TSU, Japan -- As birds chirp in the soft morning sun, a dozen high school girls wearing baggy, indigo trousers plant onions. Boys harvest spinach in a nearby greenhouse.

The farm is the centerpiece of the Yamagishi-ism Society, a fast-growing community whose followers share their harvests, renounce all personal possessions and claim to strive for the common goals of friendship and harmony.But the rapid growth of the society is generating very little harmony outside its membership. Instead, it's renewing concerns about the popularity of cults, just a few years after cult-led nerve gas attack on Tokyo's subways.

The society has 35,000 members in Japan, 5,000 of whom live on 40 communes spread throughout the country. The group also has communities in Brazil, Switzerland, Germany, the United States, Thailand, Australia and South Korea.

Miyozo Yamagishi, a chicken farmer, established the society in 1952 with the aim of creating a rural utopia. The group strongly denies being a cult and does not profess any specific religious beliefs.

"We are like a big family," Yamagishi spokesman Yoshiaki Hori said.

Yamagishi is not new. It has long been a well-known name in Japan because its dairy products and vegetables are sold widely from the back of vans or in the food section at upscale department stores. Yamagishi's annual sales total nearly $170 million.

But a series of former followers have come forth recently saying the utopian image the group tries to cultivate is a sham.

They say members are tightly controlled and forced into a life of secrecy, subservience and often abuse.

Followers must leave their family, donate all their savings, real estate and other assets to the commune to earn full-fledged membership. Children age five or older are separated from their parents and live in dorms, where they sleep two-to-a-bed. Half of the members living on communes are children.

After nine years of education at public schools, most are assigned to tend fields or raise cattle on a commune. Boys and girls are strictly separated.

No one is paid for their work, and everything in the commune is free.

In March, a group of lawyers said they had found evidence that some 30 children living at a commune in Hiroshima were abused.

The children were sent to work in the fields without breakfast before going to school and constantly complained of hunger during class, Hiroshima Bar Association Chairman Hiroshi Kurata said.

Some teachers at their school allegedly saw the children chewing fish bait and rubber bands.

Yamagishi denied all allegations.