By Ray Epp
Building a farm with a future in Japan will be something new in time but not necessarily new in substance.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
|All material ©2002, The Rodale Institute™|