Japanese farmers brace for big change in beef, citrus markets. Stiffer competition will spur revolution in farm practices
Amid a chorus of voices ranging from anger to despair over the United States-Japan beef and oranges agreement, the common element here is the emphasis on efficiency. ``Delicious, cheap, safe beef - that's what we have got to produce,'' says a farmer in Kagoshima, a center of Japan's livestock industry.
``We have got to develop new varieties of oranges,'' says an orange grower on the sunny island of Shikoku.
What these farmers are calling for is a kind of agricultural revolution, no less significant than the postwar land reform that turned hardscrabble tenants into landowners with a stake in their own future. What is needed now, Western analysts say, is for farm plots averaging 3 to 5 acres to be enlarged to at least 50 to 100 acres. This would allow farmers to realize the economies of scale that would enable them to compete with imports.
Largely because of the small size of Japanese farms, domestic beef costs four times as much as US beef. Even with tariffs at 70 percent (95 percent in emergencies), US beef, when freed of import restrictions in three years time, will cost about 25 percent less than Japanese beef, analysts say.
With oranges, the story is a bit different. American oranges do not clash head-on with Japanese mikan, or tangerines. But the expectation is that as imported oranges become cheaper, more and more customers will desert the somewhat bland domestic tangerine for the full-bodied flavor of American oranges.
Given the proven efficiency of American producers, should the Japanese raising cattle at all?
Koichi Abe, who owns 64 head of dairy cattle and 45 acres of grasslands in Fukushima, north of Tokyo, says that so far he has made a good living. Unlike US dairy farmers, a large part of his profits comes from selling bull calves from his milk-producing Holsteins. But with both milk and beef prices declining, he is not at all sure he wants his son to follow in his footsteps.
Koichi Kato, a legislator from a rural prefecture, has tried to make renting land easier for full-time farmers. He says that the ideal would be to have one full-time, mechanized farmer renting plots from owners of small plots who do not want to let their land go, but who lack time and resources to do much cultivating.
In any case, the era of protecting domestic agriculture by quota restrictions and high tariffs is nearly over, even farmers agree. Tsutomu Sameshima, a cattleman in Kagoshima, says he just wants time to adjust, to make his 55-cow operation more efficient. He blames the government for not offering a comprehensive blueprint of future agricultural policies.
One important consequence of the US-Japanese agreement is that the Livestock Industry Promotion Council will be phased out of the business of dealing with beef imports. US sellers will be able to contact Japanese buyers directly, bypassing the LIPC's cumbersome bureaucracy and substantially reducing prices for the consumer. The Agriculture and Fisheries Ministry will also lose its control over beef imports.