Masamichi Higa and his wife Sara are the owners of Higa Farm, where they grow organic vegetables that they deliver to their customers as set boxes every week. Organic farming is still something new and misunderstood in Japan, but the young couple is determined to change things. Read on to learn more about organic farming, what farming means in Japanese society, and the joys and challenges of being perceived as an outsider in the farming business.
Starting an Organic Farm in 2020
Most farms have one or two sorts of vegetables. We make more than a hundred!
When and why did you start your farm?
Masamichi: We started Higa Farm in April 2020. I was initially working for a company that produces vegetables. That company was using pesticides to produce large quantities. I tried to convince them to give organic farming a try, but it did not seem to be feasible. That is why I decided to become independent, and I am willing to prove that organic production can lead to good results.
On your website, you claim that you grow more than a hundred sorts of vegetables. Is this a standard number?
Masamichi: Usually, a farm will produce one vegetable, for example, cabbage, and grow it all year round. Most farms have one or two sorts of vegetables. We make more than a hundred! The reason is we work entirely differently.
When producing one vegetable in large quantities, it is not easy to sell all of them. Most of the revenues are made by selling to markets. In our case, we are producing many sorts of vegetables in smaller quantities. This way, it is easier to reach the consumers directly, so we send our products to our customers.
I was dreaming of making the products available in a place where I could see our customers’ faces.
Was this one of your objectives from the beginning?
Masamichi: Yes! Even when I was working in my previous company, I dreamed of making the products available in a place where I could see our customers’ faces. But it is tough to do that when working on a big scale, and you end up wholesaling.
Starting on a small scale allows us to contact our customers directly, and it is what we chose to do. We are trying to make our customers happy with various products, which is why we grow so many sorts.
What did you use to do before starting your farm? Did you have a lot of experience in growing vegetables?
Masamichi: I had about a year of experience in growing vegetables. I was going to an agricultural school once per week. I learned a lot there. I also followed the trend of the times: I learned a lot from YouTube videos!
Before that, I had been producing rice for 13 years.
Sara: After graduating from university, I worked for Hoshino Resorts. Later, I went to the Philippines and Canada to study. When I was in Canada, I realized how big the market for gluten-free products was. Masamichi, who was my fiancé at the time, was making rice. I had the idea to make rice flour since it is gluten-free. I was hoping to popularize it in Canada and build my own business. After coming back to Japan, I kept selling rice flour directly to families who have allergies.
Since my husband has decided to stop making rice and produce vegetables, I use the experience and the network I gained through my previous business under a new form. My job is 20% in the fields and 80% in our office.
Sara, what did you think when Masamichi decided to shift to grow vegetables?
Sara: I thought it was a good idea and I was very supportive of his decision. However, I felt responsible: the customers who bought our rice flour did it mainly because they knew my husband made that rice, and they trusted us. Luckily, they were very understanding. Now, I provide them with rice flour made from rice produced by my husband’s previous company. The product’s quality has remained the same, so everything is going well.
How Does Organic Farming Work?
Why are you attached to organic farming?
Masamichi: One of my main concerns was the direct exposure of farmers to pesticides. Also, in Japan, pesticides are mainly used as a preventive measure. I doubted if so much prevention was essential to grow vegetables.
Organic farming is all about using natural defenses to grow vegetables. The idea is to create an ideal environment, for example, good soil, so that the vegetables become more robust and have fewer chances of developing diseases.
It is rare, but sometimes we have to face meteorological perturbations. For example, this year, the rainy season lasted longer than usual. It could also be the opposite: very hot weather without a drop of rain. I believe that in such cases, there is no choice but to use a few chemical products to help. However, there has been no experiment done for this kind of use, so I would like to develop new growing techniques.
On our farm, we use agricultural techniques that increase the number of microorganisms.
On your website, you also talk about “getting help from microorganisms.” What does that mean?
