Half-Farmer, Half-X: Ideal Lifestyle or Unfortunate Reality?

Reader Contribution by Winifred Bird
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Here in Nagano, Japan we’ve been having lots of frosty nights and gorgeous crisp blue days: perfect apple weather. The frosts have deepened the sugar into a translucent core in the center of each apple, and picking season is in full swing in the orchards surrounding my house. For the past week I’ve been helping the Mizutanis, who live next door, with their harvest. What better way to get to know my new neighborhood than by wandering those sweet-smelling green alleys, plucking fruit into a basket as hawks glide overhead and monkeys call to each other in bamboo grove nearby? (Okay, so the monkeys are probably plotting their next raid on the orchard, but they’re still fun to watch.)

Like most of the families around here, the Mizutanis have a small plot of trees – probably less than an acre. They pick and mail some apples direct to customers, sell some as u-pick, and send the bulk to the local agricultural co-op, which then distributes and sells them nationwide. But shoppers here are so demanding that Amelia Mizutani says she’s only able to sell about half her apples. The rest get sorted out for being too small (that is, smaller than a respectable grapefruit), having an irregular shape or blemish, or having holes pecked in them by birds.

Also like many families in the area, the Mizutanis don’t farm full time. Amelia has done everything from making miso and jam at the local food-processing co-op, to inspecting rubber packing at the nearby factory; her husband builds foundations. Among our other friends in the area, one farms full-time, another runs a guesthouse while growing rice, soybeans, and blueberries, and another supplements his farm income by working winters at a sake factory.

The same trends hold outside our town, too. According to the Ministry of Agriculture’s annual report for 2009, about a third of Japan’s 2.5 million farm households are classified as “non-commercial.” Of the remaining 1.7 million commercial farms, about a quarter are “semi-businesses” and more than half are “side businesses.” The Mizutanis are typical in other ways as well: 98% of farms are family run here, and the average farm size is just 4.5 acres, or about 1/100th the average in the United States!

But are these trends good or bad? Although a country of small family farms might sound ideal, here in Japan farm communities are disappearing, national food self-sufficiency rates are falling, and income per hour of farm labor is shrinking, according to the same report. In our community and elsewhere, fewer and fewer young people are choosing the long, hard hours and low pay that come along with a full-time farm life.

On the other hand, a growing minority have embraced what they call the “Half-Farmer, Half-X” lifestyle (the term was coined by farmer/writer Naoki Shiomi). The idea is to combine sustainable farming with an (income-generating) “X” that is your calling: writing, making pottery, caring for the elderly, running a cafe. Supplementing income with off-the-farm jobs is nothing new, of course, but this mini-movement turns what’s long been a necessity into a conscious choice.

It’s a model that really appeals to my husband and me. I’m a freelance journalist and he’s a carpenter. Starting in the spring we’re hoping to balance those jobs with growing rice and vegetables and raising some animals. Partly, we don’t plan to farm full time for financial reasons; partly, because we both love the other work we do too much to give it up.

So what do you think? Is working off the farm part time an ideal way to balance various interests and goals; an acceptable way of getting by while living the rural life; or an unfortunate sacrifice forced on too many farmers by a society that doesn’t adequately value their work? I’d love to hear your thoughts, or stories of how you combine farming with other work.

Photo: Winifred Bird