that I learned while visiting Japan…stay tuned!

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