Masamichi: An infinite number of microorganisms live in the air and the soil. Now, in Japan, the primary way of doing agriculture is to disinfect the ground by using pesticides, which also kill the microorganisms. The number of microorganisms in the soil decreases, and I think it prevents the vegetables from growing stronger.
On our farm, we use agricultural techniques that increase the number of microorganisms because they serve as a source of nutrition for the plants. They also regulate the water quantities in the soil. Thanks to them, we can get good soil to grow our products.
In modern agriculture, pesticides kill microorganisms, so to compensate, farmers use fertilizers to grow bigger products. The production is entirely industrial. I would instead use a more natural way of producing.
What do you do to increase the number of microorganisms?
Masamichi: The key is to feed them. By giving them what they like, they breed naturally. Microorganisms eat things smaller than them, for example, earthworm excrements. Creatures attract more creatures, and it turns into nutrient layers and creates good soil.
Organic Farming is Still Misunderstood in Japan
Neighboring farmers seem to have a negative perception of our fields.
What were your challenges so far in growing organic products?
Masamichi: Organic products are more subject to diseases or being eaten by insects. But it is possible to face these problems with the right techniques, for example, by increasing the number of microorganisms. However, creating good soil takes months and years. We have been working for only a few months, so I cannot say our soil is good yet. I am working every day on improving it.
We have had some crops eaten by insects. Still, we managed to deliver enough products to our customers because our production exceeded the demand. By improving our techniques, we will be able to produce more and have a more stable production.
Another challenge relates to other farmers. They use modern techniques and have immaculate fields. There are insects and weeds in diverse fields like ours, and from an outsider’s point of view, it does not look like it is well tended. So, neighboring farmers seem to have a negative perception of our fields. I talk a lot, so I manage to get people to understand what we are doing. But if the communication is weak, you can be the subject of gossip. It takes a lot of time to explain what we do.
So, Japanese farmers do not know much about organic farming yet? Is it very rare?
Masamichi: It is rare! Organic farmers are only a few. There is a lack of ambition, and many people give up the idea of organic farming before even trying. And even if you succeed in organic farming, it is hard to get recognition. People act as if we are transgressing rules [laughs].
Sara: What do you mean by that?
Masamichi: People do not complain to us directly, but I feel there is a kind of passive-aggressive ostracism. Neighbors come to tell us when insects or weed seeds from our fields have flown into their clean fields.
But the opposite is also true, is it not? Pesticides from neighboring fields can reach your organic field.
Masamichi: This may happen, but we would not be in a position to be able to complain because using pesticides is perceived as the standard way to do things.
The Joy of Providing Quality Products Without Pesticides
I would like to grow as many varieties of vegetables as possible locally and think about the nutritional balance as well.
Which joys of organic production have you been able to experience so far?
Masamichi: Since our fields are so diverse, we can witness a lot of things. For example, we can observe insects, their mating, or their being eaten: it is life! I am a very curious person, so every day, I am excited when I go into the fields, wondering what I will discover.
Sara: My job is mostly meeting the customers and giving them our products. We put the vegetables in boxes, and I bring them to the customers’ homes. Many times, the children of the families come to see the contents of the box. It makes me happy that they can touch our vegetables without worries, even when they still have soil on them because we do not use pesticides. The parents, too, seem to appreciate giving this experience to their children. From their interest in these vegetables, children get interested in their food. They can share this interest with the whole family. I am happy to witness these experiences that are born thanks to our organic vegetables.
Who had the idea to make vegetable set boxes for the customers?
Masamichi: A teacher from the agricultural classes I was taking last year was doing the same thing. I thought it was a good idea, even though he told me it was difficult. In a way, being told that it was difficult motivated me!
Masamichi: Also, I thought my meals would become richer by growing many different vegetables, instead of growing just cabbage and carrots. I also wanted to provide our customers richer meals by offering about 10 different vegetables per week.
Furthermore, in Japanese, we have a concept called “shindofuji.” It says that eating products from the area where you live will keep you in better health. The maximum distance should be where you can go and come back on the same day, on foot. It represents about 16 kilometers. By eating food produced in this range, you are supposed to be healthier. This is why I would like to grow as many varieties of vegetables as possible locally and think about the nutritional balance, too.
