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Unique community farm management in Kamiina district (Japan) shifting focus from owning to using farms

Last modified June 11, 2012 07:17

Farming communities in Japan have in recent years been facing many difficulties, such as decreases in the area of farms and the number of farmers, an increase in the area of abandoned farmland, and the rapidly rising average age of farmers. For this reason, agriculture -- an industry that is critical for human life -- is risking collapse. The total area of farmland has continued to decline from a peak of 6.09 million hectares in 1961 to 4.56 million hectares in 2011, about a 30-percent reduction over the last 50 years. Meanwhile, the total area of abandoned farmland has increased since 1985, reaching 400,000 hectares in 2010.

Unique community farm management in Kamiina district (Japan) shifting focus from owning to using farms

Copyright Miyada Village

Farming communities in Japan have in recent years been facing many difficulties, such as decreases in the area of farms and the number of farmers, an increase in the area of abandoned farmland, and the rapidly rising average age of farmers. For this reason, agriculture -- an industry that is critical for human life -- is risking collapse. The total area of farmland has continued to decline from a peak of 6.09 million hectares in 1961 to 4.56 million hectares in 2011, about a 30-percent reduction over the last 50 years. Meanwhile, the total area of abandoned farmland has increased since 1985, reaching 400,000 hectares in 2010.

About two-thirds of Japan's land is mountainous, and farmland accounts for only 12 percent of the area of the whole country. Thus, Japanese farming is typically small in scale and limited to mostly small parcels of land. As of 2011, the average size of a commercial farm was about two hectares, much smaller than in the United States or Australia. In order to support the development of the nation's agricultural industry, integrated farm management and collective crop production are increasingly seen as important.

Recently, a community farming system has been introduced to many farming communities throughout Japan. In this system, communities -- instead of individual farmers -- guide the conservation of farmlands and produce agricultural products in an integrated manner. This article will introduce the efforts of communities in the Kamiina district (in Nagano Prefecture), which has been using this system for more than 30 years to manage its farmland in a unique way.


Agriculture in Kamiina

Kamiina is in an area called the Ina Valley, which commands views of the Central Japan Alps to the west and the South Japan Alps to the east, and is located in the Ina Basin at an altitude of around 600 meters. Kamiina's total area is 1,348 square kilometers, and its population was about 190,000 as of April 1, 2011. The area has eight municipalities: the cities of Ina and Komagane; the towns of Tatsuno, Minowa, and Iijima; and the villages of Minami Minowa, Nakagawa and Miyada.


Copyright Miyada Village


Kamiina, located in the southern part of Nagano Prefecture, has an inland climate that is characterized by a sunny and dry climate in winter and extreme differences between daytime and nighttime temperatures in summer. Through the central part of Ina Valley, the Tenryu River, which takes its water from Lake Suwa, flows from north to south, and alluvial fans and terraces are found on both its shores. Kamiina has long been engaged in rice farming using these landforms.

Kamiina -- where sericulture (silk farming) once thrived -- is well known for its contribution to developing Japan's silk industry from the Taisho era to the early Showa era (around the 1910s and 1920s). At that time, there were fields of mulberry (feed for silkworms) all over the region, but they gradually disappeared, as the silk industry declined due to a sharp drop in the price of raw silk in the Great Depression. After World War II, manufacturing industries (electric appliances, precision machinery, etc.) replaced sericulture in this region, and the farm workforce was absorbed into the factory workforce.

This is how a majority of people in this region became part-time farmers, working at an industrial plant on weekdays and farming on weekends. Moreover, around the 1970s, Japan launched an agricultural structure improvement project, and Nagano Prefecture started a land consolidation project. As a result, paddy fields were sectioned into 30-ares areas, where large farm machines were introduced, facilitating efficient management of paddy fields. Farmers then became able to produce rice even on the basis of weekend farming.


Miyada Method


Copyright Miyada Village

However, as rice field integration and farming mechanization were promoted, the overproduction of rice became a serious problem in Japan. In response, the nation adopted a "rice acreage reduction policy" in 1970, under which farmers were forced to reduce their rice-cropping acreage every year to limit the annual supply of rice. In the late 1970s, the government adopted a paddy-field use rearrangement policy, forcing farmers to drastically change their production from rice to other crops. For weekend farmers, abandonment of rice production meant giving up farming itself. The village of Miyada, in one of the municipalities of Kamiina, has many small-scale part-time farmers whose own total farming area is around 70 ares. Therefore, this village was particularly distressed about how to respond to the government's non-rice crop production policy.

The municipality of Miyada viewed the rice acreage reduction policy as part of a policy on agricultural structure, and continued studies on how the farming industry should be promoted in the village, in cooperation with the local agricultural cooperative and farmers. One of the suggestions from the studies was a "mutual assistance" system to more effectively use farmland and encourage responsible farmers to integrate their land use. With the nation's non-rice crop production incentives and a farmers' mutual assistance fund as financial capital, this system was aimed at guaranteeing 80 percent of profits gained by producing rice on the land to landowners, in order to systematically conduct integrated non-rice crop production. This system was implemented from 1978 to 1980.

