How to endure? It’s an elemental question perfectly matched to the endless, ripening fields of the organic farm Land Mann in the town of Biei, Hokkaido.
Stretched out to the horizon and topped by boundless blue, the potato crops of farmer, Land Cafe owner and sagaciously unpretentious German Stefan Koester-Hirose convey infinity while revealing a carefully etched plan for endurance.
“Potatoes exhaust the soil, so it takes a few years to recover,” says Koester-Hirose, 54. “See there, at the edge of the sky where the trees line the horizon? You can see green land, and then different green land, dotted with clover. Next is new green barely coming through the dirt next to the potatoes here, and then after the potatoes, we have the sunflowers as green manure to help the soil recover.”
His eyes travel the six segmented rotating plots encompassing his six-year cycle for potatoes. They represent one of the many ways with which Koester-Hirose has crafted a sustainable life in Japan: Alternate your resources.
How to sustain is a question Koester-Hirose deliberately asked himself 16 years ago before moving to Japan and one he still thinks about every day. “What I do is a combination of tourism, personal enjoyment and biological farming,” he says.
As a young man, extensive travel satisfied his wandering mind but also revealed the pitfalls in a traveler’s path. “I saw a lot of foreigners in foreign countries, saw how they get restless, how they change their feelings about their adopted country, how they start hanging their national flags outside their windows and pining for home. I thought, I must find a convenient place for my soul to thrive.”
Koester-Hirose wandered wide and for various reasons: for pleasure (among others, a trip across the United States by bicycle), for study (to learn Spanish in Ecuador) and for work (with the German Development Service in Nepal and Vietnam). After meeting in Ecuador the Japanese woman who would become his wife, they enjoyed this nomad’s life until the imminent birth of their third child encouraged a more settled lifestyle.
He did not want to merely “try” Japan; he wanted to try to make a lasting home. “Working for the German Development Service, you must enter an educational course before you go overseas. I learned that among expatriates or people who are living away from their home countries, 80 percent return home again, usually in the seventh or eighth year,” he recalls. “My wife is from Tokyo so we looked there, but I felt I could not spend my whole life in Tokyo.”
Koester-Hirose journeyed throughout Japan, searching for a place to settle. Something about Biei recalled his hometown in Gutersloh, northern Germany. “The sunflowers are the same, the grass and environment seemed similar. I began working immediately as a ‘day-man’ in farming and construction in nearby Nakafurano.”
Although he had never planned a life in farming, it became his way to sustain satisfaction and livelihood in a foreign country. “Because I could not speak Japanese, I thought I needed my own place, that no company would hire me — my wife and I talked about opening a restaurant or vacation cottages — but in Japan you cannot buy farmland unless you are recognized as a farmer. We found the land we wanted first, so it wasn’t so much in my mind to be a farmer, it was the legality of buying the land.”
Luckily, his connections among the farmers in Nakafurano supported him, and they unanimously validated him for the sale, a requirement in Japanese law for purchasing farmland. He named his farm Land Mann and slowly built a client list, selling organic produce directly to restaurants and individuals.
Like the potato crops, however, Koester-Hirose realized early on he had to divide his livelihood, not exhaust all his resources in one venture. “I learned from the farmers in Nakafurano how uncertain and difficult it was to farm, so I decided I needed to do something different.”
His first university master’s degree was in civil engineering, specializing in hydrology and environmental protection, (his second was in business administration), so farming organically was a natural choice. He also decided to open a cafe and to later build a holiday cottage on their land, adding a walking path for tourists, further diversifying their resources.
“Some farmers try to be different by growing something different, like mangoes in Hokkaido, but I wanted to concentrate on the produce that grows naturally in this area,” he says.
Doing things naturally brings up another key belief in sustainability: Let things unfold with as little interference as possible. One glance at Koester-Hirose’s raspberries, riotously clambering up a gentle slope, confirms this life lesson. “In conventional farming, raspberries are carefully cultivated on a fence, cutting and maintaining them so that you can grow perfect fruit,” he explains. “I let mine grow out with minimal interference and just take what I can get. We use what we need, and let the rest go back in naturally.
“It is funny, but with organic farming, it balances itself. At first it’s a disaster, a lot of diseases, the bugs come. It takes a couple years, but there develops a natural balance. Some years I have a longer time supplying the cafe with raspberries, and sometimes the season is quite short, depending on the rain, but you adjust the menu, depending on what grows. That’s true for your whole lifestyle, because it’s the only way to be truly sustainable.”
Flexibility and adaptability both aided Koester-Hirose as he experienced the ups and downs of expat life. He has been featured in documentaries and newspapers in Japan in what he wryly refers to as the “gaijin bonus.” He has weathered draught and snowstorms, and avalanches of frustration as he slowly learned to work within the restrictions governing organic farming in this country.
He credits the advice of other farmers in the area. “I try to ask the elderly, to talk with conventional farmers often, to get to the reason why something is done a certain way so I can determine how I can change it. Conventional farmers often follow manuals from the JA (Japan Agriculture), schedules on what kind, how, when and how often to use agricultural chemicals. It is helpful in one way, but on the other hand, you can become dependent, unable to make your own decisions.”
Koester-Hirose also needed determination. Standing in front of his onion patch, he admits: “Onions are just personal pride and fun for me. An onion farmer I worked with in Nakafurano who became a good friend of mine always said, ‘It is impossible to grow onions organically,’ but I always thought, ‘I will show you.’ ” He concedes onions are difficult, with such a long growth period before harvesting and thus many concerns to deal with over that time, but today they sweep healthily, pesticide-free, across the hillside.
Finally, part of Koester-Hirose’s success comes from knowing his own nature. “My mother says I was educated to sit in an office or to be the boss of a big company, but I personally like to be outside and to be physically doing something.
“Farming is not just touching the soil or cleaning the leaves or watching seedlings grow up. Farming encompasses everything. You drive a tractor, a truck, a forklift, an excavator, farmers have a lot of machinery, so you are a driver or operator. Farmers do not call a carpenter to repair the shed or barn. They do it themselves, so a farmer is a carpenter. Because you have so much machinery, you can not always call someone to look after the maintenance. You do it yourself, changing the oil or if something breaks down you have to fix it, so you are a mechanic.
“Farming is so fun, for me. It is not just the soil and the seedling, it is all the other things. You also have to run a business. Automatically farmers run a business, always calculating in their heads how much time it takes to do this, so that they are not writing down or making account sheets; but ask any farmer and they are clearly planning a business inside their head.”
Koester-Hirose pauses. His land stretches out, an infinity behind him. He adds the last almost shyly. “And, the best, you are free.”
For more about Stefan Koester-Hirose and his farm, visit www.k3.dion.ne.jp/orgfarm/englindexfarm.html