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Farming without chemicals — or radiation

by Makiko Itoh

Special To The Japan Times

Yasunori Toyoguchi peers under the netting protecting a small rice paddy. “See,” he says, pointing to some grassy shoots, “here’s this year’s crop, just starting to emerge.” He scoops up a little of the water trickling over the mud with one hand. “See how clear and clean this is?” he asks. “The frogs and tadpoles love it.”

Beyond the flooded paddy is one covered with renge (Chinese milk vetch) flowers, used traditionally as green manure on fallow fields in rice-growing regions. In a few days, Toyoguchi will sow some more rice seeds there, simply pushing the renge plants aside to make space, allowing them to decay naturally and enrich the soil. “My rice has deeper roots and more vitality because I treat it a little roughly,” he laughs.

Straightening up, he gazes at the densely planted, impeccably weed- and flower-free paddies surrounding his cheerfully chaotic patch. “They’re starting late this year,” he muses. The Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant is located 120 km away from this tourist-brochure landscape, and even at this distance, both conventional and organic farmers alike have been watching and waiting, wondering if it’s all right to plant and plan again.

A tall, soft-spoken man in his 40s, Toyoguchi left his life as a city worker to pursue his dream of “growing things the way nature intended.” He’s not unique: Many organic farmers in Japan, especially those in their 30s and 40s, started out as escapees from the salaryman rat race. Six years ago, he settled down in the small farming town of Motegi in northeastern Tochigi Prefecture, about 130 km from central Tokyo. Borrowing an unused field here and a hillside there from established farmers, he’s patched together a collection of land that he calls Tamayura Soen.

Together with his girlfriend, Kaoru Oidairia, another urban refugee, he grows vegetables and grain crops using shizen nōhō, or “natural farming” methods. Shizen nōhō goes beyond regular organic farming: Both chemical and organic (e.g., fresh animal manure) fertilizers are avoided, insecticides and herbicides banned, and mechanical tilling of the soil and weeding are kept to a minimum. Tamayura Soen sells vegetables, rice and baked goods such as amaranth crackers, mainly to a small group of health-conscious customers in the Tokyo metropolitan area as well as at the Motegi roadside station farmer’s market.

Motegi did not suffer major earthquake or tsunami damage. But soon after the hydrogen explosions at the nuclear power plant, radiation contamination was found on some vegetables grown in nearby prefectures, including Tochigi itself. While Tamayura Soen’s vegetables were not contaminated, Toyoguchi pulled up most of the greens and left other vegetables to go to seed, unsold. Newly sown vegetable seeds are just now coming up, ready to plant anew. Tamayura Soen was able to salvage the carrots and some other vegetables, but its regular customers, who buy its produce for its chemical-free qualities, have not been requesting them much.

For a country that prides itself on a cuisine based on fresh, seasonal ingredients, the percentage of produce grown without the use of chemicals in Japan is surprisingly low. As of 2009, the amount of food in terms of calories consumed in Japan produced by domestic producers with official yūki (organic) JAS certification from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) amounted to only 0.16 percent, and less than 1 percent of the total agricultural land in Japan is farmed without chemical fertilizers, herbicides or insecticides. (Many farmers do not actually get official JAS certification — for various reasons, including the cost.)

The biggest reason for the low rate of organic farming may be low consumer demand. Stores typically display the point of origin of their produce rather than how it was grown; domestically grown produce is highly prized, and assumed to be safer than imported. Organic produce is seen as being too expensive by penny-pinching consumers in a sluggish economy.

Nevertheless, the demand does seem to be growing slowly. Ogawa, a small town in Saitama Prefecture just north of Tokyo, is a hotbed of organic farming led by Yoshinori Kaneko, a top organic-farming educator and advocate and owner of Kirisato Farm since the early 1970s.