Sara: However, we send our vegetables all over Japan. We send them through refrigerated delivery between May and September, and via regular delivery the rest of the year. Some of our customers come directly to our farm to pick up their vegetables.
I have noticed that supermarkets and grocers do not sell vegetables that do not have a “perfect” shape in Japan. Do you also select the vegetables you put in your vegetables set based on their appearance?
Masamichi: No, we put all the vegetables that can be eaten. For example, we do sell cucumbers that are a little crooked [laughs].
Using the Fields to Teach Kids about Life
I also would like to teach kids that no life is useless in this world.
How do you find customers for your vegetable set?
Masamichi: Sara, that question is for you! [laughs]
Sara: [laughs] We find most of our customers by word of mouth. In the beginning, half of our customers had discovered us on social media. Then our customers started to introduce us to their mothers or their friends. We mainly only use social media for promotion.
We also offer cooking lessons via Zoom once per month, in collaboration with a cook. Our customers learn ways to cook the vegetables they receive in their sets. Some customers are concerned that they receive a lot of different vegetables, so we show them how to cook many dishes that can keep for several days. We try to provide the customers with new, original recipes that differ from classic Japanese home cooking recipes. They can be cooked easily with ingredients you can find at the supermarket.
We also organize one event per month, during which children are invited to sow seeds or harvest vegetables. We welcome small children—from kids who have just started walking to kids in their third or fourth primary school years.
What do you want to teach children the most?
Masamichi: I would like to tell them about what I call the three “T’s” of making food: tanoshisa [fun], taihensa [effort], and taisetsusa [importance].
I also would like to teach them that no life is useless in this world. For example, people tend to believe that insects are useless. However, insects play a role in this world, and I explain that to kids. For instance, caterpillars tend to eat cabbage. However, they prefer to eat weaker, slightly damaged leaves rather than healthy leaves. Then, what they eat is turned into excrements consumed by smaller creatures, whose excrements are also eaten by smaller creatures. In the end, the soil for the cabbage becomes better. So I explain to kids that the caterpillars are not useless, and that it helps the cabbage by eating its old leaves.
I hope this will make them understand that it is the same regarding human beings: no one is useless.
Sara: We think that if children get the idea that there is no such thing as a useless life early in their development, it will help them grow up. For example, if they get harassed at school and start resenting going to school, maybe they can keep a more positive view of things. Perhaps they will accept themselves as they are, whatever other kids around them say.
Masamichi: Everyone has a role to play in this world.
How did you get this idea to have kids come to your fields?
Masamichi: We got the idea by watching our kids. We have two kids ourselves. They are two and four years old. When they come to our fields, they look so happy. Well, sometimes they cry, too [laughs]. But generally, they seem to enjoy it so much that we wanted to share this experience with more people. It would have been unfair to keep this for ourselves.
Sara: When we watch kids in our fields, they look so happy. It looks so natural.
Changing the Negative Image of Farming
In Japan, many people have a bad image of farming.
What are the problems Japanese farmers currently face?
Masamichi: That is a difficult question. Farmers who live in Japan’s mountains do not face the same problems as the farmers who live near big cities. Regarding farmers in the countryside, one of their main issues is finding someone to take their succession [food writer Michiru Hasegawa also talked about this problem in this interview]. The farmer population is aging, and since you cannot make a lot of money from farming, few people want to do this job. There are more and more abandoned cultivated lands.
People like us, who live near big cities and near residential areas, are more interested in development than in production, so it seems like we are delaying this development.
And we share a positive image through social media. We are being authentic, and I think our customers view our job in a positive light.
Why do young people not want to take the succession of farms? Is it because it is a hard job?
Masamichi: In Japan, many people have a bad image of farming. They call it “the three K’s.” I think it is for kitanai [dirty], kitsui [hard], and kusai [stinky]. [Editor’s note: After research, some versions also include “dangerous” or “low revenues” as the third K].
