By 10am the bamboo framed tents are up and customers already appearing from every direction to peruse the tables underneath. A young man with dreadlocks and a sweater-clad cat on his shoulder talks with a farmer about heirloom grains. At another table, a vendor offers a sample of her organic strawberry jam to a woman in a flower print turtleneck and quilted vest. By noon, some sellers will be sold out, and the bright green fronds of daikon will bob in the bags of shoppers, each contemplating a bite to eat or a coffee from one of the food trucks on hand.
This is the Earth Day Farmers Market, the heart of organic and fair-trade in Tokyo. Held once a month in a section of Yoyogi Park called The Elms, the market runs year-round, rain or shine. It’s almost impossible to imagine that this now bustling market started in 2006 with a mere six vendors driven by the hope that shoppers would be intrigued by a western-style market. The goal was simple: “We wanted to create a place where organic farmers could find customers,” said Hiroshi Tomiyama, market manager.
Today, the market boasts between 50-60 regular sellers with another 60 or so rotating in seasonally. Tables groan with fresh citrus, homemade bread, hearty greens, and traditional root crops. Big bags of rice and grains, stone ground flours and preserves of all types round out the selection, along with a handful of artisans offering an array of ceramics and handicrafts.
Nearly all of the vendors come from small, family-run operations, and many do much of the work by hand using traditional methods. A number of growers and producers are just starting out, making the transition from other jobs and careers. Many have been in business for less than ten years.
Organic farmers make up less than 1 percent of Japan’s farming community, and many work on their own and not with Japan Agriculture (JA), the country’s main agricultural organization. That means marketing, supplies, and networking can be challenging. “The first years of farming can be very unstable. By coming here the farmer can begin establishing a customer base that will help them become successful,” said Tomiyama.
Tomohito and Nagisa Minowa of Minowa Farms began bringing their organic rice to the market about five years ago. Initially, they joined for marketing purposes, but at the market they also found a community. “We get to meet people,” said Nagisa, “but I don’t just mean customers. We also get to meet other producers, people from abroad, people who host different kinds of events, restaurant owners and chefs. Anybody interested in farming or organic food.”
And there are plenty of customers. Tomiyama estimates that on average 10,000 people visit the market on any given day (a figure based on vendor sales) eager to purchase organic and fair-trade products that can be difficult to find elsewhere, and at a reasonable price. Talking to the farmer results in learning not just how something is grown, but also a new recipe for their favorite fruit or vegetable and even an invitation to visit their farm. The resulting relationship deepens the customer’s appreciation for the work required to bring food to the table or put tea in the cup, and at the same time gives the farmer a boost in morale.
“I love the people who are involved,” said Nagisa Minowa. “You can just feel that they really love what they are doing and that they are proud of it. You can really see the producers’ hearts through their products.”
The next Earth Day Market will be held on Jan 31, 10am-4pm. Yoyogi Park, Shibuya-ku. Nearest station: Harajuku. www.earthdaymarket.com