In the mid-1970s, Souichi Yamashita, a farmer in northern Kyushu who also writes books about rural Japan, got to know a young man named Yutaka Une.
Une had just started work there as an agricultural outreach officer with the Fukuoka prefectural government — and it wasn’t long before he began making waves in the local farming communities.
“He was an odd character,” Yamashita recalled recently. “His job was to tell farmers to spray chemicals, but he went around telling them the opposite. He even put out a newsletter titled The Doubting Farmer. His bosses tried to get rid of him, but he wouldn’t leave. He said it made more sense to change things from the inside.”
Yamashita was no radical, but the newcomer’s gumption won his respect, and the two became friends. In the following years Une helped popularize low-chemical farming methods not only in northern Kyushu but throughout Japan. Then, like Yamashita, he became a farmer and writer.
In the many books Une has published since, as well as through the Farm and Nature Research Center, a nonprofit he cofounded and directed from 2000 to 2010, he has built a vision of Japan’s agricultural future directly opposite to that being promoted by most of those with economic and political power in the nation today.
Where they argue for greater efficiency, he urges us to consider what kind of farming is most enjoyable. Where they plan bigger fields, he asks what size is best for spiders and frogs. And where they suggest policies to increase global competitiveness, he calls for policies that reward environmental stewardship over cost-cutting.
In other words, Une is just as averse to conformity, dedicated to change — and unashamedly odd — as he was 40 years ago. “I know I’m a weird farmer,” the now 63-year-old said on a recent autumn day in the seaside town of Itoshima, Fukuoka Prefecture, where he lives with his wife.
He was seated cross-legged on a straw mat beneath a shade tree on the neatly-trimmed bank of one of his rice fields. The field was in a small terraced valley with a stream along one side and a few houses on the other. It was an entirely ordinary rural Japanese landscape, but at the same time it was almost surreally pleasant, in the way well-cared-for countryside occasionally is. Une was dressed in indigo cotton pants and was wearing sandals. He smiled often, as if to express his delight at being the cultivator of such a lovely place.
“It’s important to express the value of these things and places that we normally take for granted,” he continued. “We’ve had a lot of non-farmer philosophers, but we need someone to speak from the farm. I think that is my role.”
It’s a role he has grown into slowly. The son of a chicken farmer in Shimabara, Nagasaki Prefecture, he took the prefectural job in Fukuoka straight out of university. One of his tasks was to instruct entire villages to spray their fields with pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. (Japan has one of the world’s highest rates of agrochemical use.) “The farmers were told, ‘If you don’t spray and everyone else does, the bugs will all run into your fields.’ Or, ‘If you don’t spray, all the chemicals used by your neighbors will be for nothing.’
“That was all a lie. Some fields had almost no insects and some had tons. Why not just spray where they were? But there was no tool for farmers to determine that,” he says. He invented a very simple one: A stiff, dark-blue, A4-sized piece of plastic with a grid on one side and drawings of common paddy insects on the other. Farmers could hold it next to a clump of rice, shake the clump, and then identify and count the insects that ended up on the piece of plastic. So, if they found 30 white-backed planthoppers per clump in late July, for instance, that would indicate a serious outbreak. Fewer, and there was no need to do any spraying.
“Right away, agrochemical use would fall by a third or half,” Une said. “No one really wanted to be using the chemicals, because they weren’t good for them.”
The method caught on during the 1980s, and to date around 180,000 of the plastic rectangles have been sold. Still, that’s a tiny fraction of Japan’s 2.5 million farmers.
“The national policy is to improve agricultural efficiency and productivity and reduce labor and costs,” he said. “Going into your field, looking around, makingjudgment calls — that’s a waste of time.Efficiency goes up if you spray on a schedule, so low-chemical farming still hasn’t spread that much.”
In 1988, while still working for the prefecture, Une began growing organic rice himself. That soon had him thinking about another arena where he felt the government was squelching diversity and farmers’ initiative: plant breeding.
As late as the 1970s, he said, a single village might have grown as many as 50 kinds of rice. Just a few decades later that diversity was greatly depleted. Whereas farmers used to develop their own varieties, government research labs had taken over the role, and almost all rice came to be descended from one genetic line.
“Only the kind of rice the government wants grown gets developed. Rice that does well without agrochemicals, or that requires special skill to grow, is not developed,” he said. “I think it’s a mistake to do away with diversity and leave only a uniform, simplified seed stock.”
Une decided to focus on breeding red rice — the oldest kind grown in Japan, but also the type most historically reviled by government officials. He improved flavor and texture by crossing old varieties with sticky rice, and each year he distributes more seed to neighbors.
Recently, though, Une has been focusing on two broader goals: raising farmers’ awareness of the many plants and animals on their land, and increasing the public’s appreciation for the farmers’ role in maintaining attractive, diverse rural landscapes.
“Ninety-nine percent of the red dragonflies in Japan hatch in rice paddies, and 97 percent of the frogs,” he said. “The environment and culture created by rice farming has come to seem so obvious over the past 2,500 years, people forget they come from agriculture. We need to become conscious of that again. Farmers need to speak up and say, there are ecosystems and landscapes that will disappear without agriculture.”
With Japan’s median farm population growing ever older, and the government contemplating steps toward corporatization and industrialization of the agriculture sector, Une’s message could not be more timely.