A visit to the home of Teikei
CSA and the Japanese Organic Agriculture Association

By Elizabeth Henderson
[Originally published in The Community Farm: A Voice for Community Supported Agriculture]

Much to my surprise, at the IFOAM conference in Victoria, I found myself surrounded by a group from the Japanese Organic Agriculture Association. They wanted me to come to Japan to talk about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) for training in alternative marketing they were organizing for farmers from other parts of Asia. They made me an offer I could not refuse: a 10-day expenses-paid trip to Japan to give presentations on CSA, visit farms and meet with Teikei (the Japanese version of CSA) farmers and members. I felt deeply honored by their invitation.

First a little background. Once mainly self-sufficient in food, in 2001 Japan imported 72 percent of its grains and 60 percent of its food calories. Yet there are still over 3 million farms with an average size of only a few acres. The Japanese measure farmland in increments of one-tenth of a hectare (one hectare equals about 2.5 acres). The number of farmers is falling, and most that remain over age 65. Japanese traditions have slowed the exodus from the land. Although violated in some instances, Japanese law prohibits development on prime farmland. Furthermore, rural people consider it deeply shameful to sell the land they inherited from their ancestors.

In 1971, a group of women who wanted chemical-free food joined with agricultural researchers and farmers to form the Japanese Organic Agriculture Association (JOAA). Sawako Ariyoshi, the Japanese Rachel Carson, had alerted them to the dangers of the chemicals used in agriculture. Within a few years, the Kobe consumer group grew to 1,300 members who were willing to help with the farm work and distribution of the food. The history of JOAA and Teikei are closely intertwined. For most of its existence, JOAA has opposed organic certification and government involvement, advocating local self-sufficiency and farmer-consumer cooperation and trust. Only recently, JOAA has come to the reluctant realization that the government’s organic program forces farmers who want to sell through stores to certify and that JOAA has a role to play in insisting that the government’s standards are appropriate and its procedures are fair. Sounds familiar?

The Hayashi Farm

After my arrival, the first farm I toured was that of Shiganori Hayashi. He inherited the 2-hectare farm from his father, a conventional but innovative farmer. On their land, they have found 2,000-years-old human artifacts. Shiganori was unhappy with his father’s use of chemicals, so he spent a year studying organic farming with Yoshinori Kaneko (one of the pioneers of Teikei) and converted to organic in 1980. His methods sounded very familiar — building healthy soils by using compost and crop rotations and relying on crop diversity for risk management and pest control. In addition to growing 70 to 80 different types of vegetables, the Hayashi Farm also raises 150 chickens, processes miso and pickles, and has storage facilities for root crops. For pest control, Shiganori uses a milk spray against aphids (whole milk or diluted 1 to 3 in water), garlic spray, loquat seed tea and bug juice (unfortunately, I did not get all the details). He has the most problems with tomatoes, which are not well adapted to Japanese conditions.

At the time of my visit in late November, I saw growing a variety of greens (mizuna, komatsuna, bok choi, lettuce, Chinese cabbage, spinach), carrots, green onions, daikon radishes, burdock, broccoli and cauliflower. This mix of crops was typical of the Teikei farms I visited. Black soybeans and adzuki beans were still in the field drying in their pods. Onions, potatoes, seed potatoes, sweet potatoes, taro and ginger were in the storehouse. Rice from the farm paddy had been hulled and bagged. Seedlings of snow peas and wheat were just breaking through the ground. The same series of hoops and netting that had trellised cucumbers would support the peas.

Shiganori, his dad and three trainees were setting out onion plants. I was impressed to learn that salaries for the trainees came from the local government; if these apprentices did not go into farming, they would have to pay this money back.

The Hayashi Farm supplies vegetables, rice, dried beans, wheat berries, processed foods and eggs to 60 households in the local prefecture (county) once a week throughout the year and also sells to a few restaurants. Three times a week, the farmers drive their small flatbed truck to deliver directly to members’ homes. Most members pay monthly and place orders for the mix of products they want. The pricing is by item or by box size. The farm does not wash or grade the vegetables. Once a month, a farm newsletter accompanies the produce. Twice a year, members visit the farm for a tour, a meal and discussions about farming. Recruiting is by word of mouth, though good news coverage by the local press helps.

