The Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives, more commonly known by the acronym JA (for Japan Agriculture), or the Japanese abbreviation Nokyo, has, in one form or another, controlled the finances and structure of the country’s farm sector since the early 1950s. That means not only does JA help keep prices high so that farmers can make a living, but provides farm families with everything they need to make that living, from loans to sales of equipment, supplies and fertilizer. It even sells insurance and does banking, under an exception granted by the central government. As with any semi-public organization that has a given field to itself, JA’s operations have become sclerotic over the years. In 2008, the agricultural ministry conducted a survey of farmers. When asked where they bought their fertilizer, 70 percent answered “JA,” but 80 percent of these farmers also answered that they were “dissatisfied” with the cooperative’s prices.
JA is famous for using a lot of middlemen in their sales channels, which invariably drives up the prices of everything they sell. In addition, various handling fees and distribution costs make the prices even higher. In a recent Asahi Shimbun article a professor at the Tokyo University of Agriculture said that with the recession and the possibility of more imports coming into the Japanese market, farmers have become extra sensitive about costs and as a result are beginning to wonder if JA is really looking after their interests properly. Some have already started leaving the cooperative.
But where to go? According to the agricultural ministry survey, only 2.5 percent of farmers were buying their fertilizer from so-called home centers in 2008, but that portion has likely gone up considerably since then. Home centers, called home improvement centers in the U.S., are large retail outlets that sell everything for the home, but mainly supplies that homeowners need for things like repairs or renovations, as well as gardening and landscaping. The Japan DIY (Do-It-Yourself) Association reports that there were 4,310 home centers in Japan in 2011, double the number that existed in 1990. The home center chain with the most outlets is Komeri, who own more than a thousand. And while home center sales have mostly been stagnant since 2005 owing to the growth of other retail models, mainly drug stores, Komeri is also growing. The chain says it plans to double its present number of stores in 10 years’ time.