SENDAI--Farmer Mamoru Kikuchi had never grown tomatoes before. But now, it is responsible for his livelihood and represents part of a larger project to revitalize agriculture in coastal areas damaged by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.
With the approval of the central government, the Sendai city government established an “agricultural special zone” in March this year that covers 3,000 hectares of land, including 1,800 hectares damaged by the tsunami. The city intends to lure companies with lower taxes, expand the sizes of farms, and have companies and farmers cooperate to make agriculture more profitable.
A model case for the agricultural special zone could be the Sendai Tomato Farm, where Kikuchi works.
“We had difficult times in April as the roofs of our plastic greenhouses were destroyed (by strong winds),” Kikuchi, 41, said on May 1, looking at his tomatoes in Sendai’s Wakabayashi Ward. “But we had a good harvest.”
Italian restaurant chain operator Saizeriya Co. set up the Sendai Tomato Farm in autumn 2011, and it is now operated by an affiliate.
Before the March 11, 2011, disaster, Kikuchi operated his own company that grew vegetables, such as lettuce and Japanese mustard spinach. But his farmland became unusable after the tsunami swamped the area.
Wanting to continue farming, Kikuchi applied for a job at the Sendai Tomato Farm along with some of his colleagues. He is now a part-time trainee there.
Saizeriya owns a farm in Shirakawa, Fukushima Prefecture, but work there has become difficult because of the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
The company focused on Sendai, a city of about 1 million people, and took a 10-year lease on two hectares of rice fields that were damaged by the tsunami for the tomato farm.
In the four plastic greenhouses at the farm, workers grow the tomatoes using hydroponics. They made their first shipment in early May.
For the 11 trainees, including Kikuchi, it was their first time to grow tomatoes and to use hydroponics.
In winter, they hung curtains containing cotton to increase the efficiency of heating. Managing the water and nutrients also proved a struggle.
But under this method, they can continue harvesting tomatoes for as long as 10 months.
“This is an attractive cultivation method,” Kikuchi said. “I am determined to meet the challenge of new agriculture that is completely different from one I had previously done.”
Saizeriya plans to convey its know-how to local farmers and allow them to later become independent so that they can supply farm products to the company.
According to the Sendai government’s plan, companies and local farmers will jointly establish agricultural companies, share their knowledge and establish sales routes for their products, including processed ones.
The city expects the special zone program to lure companies, such as restaurant operators and food makers, to Sendai, thereby increasing farmers’ profits and creating jobs.
Although the Sendai Tomato Farm was created before the agricultural special zone was established, Saizeriya can apply for recognition as a member of the special zone, which exempts companies from paying corporate taxes for the first five years.
In areas affected by the tsunami, the central government also plans to start a project in 2013 to unify farms owned by individual farmers to create larger farmlands.
Forming larger farms was an issue long before the Great East Japan Earthquake as concerns have grown about the aging of farmers and the difficulties in securing successors.
“We want to raise the profitability (of farmers) by making farms bigger, diversifying their businesses and introducing plant-growth facilities,” Sendai Mayor Emiko Okuyama said.
Butai Farm, a Sendai-based agricultural production company, has been handling all processes, from cultivation to selling products to stores and restaurants, since before the Great East Japan Earthquake.
Its president, Nobuo Hariu, 50, expects his farm will receive the synergy effect from the establishment of the agricultural special zone.
He plans to build large-scale plant-growth facilities for tomatoes and bell peppers in the special zone through joint studies with ketchup maker Kagome Co. and computer manufacturer IBM Japan Ltd.
The biggest challenge is whether the Sendai city government can secure enough farmland.
Saizeriya and Butai Farm borrowed large-scale farmlands through direct negotiations with farmers. However, it is desirable to avoid such negotiations to make it easier for companies to make inroads into the special zone.
For that purpose, it is indispensable that farmers understand the significance of the special zone and cooperate in the process, officials said.
Recycle One Inc., a consulting company that helps to create agricultural companies, says, “The Sendai city government should decide the place where each company starts business.”
Sendai Vice Mayor Yukimoto Ito, who is in charge of the special zone, says: “We want to show a model in which farmers raise not only rice but also profitable horticultural crops. We want to serve as a mediator between farmers and companies.”
(This article was written by Shintaro Hirama and Miho Tanaka.)
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