Consumer Groups: Links between Producers and Consumers

Kana does not worry about growing market competition but follows her ideals to resist the rule of market relationships. In fact, she refused the offer of a local restaurant to buy her vegetables because it demanded a certain amount at certain times and was not willing to respect what the farmer, the land, and the climate could produce. Likewise she does not sell in government-built and farmer-run direct-sale stores (chokubaisho) because the produce is mostly conventional and cheap. She looks down her nose at “eco-farmers” who have promised the government that they would halve the amount of agrochemicals that they use and who often sell in supermarkets.

Kana prefers the consumer groups (teikei), with their ideal of face-to-face relationships based on trust and has developed such a group with people who live in the towns near her farm. Her consumers promise to buy a “set box” of vegetables every week throughout the year for ¥2,000 per box ($20 or so, depending on the exchange rate). They agree to accept the vegetables that Kana Can produce in cooperation with the local land and weather, instead of eating and cooking according to their own desires via global food bought at the grocery stores. Ideally the consumers pay the farmer at the beginning of the season, but in Kana's case, this effort has not succeeded, and she has to collect money by the month.

Kana bewailed the fact that the consumers in her group were mainly in it for food safety and security (anzen, antei). Women make up most of the consumers now and in the past, but younger women are less willing to be active members. In contrast, older consumers of the group who have long bought food from the northeastern couple mentioned above have held study meetings where they consider Japan's agricultural policies, health effects of pollution, and Japan's military and trade relationships with the United states. Consumers have helped the farmers by meeting and dividing the produce into boxes at a consumer's home. Now young women are not so interested in these broader political considerations, and they are too busy to do anything but receive the box sets at their doors.

When i went with Kana on her deliveries one Friday evening, she could not talk to about half of her consumers because many were either not home or did not come to the door. At those houses, she just left the box (filled with veggies such as Chinese cabbage, pumpkin quarters, and broccoli) on the dark porch. Sometimes she slid the box into the front hall with a shout into the house and got an answering “thank you.” When women did come to the door, Kana talked about the vegetables, the weather, and the children of the household and only then ventured into her political concerns about nuclear energy.

Going down the front steps of a consumer's house, she said, “i can learn about child rearing from my customers, and they can learn from me.” She laughed merrily. “My parents want grandchildren, especially my father. My mother doesn't want to be a grandmother so much. But my sister lives close and she is married. No children yet!” After she started up the truck, she commented more seriously, “i am in no hurry to marry. It would have to be the right one who liked this kind of life.”

Kana said that the women in her group were mostly concerned about the health of their children. At one house Kana talked for fifteen minutes across the threshold to a woman in her forties who had asked her to speak to a group of mothers on shokuiku, or (literally) food education. This topic included not only ideas about healthy food but also historical ethical notions about how children would grow up more grateful, empathetic, and cooperative if they have a deeper relationship with their food. Kana was more than glad to oblige. It was not where she had started on her personal search for an alternative to wasteful consumption and production, but she wanted children to know about how their vegetables grew and how delicious they could be if grown organically and eaten fresh. She told of the delight of one mother among her consumers who said that even her high-school-age son had noticed the delicious taste of Kana's vegetables. “the vegetables speak for themselves,” said Kana with a satisfied smile.

“i have realized that my consumers have to become my fans and the fans of my vegetables. I wish they would develop a feeling of affectionate attachment [aichaku] with the land where these vegetables are growing and come help, but most are too busy.” However, that Friday evening one particularly devoted middle-aged woman invited us to sit on the step in her front hall and brought out a notebook containing all the newsletters Kana had ever written to show to me!

Organic farmers with whom i talked developed consumer groups in a variety of ways: from friends, past co-workers, relatives and their contacts, mothers at a kindergarten, church members, children of older members, and people concerned about health. The ideal is that members are local, but nearby rural people supply their own food and do not want to join, so organic farmers need to find people in cities or towns. In several cases, farmers drove their vegetable boxes several hours to consumers in tokyo or sent boxes half the length of Honshu. In this case, emphasis is on “organic,” and “local” expands to mean Japanese as opposed to imported food.

An organic farmer in nagano, the central mountainous part of Japan, expanded the notion of building links through her consumer group, trying to build the value of human relations over market relations in Japan. Though she lived three hours from tokyo, she had traveled there for over ten years every other week to deliver her boxes to her consumers, sending the boxes by refrigerated overnight delivery the other weeks. In addition to her tokyo consumers, she was devoted to developing links (tsunagari) with a broad range of folks who visited her big farmhouse throughout the year: a disabled group from tokyo, university students on field trips, high school students, and yearlong interns who boarded with her as they learned organic farming. A former teacher, her mission was to improve the values of selfish, materialistic Japanese and engender values of gratefulness and empathy through contact with the land, the food the visitors had helped to produce, and the people with whom they worked.

An organic farmer on the outskirts of a regional city in the northeast comBined contemporary globalized interests with his consumer group, building common interests more than deep relationships. Finding little meaning in his job as a salaryman in a large city and following his interests in hiking and gardening, he had left his company job and moved to his wife's natal home. He appealed to his consumers with weekly recipes and beautiful pictures of the italian, Chinese, and thai dishes that he made with the vegetables that he grew and delivered to them, and he even opened a small reservations-only restaurant to share his cleverly cooked vegetables. He got together with his consumers to make miso (fermented soybean paste) or nattō (fermented soybeans) in the spirit of Japanese cuisine as one more exotic world cuisine. Thus he combined a turn to an older way of farming with contemporary interests in globalized cuisine.

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