Consequently, farmers themselves have developed a negative vision of their work. They think they are pathetic for working in this field. So they do not want their children to do that job.
I do not think the same way. The job is physically demanding, but you can see it as an exercise for your body. I think this negative image will change if people who see it differently come forward. I am working to change this image around me.
Sara: As you can see, my husband always looks happy [laughs], so people often tell us, “You seem to have so much fun!” or “Farming looks fun.” We do not look like we are dirty or suffering from this job. And we also share a positive image through social media. We are being authentic, and I think our customers view our job in a positive light.
I am shocked to hear that farming has such a bad image in Japan! The fact that farmers themselves end up having a negative view of their job is a big surprise.
Masamichi: I want to believe that things will change from now on. Social media can play a great role in this.
Including the Future Generations in the Equation
What are your objectives for the future?
Masamichi: I would like organic vegetables to represent 1% of all the vegetables in our city, Kitanagoya. It does not sound much, but the share of organic vegetables in Japan is currently between 0.4% and 0.6%. That is why I would like to reach 1% during the next five years.
In Kitanagoya, there are more than 80,000 inhabitants, which represents about 25,000 homes. So, if we reach 250 homes, it will make for 1% of the total share. This is my primary objective. And if things go well, I would like to aim for 10% in 10 years. At the same time, it would be great if organic vegetables could grow to be 1% of the total share in Aichi Prefecture.
I also have another objective. You may be familiar with the expression “give and take.” What I would like to do is “give, do, take.” What I mean is I would like to do something for the local community.
For example, last year, I learned about agriculture thanks to my teachers: that is “take.” Now, I am “doing” by growing my organic vegetables. Then I would like to teach the techniques to people around me, which would be “give.” I want to expand this concept under many forms and create a better society.
In our current society, I feel like we are concentrated on the “do” or the “take,” but we do not “give” much. I would like people to understand that giving is a form of happiness, too.
What you are saying reminds me of a previous interviewee we talked with, Yuki Watanabe, who was working at Sekai Hotel in Osaka at the time. The concept is that the whole town becomes the customer’s hotel, so it has a lot of positive influence on the local community. She introduced us to the Japanese concept of “sanpo yoshi” [three-way satisfaction].
Sara: Sanpo yoshi?
Masamichi: Instead of “win-win,” it is like “win-win-win” [laughs]. I have heard about it.
It means good for the businessperson, good for the customer, and also good for society.
Sara: It is a great concept!
Masamichi: [Thinks deeply for a few seconds] I think I just came up with the concept of ”yonpo yoshi” [four-way satisfaction]!
Masamichi: The businessperson, the customer, the current society… and the people in the future! I had been thinking about a more four-dimensional way to do things, to integrate time in the equation.
Masamichi: If we keep sustainability in mind, the concept will become “yonpo yoshi.”
What a fantastic concept!
Sara: Thank you for bringing sanpo yoshi to the table.
A Philosophy of Organic Farming
I was surprised many times during this interview with Masamichi and Sara. I knew that organic farming was not a big thing in Japan. Still, I did not realize that most people, even farmers, did not know much about it and even perceived it negatively. The same goes for the negative perception of farming in general. In my home country, France, young people try to avoid farming as an occupation, too, but mainly because it has become tough to make a living from it, even though you must work 365 days a year. I was a bit shocked to learn that farmers are still perceived as dirty people in Japan, although their work is what allows us to eat every day.
However, I am admiring Masamichi and Sara’s ambition and motivation in the face of such challenges. Indeed, being in direct contact with nature and growing food, being close to what is essential for life, has undoubtedly given them a different philosophy in life. Maybe it is another face of the famous Japanese resilience. Still, it is inspiring to see them reaching and educating people, neighbors, and kids about the realities and joys of organic farming. Changing the perceptions about agriculture and the consumers’ habits in Japan will, for sure, be a very long and hard work. But something tells me the joyful Masamichi and Sara will get there. One seed at a time.