Graduate School for International Development and Cooperation, Hiroshima University, Hiroshima Japan
Keshav Lall Maharjan
Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Hiroshima University, Hiroshima Japan
This paper focuses on producer-consumer relationships in Japanese Alternative Food Networks (AFNs) from the perspective of small-scale organic farmers. The research was conducted through in-depth qualitative interviews with organic farmers in Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan, and participant observation during on-farm events and farmers’ markets. The study examines the way in which farmers describe their interactions with customers and the strategies they employ for promoting a closer connection and new modes of co-production in the face of declining citizen participation in organic-based AFNs. Moreover, the study investigates farmers’ perception of consumer values and motivations in choosing organic produce, thus illuminating consumers’ value system from the perspective of organic farmers.
Alternative Food Networks (AFNs), Japan, organic farmers, producer-consumer relationships, farmers’ markets, sustainable food consumption; proximity
Alternative Food Networks (AFNs)’ potential to engender a transition towards more sustainable food systems is being increasingly recognized, chiefly because they represent spaces where innovative socio-economic patterns and relationships can emerge and be experimented with (Brunori et al. 2011). In the past, however, the emphasis on the production side in food system-related research has tended to overlook the role of consumers and their importance as active participants and co-creators of food provisioning modes (Holloway et al., 2007). As a consequence, an emerging focus of AFN research is the nexus between producers and consumers, conceptualized as a relational set of practices (Chiffoleau, Millet-Amrani, Rossi, Rivera-Ferre, & Merino, 2019; Holloway et al., 2007). Despite the fact that some recent studies have focused on the co-creation of new food provisioning systems and of new ways of understanding and assigning common values and meanings to food (Chiffoleau et al., 2019), research in this sense is still scarce, especially regarding farmers’ perspective on consumer attitudes and beliefs and on consumers’ role in this co-creation process.
1.1 AFNs and organic farming in Japan
In Japan, a close relationship between producers and consumers has historically been at the very heart of the organic agriculture movement. The sansho‐teikei system (literally ‘producer-consumer cooperation’; hereafter teikei), established in the mid-1960s to provide pesticide-free food to a group of women concerned about environmental pollution and food contamination issues, is the first example of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiative (Kondoh, 2014; McGreevy & Akitsu, 2016). The engagement of farmers and consumers in this kind of system, however, has been progressively declining as a consequence of changing societal dynamics, consumer preferences and the competition of new marketing channels (see e.g. McGreevy & Akitsu, 2016). One aspect that appears to have strongly contributed to the decline of teikei is the growing consumer unwillingness to participate in the volunteer activities that characterized this system (for example by helping with farm work or with the distribution of produce among members). The decline of teikei and the changes in how organic producers and consumers interact, however, has not been fully explored from the perspective of farmers themselves. Therefore, this study aims at investigating organic farmers’ perception of consumer participation and values in Japanese AFNs, and to examine the ways in which farmers have been adapting to the changes that have led to the weakening of the teikei system.
Data for this study was collected through in-depth interviews with 19 organic farmers, chosen purposively on the basis of their participation in AFNs and their socio-demographic characteristics. The farmers in the sample are engaging in a variety of direct-to-consumer market channels, including vegetable box delivery schemes that evolved from the original teikei system (Akitsu & Aminaka, 2010). Interview data were supplemented with participant observation conducted while working as a volunteer in three of the farms, as well as while attending on-farm events and local farmers’ markets.
