Kenshūsei: becoming a farming apprentice in Japan Part 1

 

To those of you who have been following this blog since I created February, as well as to those who have very kindly liked the associated page on Facebook, I owe an apology. I had hoped to post on a regular basis, to document each and every meaningful step on my journey to becoming a farmer in Japan, but it didn’t quite happen as I had expected. The reason is, quite simply, that all of a sudden things started to happen a little fast – almost too fast – and that I quickly found myself unable to find either the time or energy to post. So, by way of an apology, here is a little post to let you know what I have been up to but also, I hope, to get me warmed up and ready to post more often.

In coming to Japan the idea had long been to start by spending one year working on a farm somewhere in order to get to know Japanese farming techniques (I studied organic farming in France, a very long way away, both in distance and in manners…), as well as to get a feel for the different regions and start thinking about what exactly I could do as a farmer that would take my project from simple pipe dream to commercially viable business model.

The Kenshūsei 研修生 Programme

It turned out that the best – and most usual – way in Japan to go about becoming a farmer is to become a kenshūsei 研修生, to enroll in an apprenticeship programme and spend either one or two years working on a farm of your choice. In exchange for long hours of manual labour you will be shown how to navigate the process of acquiring land to either rent or buy, be given help in finding a house and aided in buying all the quipment necessary to starting a new working life as a farmer. Not to mention being introduced to the local community, shown how to plan your crops and pointed in the direction of a suitable market. And, in some cases, being supplied with bed and board.

An added – and not negligible – bonus to becoming a nōgyō kenshūsei 農業研修生 (farming apprentice) is that you can apply for financial aid. This comes in the form of a quite substantial annual grant – 1,500,000 yen (around 15,000 euros) – made once a year, and is available for up to seven years (a maximum of two years as an apprentice plus a maximum of five years as a fledgling farmer. There are of course conditions. Such as:

– for the first one or two years you spend as an appentice you cannot earn any money on top of the money awarded to you as a grant (you will have to survive on 1,500,000 yen per year) and for the following (up to five) years you continue to receive the grant as a professional farmer you cannot earn any more that a set sum of money (or you will forfeit your right to the grant in the first place)

– you have to live and work as a farmer (making the majority of your income from farming) for a minimum of ten years after the end of your apprenticeship. Should you decided during that time that farming is not for you, you will have to refund the entirety of the sum you were awarded

– you have to be either a Japanese national or hold a premanent resident status (eijūken 永住権).

This financial aid is obviously intended to encourage young people to try farming as a career and – long-term – to repopulate the Japanese countryside and boost the agicultural economy, but has been known in recent years (the ten year work condition was only added this year) to do little more than breed a generation of pseudo-hippies living off the state whilst either play-acting as farmers or else just failing to actually producing anything at all…

Either way, as I do not as yet have permanent residency (right now I am here on a three year marriage visa), the choice was simple: I could not apply for financial aid and so had to find a farm not only that practices organic farming and that is prepared to take a foreigner freshly arrived in the country, but also that could take me in on a sumi-komi 住み込み (live-in) basis.

Finding a Farm

In my search for such a farm, I cam across a website called  有機農業をはじめよう! (“Yūki-nōgyō wo Hajimeyō!”, “Let’s Start Organic Farming!” http://yuki-hajimeru.net). This site – which amongst other things (lists of events, advice on how best to become an organic farmer in Japan etc.) details a large number of organic farmers all throughout Japan, giving information of the area farmed, the types of crops produced, the age and experience of the farmers and their family, their life philosophy and so on. As I had been interested in two specific regions of Japan, Chiba Prefecture 千葉県 and Nagano Prefecture 長野県 (the former because it is relatively close to where my wife’s family live, because the weather is good and because there is a large number of organic farmers there already; the second because the climate is cooler – which means better living conditions for both a Scot like me and the mainly French heirloom vegetable varieties and medicinal herbs that I intend to specialise in – because the mountains there are quite spectacular and because there are also a large number of farmers practicing organic farming), I checked up famers on those two regions and quickly identified two farms I liked the look of:

Sainone-batake さいのね畑 in Chōsei District 長生群, Chiba Prefecture

A small family farm located just 2 km from the Pacific Ocean, set up in 2014 by a young couple, the Takekawas, Sainone is 2.7 hectares of land farmed without either pesticides, fungicides or synthetic fertilisers and produces some 50 different varieties of vegetables and herbs.

Yui Shizen Nōen ゆい自然農園 in Saku City 佐久市, NaganoPrefecture

A small family farm located at between 980 and 1000m altitude, 30 minutes south of the city of Saku, Yui Shizen Nōen (Yui Natural Farm) is 3 hectares of land farmed without either pesticides, fungicides or synthetic fertilisers and produces some 70 different varieties of vegetables as well as barley, soy beans, potatoes, miso, pickles etc.

Like most farms in Japan, it would seem, both Sainone and Yui Shizen Nōen operate nōgyō-taiken 農業体験 (one-day farming-experiences designed to allow both those interested in farming to get a taste for rural life and work, and the farmer to get a good look at a potential apprentice) so I sent off a few e-mails and arranged to visit.

Part two to follow…

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