A New Type of Small-Scale Farming in Japan: Case Study of Kenji Maeda’s Herb Farming

A New Type of Small-Scale Farming in Japan: Case Study of Kenji Maeda’s Herb Farming

Published: 2022.11.10
Accepted: 2022.11.07
14
Professor
Meiji Gakuin University

ABSTRACT

This paper describes a unique style of small-scale farming practiced by Kenji Maeda, a full-time herb farmer in Japan, who resides in a local town, but has customers all over the country. He believes that his customers should enjoy the process of growing herbs in their homes. Based on this idea, he supplies customers healthy herb saplings, and offers them tutoring services. Together, they utilize the power of the Internet to share the joy of growing herbs. He earns steady profits from his 600-square-meter farmland and has created jobs for five persons in his neighborhood. His business model thus presents a new concept for the future of the agriculture industry.

Keywords: Smart Agriculture, Website Design, Virtual Shop, Herb Saplings, Artificial Intelligence, Information and Communications Technologies

THE HISTORY OF HERBS IN JAPAN

Globally, an herb is defined as “a plant whose leaves, flowers, or seeds are used for flavoring food, in medicines, or for their pleasant smell.”[1] However, in Japan, the word “herb” is usually used in a narrower sense, referring only to exotic ingredients, such as basil, lavender, rosemary, and thyme. In this paper, the word herb refers to this narrow definition.

For years, herbs have been unfamiliar ingredients for an overwhelming majority of the Japanese. This changed in 1985 when Seiko Hirota pioneered in popularizing herbs in Japan. As the main instructor of a popular TV program called “Shumito Engei” (literally translated as “Hobby and Gardening”), she showed how to enjoy various types of herbs. She also wrote numerous articles and books on herbs. As a consequence of her efforts, herbs became widely recognized as new plants with an elegant appearance and a pleasing aroma. Now, herb saplings are popularly sold at home centers in Japan. The Japanese people enjoy growing them at home.

By focusing on herb farming, this paper studies how a new field of business opens in the Japanese agricultural sector.

INTRODUCTION TO KENJI MAEDA’S HERB SAPLING BUSINESS

Kenji Maeda, who lives in Matsue, a small town in a remote corner of Japan, presents a new form of farming. He believes that his customers should enjoy the process of growing herbs at home. Based on this idea, he supplies customers healthy herb saplings, and offers them tutoring services.

Maeda has a 600-square-meter farmland for growing herb saplings. In addition, he has a virtual shop named “Soramimi Herb Shop” on the Internet. Maeda receives orders for his saplings and provides tutoring through the shop’s website. The trade and communication between Maeda and his customers also take place mainly through the Internet.   

Currently, the annual sales of saplings from the shop exceed 20 million yen (one yen is nearly US$0.0075). Maeda employs four part-time workers (including a developmentally disabled person) and two full-time workers (including Maeda) in his business. Maeda’s herb farming can be seen as a successful case of herb farming business that is highly profitable and creates jobs for his neighbors. How did Maeda establish this farming style? What can we (businesspersons, politicians, and researchers) learn from Maeda’s case? By answering these questions, this paper seeks to explain a new concept for the future agricultural industry.

MAEDA’S TRIALS AND ERRORS UNTIL 2012

Kenji Maeda was born in 1969 in Matsue, a small town in western Japan, located in Shimane Prefecture. After graduation from a local high school, he entered Kobe University to study psychology. At Kobe University, Maeda was particularly interested in a psychological analysis of the healing effects of aroma. Therefore, he started growing herbs, which released a pleasant aroma in his small apartment. Because he had never grown herbs before, he read several books on horticulture. This piqued his curiosity in herbs, which overtook his interest in psychology. As a result, he decided to train himself to be an expert on herbs. For this purpose, he needed plenty of space to grow herbs. However, farm rents in Kobe were too high for Maeda to rent one. As Maeda’s family had a good network in the local community, Maeda was able to secure a sufficient acreage of leased farmland in Matsue. Thus, in 1991, he quit Kobe University, moved back to Matsue, and began to grow herbs on the leased farmland.

After he returned to Matsue, Maeda planned to open a shop to sell aroma products (including herb saplings). However, he did not have enough initial capital for the purpose. He gradually accumulated money by taking up various jobs, such as maintenance services at a nature park among others.

During the same period, he occasionally went to Yamanashi Prefecture to receive a professional training from Makoto Abe, one of Japan’s leading herb experts. This training significantly improved his herb farming skills and enriched his knowledge on herbs.  

In 1995, Maeda opened an aroma shop, named Soramimi Herb Shop (the literal translation of Soramimi is “air and ear”) in Matsue. There, Maeda sold different types of products related to herbs (such as accessories, ornaments, and tea leaves) as well as herb saplings. He married Michiko Araki in 1998 (who then changed her family name to Maeda). Michiko Maeda became the main salesclerk behind the counter at the shop.