3 Results and Discussion
3.1 Farmers’ characteristics
The farmers interviewed were almost exclusively newcomers, often urban-to-rural migrants (89%) having started agriculture from a non-farming background. Except for one case, all participants had started farming within 10 years from the time of the interview, and their age at the time of the interview ranged from 31 to 64 years old (44 years old on average). 17 out of 19 interviewees were male, but the majority (53%) was farming as a family unit with their spouse. 74% were doing farming full time, while the others had side jobs in addition to farming. As shown in Table 1,
Table 1: marketing channels of the interviewed farmers (multiple choice)
|Farmers’ markets (marché)||14||74|
|Regular vegetable box delivery to households (by mail delivery or in person) – including teikei||12||63|
|Online sales directly or through e-commerce platforms (excluding regular deliveries)||10||53|
|Direct sales market (chokubaijo)||7||37|
|Small shops (greengrocer's, natural food shops)||6||32|
|Sold in own physical shop or processed for own restaurant||3||16|
|Percentage sold within one's Prefecture (average)||-||73|
interviewees tended to simultaneously participate in multiple typologies of market relations; direct-to-individual-consumer channels prevailed (marché, vegetable box delivery and online sales), but they also diversified their sales through channels such as restaurants, small shops and local direct sale markets (chokubaijo). On average, the farmers sold 73% of their produce within Hiroshima prefecture, and therefore to a relatively local customer base, even though such customers are mainly located in the larger urban centers of the prefecture, rather than in the farmers’ immediate locality. It was also a common practice for organic farmers to ship produce (including regular vegetable box deliveries) to major cities outside the prefecture, chiefly Tokyo and Osaka. This is apparently at odds with farmers’ emphasis on the importance of establishing a ‘face-to-face’ relationship of trust with customers, which, together with the kind of active participation implicit in the teikei system, ideally calls for a relatively localized customer base. Most farmers, however, do not identify their kind of vegetable box system with the word ‘teikei’, and only one older organic farming household, which started operations in the 1970s, was practicing the original version of teikei and embraces the term, as a confirmation of the fact that teikei tends to be a prerogative of pioneer organic farmers, while the new generation has moved away from this system.
3.2 Connection with consumers
Newly established organic farmers, despite admiring – and in some cases yearning for – a return to the original teikei system, preferred to sell their produce by mailing weekly or bi-weekly vegetable boxes directly to households. While this is superficially similar to teikei, it does not require customers’ involvement in terms of volunteer labor and farmers do not ask for a membership fee to be paid in advance to support the farm during the planting season. As remarked upon by some of the farmers, while in the past organic farming used to be a social movement (shakai undo) in Japan, it is not so anymore, and the dynamics that once were common (groups of citizens getting together to support and get produce from organic farms) are being replaced by more individualistic dynamics in which individual consumers simply purchase produce from farmers.
Even in the case of the pioneer organic household, there is a clear recognition of the change that has occurred in the characteristics of their customers, who now have less time and inclination to commit to a teikei-like relationship, and also live further away than the original teikei members. About half of the customer base is now served through of mail-delivery boxes, while the remaining half is composed of local customers with whom the farm household maintains a closer relationship by delivering produce boxes directly.
The nature of the exchanges between the farm household and their members/customers, however, has changed:
“We [used to] ask our customers [for help]. Because we delivered our products to local people, only 10, 20 minutes away from here, some customers could help, for example when planting rice, or harvesting onions or potatoes. […] Now, no one comes here to help. Because ‘customers’ meant housewives. 20 years ago, there were some housewives who didn't work, they had free time, so we could ask them. But now, most [women] work. […] The teikei system is when we deliver our products directly to housewives (sic), we know each other well, there is a good communication. So we can ask them, "if you have time, please come to help". But now that has changed, we only deliver our product, there is no such close relationship. Teikei has changed. In the past it was a very close [relationship], but now it's only about getting products.”
This quote is interesting not just because it clearly outlines the shift in the relationship, but also because it highlights the role played by women – and specifically housewives – in supporting the teikei system. In this sense, the teikei system largely depended on traditional gender roles for its functioning, and the increase of women in the workforce is described here as the reason for its decline. Other farmers also identified the role of women as key in supporting organic farmers and sustainable food consumption, but always described in their roles of ‘mothers’ and ‘housewives’.
This implies the waning of that co-production system that is at the heart of systems such as teikei and CSAs, and the need to reconfigure producer-consumer relationships to adapt to this change. For example, despite the fact that asking regular customers to volunteer at farms is becoming less common, at least among the interviewees, a way to maintain and cultivate a closer relationship is through on-farm events, usually centered around rice or vegetable planting and/or harvest. These events serve the multiple purposes of nurturing the connection with customers, renewing mutual trust by openly showing and discussing organic cultivation techniques, and at the same time educating consumers about organic farming. As most of the participants live in urban areas, the events also serve the purpose to reconnect urban consumers with rurality and the dynamics of food production. This includes experiencing practices such as the manual planting or harvesting of rice that, once a central part of Japanese farming culture, have virtually disappeared. One possible sign of a shift in the characteristics of people involved in AFNs is the fact that the participants to these events are almost exclusively couples with young children, rather than mainly women. At the same time, these events have shifted from being a way for farmers to obtain help to more convivial and educational experiences. Informal interviews with participants during several events showed that many had been attending for several years in a row. One participant to a rice planting event commented that “it’s hard to find places where you can do this, nowadays. And since this farm uses no pesticides, it’s safe for children”.