Ten principles of Teike

Our main activity the next day was a public seminar on alternative marketing. I opened the session with a 2-hour slide presentation on Community Supported Agriculture in North America. The questions from the audience on this occasion were echoed at each of the talks I gave: Why do consumers join CSAs? How do you recruit new members? Are there self-sufficient (by which I understood subsistence) farmers in the United States? Are CSA farmers new farmers or farmers who have transitioned from conventional farming

The next day in Kobe, I gave another talk on CSA to an audience made up of Teikei members, students and farmers. In attendance was a middle-aged farmer named Ozaki-Ray, one of the originators of Teikei. He told me he is reducing the size of his vegetable patch to about 1 acre to demonstrate that a farmer can make a living on that amount of land. He was surprised at the number of members participating in my CSA and said that it reminded him of the early days of Teikei. The sober seminar was followed by an elaborate and animated dinner, at which I failed my first trial by raw fish.

Two of Shinji’s interns gave us a ride to his farm house in the village of Ichijima. Formerly a produce manager for a consumer co-op, Shinji took courses in environmental studies with Professor Shigeru Yasuda, one of the leading spirits of the Japanese organic movement and author of Ten Principles of Teikei. This was his inspiration to try farming. Fifteen years ago, he moved to the village, where he took over a Teikei group from a farmer who was retiring. In its early years in the ’70s, this Teikei had numbered as many as 1,300 families. After splits and attrition, the numbers dropped to 300 families, and has remained stable for 20 years.

From my own experience in rural North America, I was not surprised to hear that, for a newcomer, gaining acceptance in a small Japanese village takes time and patience. The cooperative nature of village life provides some opportunities: Every household must contribute one day a month to local public works, fire control, road, ditch and irrigation-system maintenance.

The pefecture pays the salaries of Shinji’s interns on condition that they farm in the area. Their pay is 150,000 yen (about $1,200) a month for up to three years. The local government also subsidized the construction of Shinji’s greenhouse and provides compost at a reasonable price from its composting factory, where rice hulls from the local sake plant and coffee bean hulls from a local processor are combined with cow manure.

Influenced by the teachings of Masanobu Fukuoka, Shinji does no soil testing and no active pest control. He fertilizes with compost that he makes from rice bran, chicken manure, oilseed cake, oyster shells, molasses, ‘Effective Microorganisms’ and water. He mixes these ingredients in a vat, and then stores it in paper sacks for two to three weeks to ferment.

Together with five other farmers, Shinji belongs to the Ichijima Organic Agriculture Association, which sells all of his produce directly to four consumer groups with a total of 300 member households. Each group has a slightly different share system. One group prefers to have a specific farmer responsible for supplying a group of members. Every few years, the farmers rotate. For this group, the relationship with the farmer is more important than the contents of the box. Another group has a paid coordinator and buys from other farmers as well. For three of the groups, all six farmers contribute to the weekly share. Twice a year, farmers and consumers get together and negotiate prices for each item. The farmers then juggle combinations of vegetables to reach the agreed-upon weekly value. Shinji showed me their remarkably complex paperwork and admitted that the three older farmers prefer to pay the three younger farmers to handle the math. All six farmers pay a fee to the association to cover co-op expenses, truck repairs, warehouse fees, containers, etc. On the consumer end, each group has an elected board. The members take responsibility for different areas: accounting, distribution, newsletter, meat, purchases of processed foods, and an anti-GMO project.

Hyakusho, "100 jobs"

The archaic Japanese word for farmer, “hyakusho,” combining the characters for “100” and “jobs”, applies particularly well to Yoshinori and Tomoko Kaneko, so many activities are going on at their farm. They have 2 cows, 200 chickens, 15 ducks who weed their 3 acres of rice, 40 or so different vegetables, shiitake mushrooms, a hoop house devoted to strawberries, fruit trees, bamboo, wheat, barley, and soy beans, which they process into miso and soy sauce. As on the other farms I visited, the chickens do not leave their coops. The Kanekos feed them ground barley, rice and wheat waste to avoid using imported corn. They produce compost from tree prunings, cow manure and food wastes and make charcoaled rice-hull and bamboo fertilizer. The cow manure also fuels their biogas digester, which produces enough methane to cook much of their food. Cow manure slurry, a byproduct of the methane production, also serves as fertilizer. A solar collector provides electricity to run a pump. To fuel their Kubota tractor, they use biodiesel made from waste vegetable oil. This farm is an outstanding demonstration of self-sufficient, resource-conserving organic farming.

