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Youth Ag Summit
Rikiya Ueno, Japan

Winning hearts and minds: Upping the appeal of Japanese farming

 

Rikiya Ueno works on his family’s farm in Yuni, Hokkaido. He has a degree in Agricultural Business Management from Writtle College in the UK, and is keen to explore how an import-reliant country like Japan can increase its food self-sufficiency.

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Even though I was born on a farm in Hokkaido, I was never interested in agriculture growing up. As a teenager, having to help during harvesting season really got in the way of hanging out with my friends. However, once I started working full-time on my family’s farm, I realized that agriculture desperately needs young farmers. Sustainable farming ended up being a much more complex, challenging career than I expected – and I found I really enjoyed being a part of the whole process, from drilling to harvesting. Now, I want to know everything.

 

That’s why I applied to the YAS; because I wanted to challenge myself, to share knowledge and to expand my global network. I studied agriculture in the UK, at Writtle College, and I’ve noted a number of contrasts between the two countries. British farmers tend to have a much larger amount of land available – around 10 times larger than Japan, on average. This means they’re more advanced in precision farming, which is crucial for sustainability. Japan is a bit behind in that way: for example, GPS was introduced only recently, but this is changing. It was also interesting to see how the role of public or privatised agricultural markets differed between both countries. Japan is working increasingly closely with the EU. The recently-agreed Economic Partnership Agreement presents both opportunities and challenges for our farming sector, so it will be interesting to see how this plays out. Japanese agricultural policy seems to be increasingly following the EU’s example: for example, by making direct payments to farmers to incentivize production.

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Like many parts of Japan, my hometown is seeing a reduction in the rural population alongside an aging farming population. Only 30 % of farmers have someone to take over for them when they retire. Who will make up for the lost production if their farms close? We produce only 40% of the food required to feed ourselves and this number is anticipated to fall; simultaneously, the number of young farmers is continually decreasing. Farming has a negative image among young people; it’s seen as a hard, dirty and ‘uncool’ job. Bringing urban and rural youth together is important to convince young people to consider a career in agriculture. I was involved in one project where we farmers actually visited a school, grew vegetables with students throughout the year and cooked and ate together at the end. The students seemed to appreciate how hard it is to grow food, and how much more enjoyable it is when you’ve put personal effort into growing it. We hope these efforts might influence their future career choices.

 

In my opinion, farmers themselves should be taking the initiative to approach young people, to teach them how farming is an attractive job. Even though it takes a long time to see any results, face-to-face education such as farm experiences is very effective: young people remember things vividly when they experience them in person. We can teach with emotion and students can be influenced by this down the line, whether that’s in their career choices or when thinking about their food choices on supermarket shelves. It all comes down to educating people to make long-term choices, which will aid Japanese society in the generations to come. It’s very clear that unless we want to continue being dependent on imported food, we’re going to be relying on today’s youth to ensure we have enough food in the future. As farmers, it’s in our hands whether we can win their hearts or not.