Building a farm with a future in Japan
Something horrible has gone wrong with Japanese agriculture, but one organic farmer adapts virtually forgotten traditional practices ģ and sees hope for the future.

By Ray Epp
Naganuma, Hokkaido, Japan

Organic's the Way: Akiko Aratani, Ray Epp's wife, displays a happy zucchini at Menno Village farm in Hokaido, Japan

Editor’s NOTE

Ray Epp and Akiko Aratani, his wife, earlier organized CSAs in his native state of Nebraska and in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He studied sustainable agriculture at the Land Institute under the direction of Wes Jackson near Salina, KS.

Building a farm with a future in Japan will be something new in time but not necessarily new in substance.

"Organic food is not only for the wealthy. We want to make a way for all people to enjoy the benefits of good farming regardless of their means."

I would be a fool to think that I have something to teach an agriculture with a 4,000 year history. Permanent agriculture was born in this region of the world. But rapid development of the industrial economy has ravaged farmers and rural areas in Japan just as it has in other countries around the world. In addition, in the past few years Japanese consumers have had to contend with food poisoning outbreaks, the introduction of genetically engineered foods, and food companies placing false labels on their products. These events have shaken the confidence of consumers in the food system.

It seems to me that if farmers are being hurt by the present system, and if consumers are losing faith in the safety of their food, then something must be wrong.

The scale of the food system may be what is at fault. I have been an organic farmer for 8 years in Japan. At present, we grow food for 80 families. At Menno Village we are trying to create a way of farming that just makes sense. The land needs to be cared for and people need good, wholesome food. ThatÍs why we are rediscovering the traditional agriculture of JapanÍs past and linking together with city people who support our farm in exchange for food.

I need to make a living but not all of our families are of equal means. The solution? We use a sliding-fee scale depending a householdÍs ability to pay. Organic food is not only for the wealthy. We want to make a way for all people to enjoy the benefits of good farming regardless of their means.

To understand the farming practices and the social relations that we have with our members, it would be helpful to briefly look at the history of Japanese agriculture and what I feel was its central guiding principle.

Looking Back

Less than 100 years ago nearly 70 percent of the Japanese were farmers. They lived within walking distance of their fields. Farmers of this age were called "hakusho". A literal translation meaning: the grower of 100 things. Agriculture was about feeding the family. Leftovers, if there were any, were sold in the market or shared in the villages.

"At our farm we have redefined the meaning of family, changing it from blood connections to the people who support our farm."

Farmers produced a wide variety of crops because they understood the ideal conditions in which these various crops grew. They could fit each crop into complex planting schemes in their fields. There was another very practical reason: they did not want to starve. Farmers were an oppressed and economically exploited class of people. They were required to share a portion of their harvest with the ruling class based upon the amount of land they had. This amount did not vary in good years or lean. Permanent agriculture thus developed within the context of farmer exploitation without official support of the ruling authorities. It was a matter of survival.

The Central Guiding Principle
The "motainai spirit" (an ethic of "things are too precious to waste") strongly influenced the kind of agriculture that developed here. Since farms were small the focus was on how to increase the amount of production per unit of land area. As I see it, the "motainai spirit" applied to the farmerÍs use of time, space, and organic waste.

Traditional farming in Japan included the practice of relay cropping, i.e., growing more than one crop in a field at the same time and harvesting one while another is growing. An example of this is the interseeding of wheat and clover into the standing rice crop. After the rice is removed the wheat takes over. After the wheat is harvested the clover grows until the fields are flooded the following year for growing rice.

Background on the
Menno Village Farm

• 12 acres of cropland

• 80 member families account for 40% of farm income

• In addition to vegetables, they sell rice and eggs to members

• About 30% of the farm's income is mail order potatoes and squash

• Restaurants and farmer's markets account for about 10% of gross sales

Trellising methods were highly developed in traditional Japanese agriculture. Under high-fertility conditions heat-loving plants such as cucumbers, tomatoes, melons, and squash could be trained to occupy aerial space. Cooking greens (napa) -- plants that can occupy a cooler and less sunny environment -- could be planted beneath.

We have been incorporating this thinking in growing lettuce together with our broccoli. We transplant both out to the field at the same time. As the broccoli grows up it shades the lettuce for about one week before we harvest the lettuce. In this way we also save time in having to weed since the lettuce is occupying space that weeds would normally grow. After the lettuce is harvested the broccoli provides significant shading that weeding is not necessary until harvest.

We are also using this principle in growing our squash. We flatten rows of rye, which was planted the previous fall, to plant our squash plants in June. The planting time has been calculated so that we can harvest the rye in between the rows of squash before the vines get too long. Other benefits, such as wind protection and soil improvement, makes this practices a very important part of our farming operation.

Organic Waste
Maintaining the health of the soil was (and continues to be) the most important work of traditional farms in Japan. To this end all organic waste materials, including human waste, were composted and turned into food for the soil. Farmers also used grasses and leaf litter from the forests and cleaned out the silted soils in drainage ditches and retention ponds. It was hard work but this was the kind of work that was of necessity in order to feed the population on such a small land mass.

I have had a difficult time coming to terms with using human waste as fertilizer and we do not use it on our farm--at least not yet! We go to the forests, however, to collect small amounts of leaf litter to serve as an innoculant for our composting and use vegetables, grasses, chicken manure, straw, and "okara" from a local tofu maker to make compost.