In 1971, Yoshinori came to the realization that his modest farm, besides providing for the subsistence of his own family, could also supply other people. He calculated that the farm produced enough rice for 10 more families. To recruit local housewives, he invited them to join a reading circle, where they discussed such themes as “oneness of body and environment,” the value of whole foods, and the healthfulness of the traditional Japanese diet. After four years of what he termed “education and communication,” Yoshinori made an agreement with 10 families in 1975 to supply them with rice, wheat and vegetables in return for some money and labor. In his book A Farm with a Future: Living With the Blessings of Sun and Soil, Yoshinori recounts the difficulties of this first attempt at Teikei, an effort that foundered in misunderstandings. His second try was more successful. He made farm work voluntary and left the payment amount entirely up to the consumers. When his vegetable yields outgrew the needs of the 10 families, he added 40 more and also began selling to a local school.

Bullets for seeds, a new road map for peace

My final farm visit was to the Uozumi family: Michio, Michiko and their two sons, Masataka and Teruyuki. To make time to show me around, Michio switched the main Teikei delivery day so there were only 10 shares to prepare during my visit. I donned borrowed work clothes to help them but was too busy taking photos to be of much use. I was delighted with their two-toed boots.

With 20 years of farming under their belts, Michio and Michiko are still considered “new” farmers since neither come from farm families. Their soils are rich dark-brown loams that they do not need to irrigate. While they harvest all the vegetables by hand, their farm was the most mechanized of the farms I saw.

The quality of the crops in the Uozumi fields was exceptional, with almost no weeds and few signs of pest damage. When I asked what he would do about caterpillars munching away at some of the broccoli plants, Michio said he would simply wait until the plants outgrew the damage. He takes the same low-work approach to green manures, turning under weeds instead of planting cover crops. “Natural is good,” says Michio.

The Uozumis provide weekly shares to 150 households year-round. Consumers pay weekly or monthly. The farmers offer boxes of two sizes, including their own vegetables, eggs, rice, chestnuts, pork, oranges, apples, noodles made from the farm’s wheat, and tea from other farms. The Uozumis do not wash most of the vegetables.

The following morning, Michio and I took the train into Tokyo to a meeting of the JOAA Board and my final public seminar. They considered me a representative of the CSA movement in the United States and were disappointed to learn that we do not really have a national organization similar to theirs. I promised to find ways to spread their message and maintain communication between CSA and Teikei.

Kisako Sato, President of JOAA, opened the gathering with a passionate declaration of the organization’s emphasis on self-sufficiency and farmer-consumer relations. “If you value yourself and other life forms,” he declared, “this will lead to world peace.” My last host, Michio reported on recent projects and issues. JOAA has been confused about whether to support certification. In Michio’s view, JOAA has the responsibility to help both farmers who seek certification and those who do not.

Next, they turned to a discussion of how to link JOAA with organic and CSA farmers in the United States. JOAA’s leaders are convinced that the younger CSA movement can help revitalize Teikei, in which most of the members are in their 60s and 70s. I urged them to keep in mind that for small organic farms to survive, they must be flexible and ready to readjust as conditions change. Some farms can manage pure Teikei or CSA, but many need to cultivate other markets that may require certification.

That afternoon, I talked about CSA in the context of globalization. I gave as much information as I could to explain why Americans would bother to join CSAs and referred to many examples of how CSAs recruit and retain members by accommodating the particular needs of families in which both parents work. I concluded with my deeply held conviction that our movement will succeed in building an alternative society in a world of peace where, instead of bullets and missiles, we will exchange seeds and recipes.

We turned next to a celebration of Teikei and CSA with a big potluck meal. One shot of sake and the dignified Kisaku and serious Michio became highly animated and instigated singing, joke telling and even a little folk dancing by some of the women. Many at the party have devoted decades to the organic movement and to activism in favor of food safety and against nuclear war and, more recently, GMOs. It is a great challenge to our struggling CSA farms and does real honor to what we have accomplished that these Japanese veterans of organic agriculture look to us for inspiration.

A huge crowd from the party escorted me across the street to my hotel for a final goodbye. I went to sleep tired but elated. The next day, I flew back home, my bags heavy with presents from my generous hosts and my head buzzing with vivid impressions from this wonderful trip.