When Wisconsin Farmers Union President Darin Von Ruden recently traveled to Japan for the World Farmers Organization it was an eye-opening experience.
Von Ruden, along with others from the National Farmers Union board, attended the conference in Niigata, a city on the west coast of Japan, where they arrived just in time for the blossoming of the cherry trees - a special sight there as it is in Washington, DC.
The delegation was there for a conference to bring together farmers, organizations and agricultural cooperatives from all over the world, representing the community of farmers.
The mission of the World Farmers Organization is to contribute to global food security by helping to improve the position of farmers around the world.
The president of the WFO is Robert Carlson, former president of the North Dakota Farmers Union. His wife is Sue (Beitlich) Carlson, the former president of Wisconsin Farmers Union.
She spoke at the conference, Von Ruden said, about how two-thirds of the farming work worldwide is done by women and youth while only 2 percent of the land is owned by women.
In many cultures the women and children are given the task of actually doing the work while the men go to town and take care of business activities, he explained.
"We also heard from Robert Carlson that there are 219,000 more people in the world every day, so food security is a growing issue," Von Ruden said.
With attendance something like the United Nations, delegates listened to translations of speakers from Cambodia, Thailand, Belgium and India.
"We heard that the European Union is starting to look at more government investment in food and nutrition security and environmental sustainability."
There are a lot of investments being made in sub-Saharan Africa, he said, but in many places farmers are being impacted by climate change and it is affecting the food they can produce.
Having enough beginning farmers is a challenge in this country, but is also an issue around the world. "We need to address this on a worldwide basis. In countries where there is a quota system, that quota is becoming very expensive and that makes it difficult for new farmers to get into it."
Fifty countries are involved in the WFO and 23 were represented at the conference. Von Ruden said Farmers Union has been involved because the two organizations share many of the same goals.
The delegates discussed the Trans-Pacific Partnership and concluded that such trade agreements should not distort farmers' prices and should offer farmers price they need to get in order to be profitable.
The WFO delegates also talked about Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) for food. "I always say that when you take a kid to McDonalds you know where the toy is made, but you don't know where the food comes from."
Some delegates voiced concerns for their regions about smog and deforestation and the loss of productive land even in the face of growing populations, he said.
Von Ruden sat down last week with reporters in Madison to talk about his impressions of the trip to Japan.
While in Niigata, the delegation, which also included JoAnn Von Ruden, Darin's wife, had a chance to sample the "culture of agriculture" in Japan.
He found that the Japanese people seem to be very concerned that the land should be held by farmers and there should be many farmers. "They have national laws to help ensure that their own people will be producing the food for Japan."
The Von Rudens got to tour a business that sells and services rice planting machines - small vehicles that gently place rice plants into the wet soil of rice fields.
They visited a large plantation owned by the Itoh family (relatives of the California judge who presided over the O.J. Simpson trial) where they saw the typically small fields of rice.
There are 60 employees on the plantation and they are treated like family, eating all three meals each day at the 260-hectar farm.
Though some fields were larger at the plantation, most Japanese rice fields are an acre or less in size, he said.
In local food markets they saw live octopus and crab being sold. They toured greenhouses that produce cucumbers and strawberries for local consumption.
At a rice-processing facility they saw 50-pound bags that are shipped in from farms being opened so the rice inside could be sorted by size and color, then re-packaged in different sized containers for its intended use.
Von Ruden was Wisconsin's only delegate to the WFO and it was his first time attending one of the conferences. This is only the third time the conclave of international farmers has gotten together.
The first was in South Africa and last year's event was in Rome. "We are trying to stay focused on farmers' needs. That's our first priority and one of the reasons National Farmers Union got involved.
"We believe farmers are the backbone of a country and we believe farmers need to produce food on their own land. That is one of the main emphasis points of this organization - the right to ownership and sustainable production."
The WFO is a successor organization to the International Federation of Agricultural Producers, he explained, a group that had most of its funding coming from one source. When that source fell away, the organization had trouble continuing.
Von Ruden said some of the leaders of that former group helped form the nucleus of the WFO three years ago and they have avoided the pitfall of the single-funding source.
In addition to sponsorships from involved organizations, the WFO has some of its own income-producing enterprises.
The former IFAP was a group that grew out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) after World War II and focused on some of the major issues of food security in places like North Africa.
The organization was liquidated by the French Tribunal de Grande Instance in late 2010 after an economic and political crisis.
Founded in 1946 to advocate for farmers' interests at the international level, IFAP had represented over 600 million farm families grouped in 120 national organizations in 79 countries. It was a global network in which farmers from industrialized and developing countries exchanged concerns and set common priorities.