Contrary to Kenji Maeda’s expectations, the business performance of the Soramimi Herb Shop was poor since the opening, producing almost zero profits. Maeda believed that Matsue—home to nearly 200,000 people—was too small to attract a sizeable number of customers to his shop. Therefore, in 2007, he launched a virtual shop section on the Soramimi Herb Shop website, targeting consumers all over Japan. However, the total website sales stood at less than 10,000 yen per year. The profit was still clearly too small for him to make a decent living for himself and his family. Therefore, he took up a variety of jobs, such as providing maintenance services at public parks. As such, his business did not perform well during this period. However, with experience in growing herbs at his leased farmland, Maeda gained confidence in his knowledge, skills, and expertise in growing herbs.

THE 2012 TURNING POINT

In 2012, Maeda attended a special training course for website designing, which consisted of 10 consecutive lessons (each lasting nearly five hours) organized by the Shimane Industrial Promotion Foundation (SIPF). The course instructor was Kanji Fukuhara, who ran his own website designing company. This was the first time Maeda received formal lessons on how to design a website to attract customers (before this, he had created the Soramimi Herb Shop website using his own knowledge).

Through this training, he became aware that the poor online sales of his business were attributable to two basic mistakes: first, he listed many types of products on the website that confused website visitors about the concept of the shop. Second, there were many obstacles in the process of purchasing products through the website.

Therefore, in the same year, applying the lessons learnt at the SIPF, Maeda had the entire website redesigned.[2] Simultaneously, he also converted the Soramimi Herb Shop into a purely virtual one, and dropped all products other than herb saplings from the product list[3].

This was the turning point of Maeda’s business; he began receiving an unprecedented number of orders for his herb saplings through the website. The number of orders continued to increase to nearly 6,000 in 2020. Nearly half of his present customers live in Tokyo and adjacent prefectures, where the population density is so high that many households do not have enough space for gardening (they are only able to grow plants in planters).

MAEDA’S CONCEPT OF HERB BUSINESS

Since herbs are relatively new to Japan, an overwhelming majority of Japanese people do not have sufficient knowledge on herbs. In addition, because many Japanese households have only a very limited living space, they prefer to grow decorative plants (including herbs) in planters in verandas (instead of gardens). As a result, the Japanese people's way of using herbs is often different from that of the North Americans and Europeans.

Let us consider the case of lavender. As the lavender blooms early in summer, people like to enjoy the fragrance of its flowers in their homes during the summer. Therefore, Japanese home centers sell the most lavender saplings in April. They are sold in disposable plastic cups in which they are displayed on the shelves in home centers, making it easy for customers to carry the saplings to their houses, after which they are planted in planters. However, it is inappropriate to transplant the saplings in April as they may become too weak to survive for a long period. Often, the transplanted saplings die within a month or two. Thus, although lavender is a perennial herb, it is often used as a short-term decoration item, much like a cut flower. Japanese horticulturists’ common practice for growing lavender is also different from that of the North American and European horticulturists. To use Japan’s limited acreage of farmland efficiently, many Japanese horticulturists seek to grow lavender in the shortest period possible. Therefore, they use several chemicals, fertilizers, and heat sources. Saplings grown in this way do not have a strong immunity. However, this is not a concern for many households, who purchase them only as a short-term decoration item.

Maeda’s ideas regarding how to enjoy lavender differ from this popular Japanese pattern. He sells his customers healthy herb saplings that have a strong immunity because he believes that his customers should keep these plants in their homes for a long period and enjoy the process of nurturing them. To do this, he collects lavender cuttings in April, and grows them into saplings for nearly eight months without any chemicals or pesticides. Then, he puts these saplings on sale on the shop’s website in November, which is considered the best month for transplanting lavender plants into planters[4]. Reflecting his confidence in the quality of the saplings, the price he sets is more than twice that of saplings sold at ordinary home centers.

ONLINE COMMUNICATION BETWEEN MAEDA AND HIS CUSTOMERS

The SIPF training he underwent in 2012 made Maeda understand the importance of the quality of website design. He is now diligent in improving and updating the Soramimi Herb Shop website from time to time.

Maeda is always happy to advise his customers on how to take care of herbs at home. He enjoys personally tutoring his customers. The Internet is a powerful tool for this purpose. By exchanging online videos, photos, and messages, Maeda and his customers share the joy of nurturing herbs.

Because herbs can be easily grown in planters, Maeda considers them to be the best option for the Japanese who wish to grow plants for the first time. Indeed, the majority of his customers are novices at growing not only herbs but also any other types of plants. Therefore, on his website, Maeda explains how to take meticulous care of herbs, using photos and videos efficiently.