There is an educational component for adults as well, particularly in the form of the rediscovery of Japanese traditional food culture. Miso-making workshops for customers, for example, were held by several of the interviewed farmers. In the past few years, the Hiroshima Prefecture Organic Farming Association started holding a series of events called ‘Farm to table’, hosted by a different farmer each year. The events follow miso making from the planting of soybeans through their harvesting and processing.
Although the organization of events is time consuming and usually not profit-oriented, farmers highly value them, as they represent a rare opportunity to convey the farmer’s values and in turn to receive feedback from participants, who are usually regular customers. Many of the farmers saw them as part of their own form of teikei:
“I guess it is a bit similar to teikei. For today’s rice planting I just advertised the event a little, and all these people came. Since I have a direct connection with customers, it’s more of a give and take relationship."
In a sense these exchanges can be seen as a partial replacement of the previous, more formalized, system of meetings that was common in the early teikei. There is however no discussion or negotiation over which crops should be planted, or about produce prices, and in this sense this element of co-production and sharing of risks has been disappearing. Other farmers, on the other hand, have had to (re-)structure their operation in order to make it more streamlined and thus economically viable, which included removing opportunities for engagement with consumers despite farmers’ best intentions. One farmer commented:
“When I started, I thought it would be interesting to have something like a tourist farm, in which customers could come, pay some money, and then go around the farm with a basket and pick vegetables by themselves. But doing this in practice was difficult, so I gave up."
The same farmer is now switching to selling more of his produce to wholesale markets, which also implies a partial reorganization of his farm towards a more productivist-oriented pathway:
"I feel that direct to the consumer is the best. […] But it is easier to make a lot of the same crop at one time, while if you want to sell to individual customers... selling only a bunch of spinach at a time is bothersome. Now I'm planning to start selling to supermarkets with the organic JAS certification […], so I got the organic certification and I installed a greenhouse."
The creation of virtual connections through social networks is becoming increasingly important, and having an active online presence is recognized as a key factor for the acquisition of a supportive customer base despite the lack of formal commitments such as a teikei membership. Farmers often remarked upon the importance of investing time in cultivating this kind of relationship as a way of bridging the physical distance with consumers and the lack of a real face-to-face relationship:
“I try to show the way I grow vegetables through my website. My customers look at my website and think, ‘oh, that’s good!’, and order. But that effort is necessary. Young organic farmers need [to provide] more and more information to their customers. I got most of my customers through the website.”
Information about the characteristics of the weekly vegetable set and updates about the farm are also communicated through pamphlets included in the box delivery. Through this virtual connection, customers may be more invested in continuing their support to the farm despite the lack of a formal commitment such a teikei membership and of a personal connection to the farmer. Virtual connections, even with distant consumers, do sometimes lead to face to face interaction, however:
"When I started doing rice planting experiences […] there were people from Tokyo who came to help me with rice planting, […] who came here on purpose from Tokyo, […] even though there are rice fields closer than this.”
Finally, one venue that has been growing in importance among farmers is the marché (farmer’s market) which has only recently become popular in Japan. As Table 1 shows, almost 75% of respondents participated in farmers’ markets. Although sales at farmers markets are usually not a major source of income, marché offer a new form of reconnection between producer and consumers in Japan. Marché are especially important because they represent one of the very few ways in which organic farmers can reach out to local consumers, including those who might not have a specific interest in organic produce. This also connects with the need to actively reach out to people in order to explain one’s values:
“if you're doing this kind of organic or natural farming, something that's different, […] if you're not talking about why or how it is different, then you're just the same as everybody else. That's the value in going and participating in markets. It's maybe your only chance to interact with the customers. Or one of the few, anyways, to really interact."
3.3 Farmers’ perception of consumer values
When farmers were asked to elaborate upon the reasons why they though customers had chosen to buy produce from their farm, the most common theme was that of consumers seeking ‘safe and secure’ (anzen anshin) food. This term, although ambiguous, is central to descriptions of Japanese consumers, and it is even more central to the relationship of organic farmers with their customers. For example, when talking about the people attending his rice planting events, one farmer remarked:
“What I feel is that they are interested in safe food. Especially families with small children. […] and then people who want to make their own food, like miso. Those two things. I think that normal people are not really interested in farming methods and techniques. Only if you use pesticides or not, [otherwise] they are not really interested.”
