Visiting an Organic Farm in Keihoku, Kyoto (Sittidaj Pongkijvorasin, RIHN Visiting Research Fellow/Chulalongkorn University)

FEAST HQ From the Field, Report

From June 15 to 16, FEAST project researcher (Mai Kobayashi) and I (visiting researcher from Chulalongkorn University) visited an organic farm located in Keihoku district in northern Kyoto. The farm we visited is named “Tagayashi-uta Farm,” which literally means “plowing song farm.” There, I was given a great opportunity to experience working on a small scale family farm in an up-land mountainous village of Japan. As a researcher interested in sustainable upland agriculture economies in Thailand, this visit was particularly significant as I was able to exchange knowledge based on each other’s experiences, and compare the different challenges and strategies seen between Japan and Thailand.

Nami and Naoya, the farm owners, have been practicing organic farming for the last 12 years. Their primary objective has been to produce good and safe food for their family, which is supported by selling their vegetables to an extended community of people who shared their values and concerns. They had around 40 customers who participated in their box scheme in Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe. This number was reduced to around 30, due to the recent increase in postal service costs, where the price almost tripled, causing some to opt out.

Needless to say, running an organic farm is very labor-intensive work. Specific tasks we were given for the day were mainly manual weeding and tying strings to guide the growth of the young eggplant and green pepper plants. Because there is a constant stream of tasks to do on the farm every day, farmers must be creative and flexible, but also have a well-organized plan for when and what they plant, maintain, harvest, market and deliver on their farms. Although I already knew this fact before I visited, in theory, I think I got a better sense of how hard it is to manage an organic farm from actually helping them, albeit for one day. Despite the hard work, I felt as though the day passed by very fast, and many things were still left uncompleted.

Because of the hard work, planning and care that is put into the management, I could clearly see how the soil was being conserved and improved to be of very good quality, lively with many insects and earthworms. Having experienced the work they put into their farm, it was very easy to gain a deeper appreciation for every vegetable they grow. Grown with lots of love.

In Thailand, major challenges for vegetable cultivation are water availability and pests. In Japan, as there is great climatic variability between seasons, farmers must be very careful about the timing of planting and harvesting. If they choose, they harvest the seeds and would replant each vegetable every year because most plants cannot survive the winter. By contrast, because of the subtropical climate of Thailand, many vegetables grow throughout the year, which reduces the need for annual replanting of seedlings. This may be the largest difference between the two countries. While this makes Japanese vegetable production significantly more labor intensive compared to farming in Thailand, I think this is also what makes Japanese farmers very well-organized and disciplined.

Another thing I learned from the visit was the significantly better access Japanese farmers seem to have to market, compared to Thailand. This is mainly due to the better infrastructure, existence of delivery businesses, concentration of urban populations, and perhaps a comparatively high level of concern and awareness among consumers about the quality and safety of their foods. Despite the well-developed infrastructure in Japan, however, the farmers would not be able to sustain their activities without effectively communicating with the consumers, in order to sustain the consumers interest and commitment to the farm’s activities and its produce. To do this, I learned how Nami makes simple but very detailed newsletters that she distributes to her customers that tell stories about the farm and the produce they are receiving. Consistent communication with their customer base, is probably one important factor that has helped them sustain their customer base. Such effort to communicate is added work, which I see as a barrier for many farmers in Thailand who are trying to sell their products in direct marketing schemes.

Despite having a pretty loyal customer base, Nami and Naoya, along with most small-scale farms in Japan, have had to face and adopt to the recent rise in delivery cost, as mentioned earlier. While this is proving to be quite challenging, this also exposed vulnerabilities in the operation of such small businesses and could potentially be taken as an opportunity to emerge stronger. Nami and Naoya are attempting to adapt by shifting their focus on customers that are closer to their farm, as mailing expenses go up the farther you have to deliver. They are also considering the idea of establishing common pick up stations for their customers, rather than sending the vegetables to individual households.

I asked Nami about the reasons why consumers choose to buy vegetables directly from farms like theirs. She mentioned many reasons, which included the overall freshness of the product, a common interest to support organic farmers, and the trust they have for the safety of the products (compared to what can generally be found in supermarkets). However, what I found most interesting were the following two responses: First was sensuous, related to how the consumers like the taste of their vegetables. Growing vegetable slowly, without depending on a lot of fertilizers, allows their vegetables to have a richer taste. After having meals at their farm, I think I cannot help but agree to this perception. Second was more conceptual, related to how she was able to frame the significance of the farm’s activities as being good for the environment. The farm is located in the mountains, along a river, which is upstream of population dense areas of Kyoto City and then Osaka where their customers live. Their activities on the farm therefore directly contributes to protecting the water quality, as well as indirectly contribute to enhancing flood control for all those living downstream. All customers would receive this message in their newsletters along with their vegetables and come to understand the greater ecological significance of their purchase, enhancing their willingness to support the farm. I found this to be one of the most important reasons that will help sustain their business over the long run. Although this may be but a small minority within Japan’s consumer base, from my experience, it is rare to find such levels of environmental awareness and sense of responsibility among consumers in Thailand.

In addition to their farming practice, their way of living was also very interesting for me. Their way of living seemed to overlap with what we in Thailand call the “sufficiency economy philosophy,” edified by our late King Rama 9. Examples of what the philosophy teaches that I found reflected in the way they lived included the importance of adopting local wisdom, using and reusing local resources, minimizing external dependencies, growing what they need first and then sharing the excess with others, and supporting the overall well-being of the environment. This made me realize how these are universal principles and are not place- nor time-specific.

Overall, I was really impressed by what I was able to experience and learn during my short stay, and am looking forward to learning many more things from them. I hope I will have a chance to visit the farm again soon!

(Edited by Mai Kobayashi)

“Tagayashi-uta Farm/Singing Paddy Farm” (Photos: Sittidaj Pongkijvorasin)