He tries to build a personal relationship with his online customers. For example, he collects digital photos of herbs grown in his customers’ homes and uploads them for a photo contest section on the shop’s website. He also diligently provides updates about his farmland on the website.

Every day, Maeda receives nearly 20 requests for advice from his customers. After providing this advice, he often revises the contents of the Q&A section of the shop’s website to enrich it. This helps him attract new customers.

Maeda does not sell any agricultural commodities other than herb saplings. This is a quite rare farming style in Japan (it is difficult to find such a farmer as Maeda in Japan). In that sense, Maeda’s farming can be seen as a case of a successful niche strategy. The prices of Maeda’s herb saplings are much higher than those sold at home centers. However, Maeda’s customers are willing to pay high prices for Maeda’s saplings because they receive tutoring service from Maeda in growing herb saplings.

WORKFORCE AT MAEDA’S HERB FARM

Owing to an increase in customer orders for his herb saplings, Maeda is always busy nurturing the saplings, and communicating with his customers. He has now employed Takashi Nagami, an old friend, as a full-time worker to support his business. In addition, three of his older neighbors also work part time on his farm. With an aim to not only increase the workforce but also create jobs for the socially disadvantaged, Maeda has also employed a developmentally disabled person who receives support from a nonprofit organization in Matsue.

                                                                    

PROFITABILITY OF MAEDA’S BUSINESS

Table 1 shows the income and expenditures of Soramimi Herb Shop for 2016–2021[5]. The total area of his farmland is only 600 square meters. It is surprising that such a small farm generates more than 20 million yen in revenue. It should be noted that the COVID-19 pandemic created a stay-at-home demand for herb saplings. This is why the total sales increased sharply in 2020. It then follows that the sales declined a little between 2020 and 2021, when the pandemic slowly eased out (although Japan still had movement restrictions in 2021, they were less than those in 2020).  

The labor cost includes payments to employed laborers only (imputed cost for Kenji Maeda’s own labor is not included). As can be seen from the table, the packing and shipping costs constitute the largest portion of the total expenditure. This is because herb saplings are so delicate that special protective materials are necessary to ensure their safe delivery from Maeda’s farmland to customers’ homes.

An advantage of Kenji Maeda’s herb farming model is that he minimizes cash outflow by procuring various agricultural necessities himself. For example, he collects fowl droppings, and procures leaf mold compost from his neighbors at a low (or almost zero) price and prepares the fertilizers himself.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Usually, agriculture is defined as the activity of producing commodities for daily consumption (e.g., food items) and/or industrial use (e.g., cocoon and mat-rush). However, Kenji Maeda has created a new agricultural model based on the joy of growing plants. Most of his customers are beginners in terms of taking care of plants. Through his website, they purchase herb saplings from him, and receive tutoring from him on how to take care of them.

Today, the majority of people in developed countries like Japan are well clothed and fed. Thus, there is little room for a further increase in demand for commodities of daily and/or industrial use. However, those who are materially satisfied may want to discover a new, non-material type of joy. Kenji Maeda helps fulfill such desires.

Maeda has also developed a new type of smart agriculture. Smart agriculture is defined as the application of information and communications technology to agriculture. By contrast, in Maeda’s herb farming business, information and communications technology is effectively used as a tool to closely communicate with customers.

In the future, unmanned operations (perfect robotization of farming) will dominate global farmlands alongside advancements in the fields of artificial intelligence, and information and communications technologies. In such a scenario, food production will not be the task of farmers anymore.

Against this backdrop, nurturing plants at a household level may become an increasingly popular leisure activity. Should this happen, tutoring on how to grow plants can be a new business of farmers. If this does happen, Maeda will be viewed as a “pioneer” in this form of farming.


[1] Oxford University Press, Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, 10th edition, 2020.

[2] When Kenji Maeda decided to redesign the website, he did not have sufficient programming skills to do so. Initially, he considered hiring Fukuhara’s company for the job, but the estimated cost was nearly three million yen, which was too high for him. He discussed the difficult financial condition of the business with Fukuhara, who then generously offered to redesign only the core parts of the website for 0.3 million yen. Then, after redesigning the rest of the website himself, Maeda launched the new version of the website in 2012.

[3] The physical shop of the Soramimi Herb Shop was renamed ‘One Note,’ and converted into a boutique, which did not sell Maeda’s herb saplings anymore. Michiko Maeda continued to be the main salesclerk behind counter at One Note.

[4] If a customer prefers, he or she can ask Kenji Maeda to ship not only a sapling but also a planter and soil according to his or her transplanting convenience (in this case, he or she must pay an additional price). A customer can also buy Maeda’s herb saplings by going to his farmland directly, but such cases are rare.

[5] Maeda sometimes purchases saplings of new species of herbs from other herb shops and grows them into parent stocks. This is shown in ‘Purchase’ in Table 1.

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