In many cases, farmers also felt that this sense of safety and security in consumers arose more from the personal connection with the farmer, rather than from a direct knowledge of the farmer’s organic production methods, especially in the case of geographically distant customers. In connection to this, many references were made about direct relationships, a theme that was articulated in two ways: consumers sharing the farmer’s values in relation to farming and/or lifestyle choices, or consumers being attracted by a farmer’s personality and individuality. The former can however have downsides, as farmers felt they needed to be skilled and personable communicators in order to ‘stand out’:
“I think that successful organic farmers have a connection with customers to whom they can sell at high prices. I can't do it. The reason is that this kind of successful farmer tends to have a very unique personality. From that point of view I am very ordinary, so for me it is relatively difficult to […] connect with customers directly”
This resonates with the previously discussed statements about the need to actively advertise one’s farm and what makes it ‘different’.
A second common theme was that of consumers seeing organic food as a status symbol charged with hedonistic values, exemplified by the desire for eating ‘rare’ vegetables, or vegetables with a superior taste compared to conventional produce. Statements belonging to this group were most commonly associated to descriptions of urban consumers, especially Tokyo-based ones.
In contrast, almost absent from farmers’ description of consumer motivations were environmental, ethical and sustainability related concerns. The need for a change in consumers’ mentality and increase in awareness was therefore frequently mentioned, especially in connection with the widespread perception that the average Japanese consumer’s attention is focused on the outward aspect of produce rather than on nutritional or environmental characteristics:
“With organic farming, producing things takes time and effort, and in addition to that, you also have to make it look good. It's hard. I think organic farming hasn't expanded that much because consumer values lean more towards the outside than the content."
Farmers appeared divided on the topic of whether there has been an increase in consumer awareness in relation to organic farming, but the majority espoused a pessimistic view, maintaining that public consciousness in this sense has not significantly increased, or that has increased only in major urban centers such as Tokyo, again emphasizing the center-periphery divide in consumer values and behaviors:
“I do not think that it's really increasing. Especially in Hiroshima Prefecture, the level of awareness of organic farming is still very low. When it comes to large urban areas, little by little you can hear many voices who want [organic products], but if you come in an area like this, […] that's something you hear very rarely."
To counter this, also in relation to the lack of concrete public policy measures in support of organic farming, farmers have been putting in place the strategies described in the previous sections, that often have the double purpose of advertising the farm and of creating new forms of connection and interaction between farmers and citizens. These in turn may contribute to spread awareness, even though many farmers do not perceive a significant increase in participation. In relation to the idea of organic farming as a social movement discussed previously, for example, one farmer commented:
“Through this connection [between producers and consumers], people can also think about environmental and agricultural issues, see these problems with their own eyes. Now consumers […] think these are problems that belong to faraway places, not to their own reality. I want this to become a society when people really do care about [those things]. […] Participation is decreasing. I want a ‘participating nation.’”
In many countries, forms of co-production between citizens and consumers in AFNs based on principles of food democracy are attracting a growing interest, especially in their role of empowering citizen-consumers and involving them in developing solutions food-related issues (Chiffoleau et al., 2019; Hassanein, 2003). In Japan, however, previously established systems rooted in food democracy appear to be on the decline. At the same time, however, organic farmers are reconfiguring their relationship with citizens in different ways, from more virtual forms of connection to face-to-face events that still retain some of the characteristics of teikei, to reconnections through farmers’ markets. The organization of not-for-profit farm events, in particular, plays an important role in farmers’ efforts towards educating citizens about agriculture and food, and shows some elements of co-creation and mutual help between farmers and citizens. In addition, the growing tendency of organic farmers to participate in farmers’ markets may become an important avenue reaching out to more ‘casual’ consumers and to introduce them to organic produce (Zollet & Maharjan, 2020).
As evidenced by farmers’ perception of consumer motivations, however, environmental or ethical considerations do not seem to be at the forefront of consumer interests in acquiring produce from small scale organic farmers, which raises a question mark about the perspectives for individual and collective action towards sustainability in food consumption in Japan. In light of these considerations, a more concerted public effort is likely necessary to re-orient food consumption towards a more sustainable direction. At the same time, a stronger coordination between organic farmer and consumer groups will also be necessary, rather than entrusting this task to the efforts of individual farmers and citizens.
This study was supported by the Hiroshima University TAOYAKA Program, funded by the Program for Leading Graduate Schools, of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of Japan.
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