Rather than some social program saying farming is good for “troubled youth,” Vegefru Farms says “troubled youth” are the answer to farming’s prayers.
■ Out with the old…
It’s no secret that Japan’s agricultural industry is in a dire situation. On one hand, the rural population of the country is both aging and vanishing at an alarming rate to the point where in some places homes are being given away for free and a celebration is held for the first marriage in 42 years.
On the other hand, we have the new Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, which threatens to strip away the economic protections Japanese farmers have enjoyed for years and force them to compete internationally. It’s a painful transition that many aged farmers aren’t willing to deal with at this point in their lives.
So with a substantially lowered income and a rapidly vanishing stock of human resources, things are looking bleak for domestic produce. And just when you think Japan will have to import entire towns full of migrant workers, in comes an entirely new kind of agricultural company. Here is their corporate anthem:
■ In with the Vegefru…
In Japan there is a term “yankee” which refers to a wide range of subcultures that generally involve rough-and-tumble behavior and a lack of social graces. It’s hard to clearly define a yankee, but you kind of know one when you see one. Orange suntans, dyed and feathered hair and heavy make-up are some common characteristics nowadays. Come to think of it, Donald Trump is pretty much a black-and-gold print T-shirt away from being a modern-day yankee.
▼ Huh, that is surprisingly close!
Or a better example might be Kenji Tanaka, the managing director of Vegefru Farm. Once the head of the bosozoku (biker gang) Natadekoko in Chiba, his days were preoccupied with two things: riding and fighting. Tanaka still fondly recalls his specialty of busting through police roadblocks.
▼ Director Tanaka’s corporate profile
Now, his farms in Japan and Vietnam annually harvest 400 tons of mustard spinach, 300 tons of daikon, 200 tons of kinbi carrots, 10 tons of mini-tomatoes, and 10 tons of peanuts. They are also in the process of farming sturgeon for the purpose of selling caviar. One unique feature of Vegefru Farm is that they are actively recruiting yankees to be a part of their team.
Although yankees of any age or gender are welcome, Vegefru Farms seems to be targeting those getting a little long in the tooth for yankee life. According to their recruitment poster, tattoos are acceptable (but temporary tattoos will get you escorted off the premises). Also, anyone rocking a “punch perm” (tight-curl permed hair like the guy from the pineapple pen song has) will receive “preferential treatment.”
■ “Style of the Next Generation Hybrid Farmers”
Since yankees are said to be urban-dwelling people, conventional wisdom is that they wouldn’t last on the farm. But it sort of makes sense when you think about it. After all, the ultimate anti-social move would be to abandon mainstream society and go live in a remote area. There are lots of spaces for hanging out or rumbling and for the bosozoku there are plenty of open roads to ride to their heart’s content.
But Director Tanaka sees something deeper in the yankee culture that makes them “oriented for agriculture.” First and foremost he cites the unyielding “yankee spirit” in which “even if their backs hurt from working in the field, for yankees, giving in to pain is not an option. It means defeat.”
Moreover, Tanaka acknowledges that a lot of yankees tend to be gear-heads who enjoy maintaining and customizing their own vehicles. Vegefru Farm has capitalized on this greatly as the company saves a considerable sum on the maintenance of equipment such as tractors since they can handle it themselves.
In addition, yankees tend to learn through experience and orally from their seniors, rather than by textbooks and instruction manuals. In this way, they are actually highly receptive to directions from those they respect and are easily trainable to join the ranks of Vegefru Farm.
To become a part of Vegefru Farm you don’t need to be a yankee, but if you aren’t, you’re probably lacking in many of the skills desired by Tanaka and his team. You also probably wouldn’t appreciate the aesthetics of the company as much.
They’re off to a great start, but whether this motley crew will continue to thrive in the agriculture business remains to be seen. What is clear is that farming in Japan as we know it is coming to an end, and Vegefru Farm is a symbol of what the country needs: a completely new approach.