Besides authoring several organic gardening and farming books, Kaneko is also the chairman of Zenyukyo, an NPO dedicated to the advancement of organic agriculture. Many of his students and former workers have gone on to establish their own farms in Ogawa and elsewhere. In late March, he published a statement through Zenyukyo saying that the nuclear power plant accident was a disaster wrought by an “overreliance on industry,” and called for a return to a more agrarian, self-reliant, community-based society.

Shigenobu Sato is another veteran of the organic-food movement in Japan. An energetic man in his 60s who likes to dress in traditional work clothes called samui, he was a salesman for an organic-products distributor before he bought Sukoyaka Hiroba, a natural food and sundries store in Tozuka, Yokohama, 15 years ago.

Nowadays, his daughter Akiko Yasuda manages the day-to-day operations of the store, which leaves Sato time for causes he is passionate about. He participated in an antinuclear rally in Shibuya earlier this month, which brought back fond memories of his student demonstration days in the ’60s. He sees Japan’s reliance on nuclear power as part of a larger problem, a society concerned with the bottom line above everything else.

“You know why there are so many nuclear power plants in this country?” he asks, pointing emphatically to a document issued by an antinuclear activist group. “Because they make a big profit!”

In Motegi, Toyoguchi and Oidaira sit in the 120-year-old wooden farmhouse they have lovingly restored, and talk about their initial reaction when they heard about the first explosions at the Fukushima nuclear power plants.

“We thought about closing up here and starting over in Toyohashi, where I am from,” says Oidaira. But once they’d calmed down, they thought about the years they have spent here in this tranquil corner of Japan, slowly improving the soil of their plots. After talking with other farmers in the area and consulting with organic-farming associations, they decided to stay.

Orders from their regular customers are trickling in again, for their baked goods and rice if not for their fresh vegetables just yet.

“Somehow I felt that it was my destiny to be in this place and continue my life’s work,” Toyoguchi says reflectively. Oidaira adds with a wry smile that Toyohashi, her Aichi Prefecture hometown, is located just 70 km away from the recently shut down Hamaoka nuclear power plant.

Makiko Itoh is the author of “The Just Bento Cookbook” (Kodansha International). She writes about bento lunches at www.justbento.com and about Japanese cooking and more at www.justhungry.com.

Recipe for morning miso soup with wakame seaweed, komatsuna and onion

Natural food advocates in Japan such as Akiko Yasuda of Sukoyaka Hiroba recommend eating plenty of seaweed, which is rich in iodine, and fermented foods such as miso, as they help to build up the body’s defenses against oxidants.

The base of this easy version is a no-effort konbu seaweed dashi (stock) left overnight in the refrigerator. It has plenty of wakame seaweed, plus in-season komatsuna and sweet spring-harvest onion. Try this instead of your usual cup of coffee once in a while with breakfast.

Serves 4

Water — 1000 ml plus extra for soaking the wakame seaweed

Dry konbu seaweed — 2 20-cm-long pieces

Dry cut (ready to use) wakame seaweed — 3 tbsp

New (spring-harvest) or regular onion, thinly sliced — ?, medium

Komatsuna leaves, washed and roughly chopped — 1 handful

Finely chopped green onion — 1 tbsp

Red miso — 3 tbsp or to taste

The night before, make the dashi: fill a large jar with the water, and add the konbu seaweed. Close the lid and store in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours.

15 minutes before breakfast, put 700 ml of the strained dashi in a pan. (Add more water and another piece of konbu seaweed to the jar and return to the refrigerator for another batch of dashi to use later.) Bring the dashi in the pan up to a boil and add the sliced onion. Lower the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.

In the meantime, soak the dry wakame seaweed in water until the seaweed is reconstituted, about 5 minutes. Drain and add to the pan with the komatsuna and simmer for 2-3 more minutes.

Dissolve the miso in a small bowl or in a ladle with a little of the hot dashi from the pan. Add the dissolved miso to the pan and stir. Taste, and add a little more miso if needed. Serve immediately.