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Japanese Vegetable Production

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by Wayne L. Schrader, Farm Advisor, San Diego County

I recently visited two major vegetable production regions in Japan and saw the vegetable wholesale markets in Kumamoto and Tokyo. The following article was requested by the Japanese Agricultural Exchange Council, which sponsored the trip.

Production Challenges

The climate of southern Japan's vegetable growing regions is cooler than corresponding areas of southern California. The fuel used for heating polyethylene greenhouses in these areas adds tremendously to the cost of Japan's winter strawberry and tomato production. Japanese growers are able to produce high quality fruits and vegetables at a profit, under these conditions, with the help of central cooperatives and the national government. Consumers in Japan are accustomed to sweet, high quality fruits and vegetables in the winter but they pay exceptionally high prices for them when compared with international markets. The government has helped to support these high prices by restricting the importation of competitive produce.

Vegetable farms are extremely small in Japan with the average farm consisting of less than 1.5 hectares. Farm land in Japan is often measured in Rs, or multiples of 1000 square meters (1000 sq. meters = 0.1 hectare = 0.247 acres). Some production fields are less than 100 square meters or 0.1 R. This has almost eliminated the economy of scale in vegetable production. Tractors and heavy equipment are used for initial soil preparation but most activities are carried out by hand. Growers decrease production costs and increase profits by using more family hand labor.

Depending on the prefecture, between 10 and 17 percent of Japan's population lives on farms. In comparison, less than 2 percent of the population of the United States are farm residents. Aging farm owners on small production units, few agricultural students, high production costs, and increasing international competition are among the problems facing Japanese agriculture. As older growers retire and their children leave farming, the number of growers declines. The loss of farmers may be a blessing in disguise, however, if it forces further consolidation of land and increases the potential for economical production. It may be to Japan's advantage to develop tax breaks and other incentives for those who sell or lease their lands to develop larger corporate farming units.

Agricultural Education and Extension in Japan

Two-year agricultural colleges are funded by 41 of the 47 prefectures in Japan. Two-year agricultural college students cannot transfer to four-year colleges that are administered either by the minister of education, or the minister of agriculture, forestry, and fisheries. Kumamoto prefecture has a beautiful two-year college with space for 100 students per year to train as growers, but not enough students are willing to fill these positions. The prefecture has built a 'state of the art' agricultural research center with a research staff of 116 and a $7 million annual research budget, but only three doctoral level researchers are employed at the center. Connections between the prefectural research stations and the four-year universities appear to be relatively weak. The research staff of the Kumamoto research center apparently consists in large part of personnel who lack advanced degrees in agricultural science disciplines. There are 591 extension offices with 10,387 agents and 671 specialists in Japan. In a country approximately the size of California this seems to be an unbelievable number of extension agents, even taking into account the large number of growers. Prefectures apparently hire most of their extension agents from their local two-year colleges. Extension agents frequently visit with individual farmers, and most extension work is done in one-to-one agent/grower meetings.

In California, by comparison, extension advisors have at least four-year college degrees and many are doctoral level researchers. They use mass media and group meeting techniques to disseminate information, and often rely on industry pest control advisors to help extend information to growers. California farm advisors have their own research programs and work closely with University researchers and specialists. Farm advisors and specialists work for Cooperative Extension which is part of the University of California system. This maintains close ties between 'cutting edge' basic research and applied local research activities. The University of California has relatively modest regional research centers that are funded at least in part by grant funds obtained from industry, but they are utilized by researchers with advanced agricultural degrees.

The limited amount of research that I saw being conducted in Japan did not appear to be addressing radical departures from Japan's current production systems. It may be productive to increase the number of doctoral level researchers at prefectural research centers and to increase the formal ties and flow of information and expertise from four-year colleges to the prefectures. Competitive funding for Japanese and foreign agricultural researchers to do research sabbaticals on innovative agricultural production and trade systems should be pursued.

Cooperatives in Japan district and prefectural cooperatives were developed in Japan to combine the purchasing power of local farmers, to supply production inputs and equipment at lower costs, to provide financing and savings opportunities, and to act as the cooperative marketing service. Central or national cooperatives (Ja-Zenchu) are strongly influenced by and appear to work with the central government to coordinate and guide the production flow from the prefectures. Cooperatives provide plans and guidance for everything from funding, production, marketing, and investment; to savings and guidance for all aspects of living. Growers enjoy the benefits of the cooperative system but resent the heavy central control. Relaxation of production guidelines would increase competition and eventually lower food prices. Innovative cooperative marketing and production arrangements with growers outside Japan should be encouraged. 

Prospects for the Future

Japanese growers have excellent growing skills and produce exceptionally high quality vegetables and strawberries. These skills, along with further land consolidation, development of corporate farms that can achieve economy of scale, the development of mutually beneficial arrangements with growers and shippers in other countries, and the reasonable lowering of import standards and quotas should help Japanese growers to compete successfully in international agricultural trade. The high quality and high soluble solids fruits and vegetables of Japan should sell well on international markets, at prices that are closer to international free trade levels, if quality can be maintained in longer shipping channels. Japanese growers and local cooperatives should explore the potential for utilizing the strengths of both the Japanese and California production systems to accommodate lower overall prices, high quality, and year round availability. Markets should be developed for produce items that are currently unknown in Japan through importation and education so that a more diversified mixture of cool season vegetable crops are available for local production in the future. Direct marketing of produce from growers to consumers should be expanded to increase the percentage of total profits that the grower receives.

For more information:
VEG BRIEFS, Issue 276, July, 1994, Vegetable Crops Department, Cooperative Extension, University of California, Davis; (916) 752-1748; fax 916-752-9659.