In 1981, the village established a scheme to use all the village's available land, aiming to realize "one farm in one region." The basic concept of this scheme was that "the land belongs to its owner, but the soil of the land should be made use of by all villagers." The scheme was aimed at effectively using all the farmland in the village by means of creating a farming complex and integrating land use for responsible farmers. All the village farmers participated in the discussion on this scheme, and the mayor decided to adopt it. In the discussion, participants unanimously confirmed their responsibilities as people living in a farming community to support people who watch out for farmers, the community, and agriculture itself, so as to make village life better.

To further promote this plan, the village enacted an ordinance and established a committee on farmland use to be involved in mediation regarding farmland leases and payments based on a land-use plan, and mainly consisting of the chairpersons of seven districts of the village, the representatives of the village council, the agricultural committee and the agricultural cooperative, and academic experts. The land rent was determined based on the mutual aid system; it was set so that land owners could receive high rent and borrowers could use land for low rent in order to facilitate the lease of farmland.

Meanwhile, a collective farming association involved in the shared use of agricultural machines and undertaking of farm work was established by each district of the village to promote efficient rice farming under a mechanized and organized harvesting system. The Miyada farming concept is to separate the ownership from the use of farmland to improve the overall productivity of the region's agriculture, under the committee for farmland use and the collective farming association. This concept had a great impact on local agricultural sector when most farms were run by land-owning farmers, and attracted a great deal of attention as the "Miyada method."



Revision of Agricultural Land Act

The Miyada method, in which farmland is owned by a farmer but land use is determined by a committee on farmland use, is regarded as a forerunner of the current Agricultural Land Act of Japan, which was amended in 2009. The amendment reformed the old farmland system, which was based on the principle that persons who cultivate the farmland are also the ones who own the land. The current Act introduced deregulation of farmland leasing, allowing companies to participate in agricultural business, in principle, to promote the appropriate and efficient use of farmland.

The amendments were intended to address many problems facing agriculture in Japan, but in the village of Miyada, where voluntary farmland management has been promoted independently of laws, the ratio of abandoned farmland to all farmland is extremely low, about one-fourth of the national average. This outcome earned recognition as a good way to address the abandonment of farmland.

Actually, some people point out that although the Miyada method works well as a system to maintain farmlands owned by part-time farmers, it is not sufficient to develop the human resources needed to work in agriculture. In Miyada, the committee on farmland use and the collective farming association have been merged into a farming association, which deals with the arrangement of farmland use and the mediation of farmland leasing. This farming association, however, has the serious problem of a human resources shortage to deal with. There is an urgent need to establish an agricultural production organization.



Iijima Method

The town of Iijima, south of Miyada, has established a farming system different from the Miyada method. In Miyada, farmland has been managed on the initiative of the local government, while in Iijima, the Iijima Town Agricultural Center, to which all farm households in the town belong, is regarded as a town-wide organization, and characterized by the fact that farmers take the initiative in reorganizing farming in the region. Four district farming associations have been organized under the Center, each of which assesses the intentions of borrowers and landlords, and based on them formulates a plan for using farmland to arrange land use through the intermediary of the agricultural cooperative.

Fostering agricultural workers, in particular, is emphasized in Iijima, where an operator-type of organization was established under each district farming association. Under this approach, agricultural workers (farmers) themselves, who established the organization, operate it and are engaged in farming. Tagiri Nosan Co., founded in 2005, leases farmland and is entrusted with machine operations for all farmers in the district, while also running a direct sales store and making efforts to create the so-called "sixth-order" industry, in which functions in the primary, secondary, and tertiary industries are considered in an integrated way, resulting in the creation of new value. The achievements for its wide- ranging management were valued highly and the corporation received the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Award, the top award in the Village Farming Category, at the 14th National Agriculture Workers' Summit in Nagano, held in 2011.


Reaching Consensus to Conserve Farmland


Copyright Miyada Village

The approach to farmland management used in the Kamiina region began with the Miyada method and developed into an improved version, the Iijima method, which eventually has been adopted in neighboring regions, including by the cities of Ina and Komagane, the village of Minami Minowa, and the town of Minowa. Such a village farming approach seems to have been created based on the farmers in the Kamiina region taking firm responsibility for farmland as a regional asset that must be conserved by the whole agricultural community.

Some people insist that agriculture must be larger-scale and increasingly efficient. Nevertheless, the unique farmland management system in the Kamiina region has been developed precisely because it has many part-time farming households. Japan has a diverse geography and climate, so agricultural approaches must vary according to the region. Agricultural policy should therefore be suited to the characteristics of each region under the consensus that society as a whole will conserve the farmland, which has been handed down by previous generations.

Written by Ichie Tsunoda for Japan for Sustainability

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