We, like traditional farmers, are making charcoal out of rice hulls. The process involves smoldering the hulls in an oxygen starved steel drum during the wintertime. Protruding out of the drum on a 45 degree angle is a chimney. As the smoke slowly meanders up the chimney the moisture in the smoke condenses on the cold chimney wall and runs down the chimney into a bucket. This condensate is diluted with water and used to help prevent disease and as an insect repellent. It is free and locally available.

The rice-hull charcoal we use mostly in our chicken house to create a composting process in the bedding. When mixed together with raw rice hulls, chicken manure and bacteria from the forest it is possible to have the entire floor giving off heat even during the wintertime. This past winter I found the floor to be 78 degrees F. when outside it was only 15 degrees F. In addition to providing a comfortable environment for the chickens, the added benefits for me are that the chicken house does not smell and it makes excellent ready-to-use fertilizer. Farmers in Korea are also using these methods in raising pigs with the same results. The "no-smell hog barn!" Can it be so? Yes it can.

We also use a fermentation process to make a warm bed for our chicks. This works well enough that we do not need a heat lamp. About one week before the chicks arrive in late February -- while we still have almost three feet of snow outside -- I will mix together 70 pounds of rice bran, forest bacteria, and enough water that the bran will stick together when I squeeze it. I cover the mixture with paper bags to protect it from the sun.

After about five days it will heat up and it will give off a steady 90-95 degree F. temperature for about two weeks. So we donÍt need to use electricity for the chicks. There are many more details to raising chicks in this manner, but the principle is that fermentation can be used as a replacement for purchased inputs including energy, fertilizer, and controls for disease and insects.

We have also been spreading rice bran and cull soybeans in our rice field as a form of weed control. As these organic products break down in the water, bacteria multiply and eat the emerging weed sprouts. There is no need for toxic chemicals for weed control. This is just another example of how traditional farmers transformed farm "wastes" into something that benefits the farm through fermentation.

If this is the great tradition of Japanese agriculture, what happened to it? People may differ on what the root cause is. Is it technological change? Is it national farm policy? Is it the economic logic of efficiency and progress? Is it all of these working together? Whatever the cause, traditional agriculture and the wisdom gained over millennia in Japan has been virtually wiped from the memory of urbanized Japanese people of today. Farmers, and the culture at large, are losing the "motainai spirit" and in the void "kantan nogyo" (farming guided by the principle of efficiency) has taken its place.

Looking Forward

More than half of the Japanese farm population of 3.8 million is over 65 years of age. I believe that it is safe to say that most of these farmers will be either dead or significantly limited in their ability to grow food in the next 15-20 years.

The Japanese government has noticed the problem and so have Japanese companies and universities. One gets the impression that the universities and business are looking at this not as a grave cultural failure but as a marketing opportunity. Some companies, seeing the loss of farmers, are setting up operations in China and producing food for export to Japan.

"We share our food and the work that goes into caring for the land with a sense of satisfaction and hope in the midst of troubling times"

This is driving down the prices for produce even now as I write, forcing many farmers to reconsider their future in farming. Some are even being driven to suicide. Other companies are working together with the Universities, backed with government research money, of course, to work on developing roboticized bioproduction systems. At least they are honest enough not to call it agriculture.

Already about eight vegetable-harvesting machines have been developed. Okayama University is working to quantify farmersÍ decision-making process so that they will be able to develop artificial intelligence to run the agriculture of the future. In the name of efficiency, machines have been replacing people ever since the industrialization began. The changes being suggested now are reaching their absurd but logical conclusion.

Okayama engineers are contemplating a future agriculture of output without any units of human labor. Why? Because "we still have many risky, hard and monotonous works which are not suited for human beings." The absurd end in the search for "efficiency" is the end of agriculture. I cannot help but think these guys hate farming. It seems they cannot even contemplate the possibility that some people actually enjoy working on the farm and actually derive pleasure from it. Nor can they contemplate that city people would want to help maintain the traditional knowledge of Japanese agriculture by coming out to our farm and making it happen.

Taking a Stand
To build a farm with a future in Japan, one must connect the cultural traditions of the past and with knowledge of the forces at work that want to destroy agriculture. It is not that I desire to go back to "a golden age" in Japanese agriculture. Even if it were possible to go back in time, farmers were exploited and I do not desire that for myself.

What I do believe in is the traditional idea of growing food for "the family" At our farm we have redefined the meaning of family, changing it from blood connections to the people who support our farm. Our weekly delivery has included a newsletter that has been written nearly every week for the past 6 years. In it we share with people what we are learning about farming in Japan so that they too can share in the learning together with us.

It is becoming abundantly clear to me that government policies and business would welcome the demise of small farms like mine. When I contemplate the inhumane treatment that farmers have received in JapanÍs past and the non-human agriculture being proposed for the future I ask myself, "Who is chartering this course? And do people really want to go this way?"

Our "farm family" members are beginning to realize through our writings and through conversations around our table that something horrible has gone wrong in Japanese agriculture and the Japanese food system. It is a realization that is based on the experience of being on the farm and being challenged to see the world in new ways.

Not everyone is able to farm, but by becoming knowledgeable about farming and making the practical connections with real farms and farmers each individual can choose a better way. Together with our family members we are seeking to affirm the connection of people to the land. We share our food and the work that goes into caring for the land with a sense of satisfaction and hope in the midst of troubling times.