Farmers struggle amid tsunami aftermath

Process of restoring land ruined by seawater seen taking years

by Alex Martin

SENDAI — Clearing out the piles of mud and rubble that have ruined his expensive farm machinery and covered the first floor of his house, Kiichi Endo let out a short sigh thinking of the years it will take before he can grow crops again on soil damaged by seawater.

“I’ll have to remove all the debris before doing anything else, but I’d say it will take at least five years to restore my farmland,” the 55-year-old said.

The tsunami that swept across Sendai’s Wakabayashi Ward and other coastal areas following the March 11 mega-quake devastated nearly 80 percent, or 1,800 hectares, of farmland in eastern Sendai alone, ruining soil and causing incalculable damage to local farmers.

Miyagi Prefecture produces approximately 400,000 tons of rice annually, and is famous for nationally known rice brands such as Sasanishiki and Hitomebore. Farmers like Endo are responsible for providing around 3 to 4 percent of the nation’s entire rice output.

The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry estimates that in total, 23,600 hectares of farmland, mostly rice paddies, have been damaged by flooding in the tsunami-hit regions.

And coupled with bans on shipments of produce harvested from areas near the radiation-belching Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant and other areas where contamination has been detected, the financial impact of the disaster is hard to grasp.

Endo, a sixth-generation farmer and a member of the local neighborhood association in Wakabayashi Ward’s Sanbonzuka area, less than 2 km from the coastline, said that while worrying about the impact of saltwater on his farmland, he also has millions of yen of unpaid loans for farm machinery like his brand new combine harvester destroyed by water and mud.

And besides damaged paddies, vegetable farms were also ravaged by the tsunami.

“I had lettuce ready to be shipped April 10, but they’re ruined — that alone amounts to several million yen in damages,” Endo lamented.

While Endo was grateful that he and his family all survived the monstrous waves that crashed through his house and warehouse, he could not hide his concern when it came to restoring his farmland.

“A friend of mine who owns property on a mountain offered to deliver soil in trucks so I can try to revive my farm, but I don’t know how effective this would be,” he said.

Rice is a sensitive crop, and even small amounts of salt in the paddies can harm its growth. Removal of salt will require the paddies to be repeatedly cleansed with fresh water, but destroyed irrigation ditches and sewerage systems will need to be repaired before this can be attempted.

While methods such as pouring new soil over the damaged farmland is an option, the cost is prohibitive, given the vast area affected.

A representative for the Japan Agricultural Cooperatives’ Sendai branch said they were in the process of assessing the damage saltwater has on land, and said an official announcement would soon be made by Miyagi Prefecture.

“Considering the enormous scale of the damage, we need to seek help from the prefecture and central government, and organizing all this is taking time,” he said.

The JA representative said farmland restoration had to coincide with work to revive destroyed communities and infrastructure, and estimated it would take years of effort before results are seen.

Coastal farmlands inundated by tsunami, of which the majority are rice paddies, remain littered with fragments of houses, cars and other debris that need to be removed before soil conditioners can be applied to begin the process of removing salt residue.

And while many individuals such as Endo and their municipalities are doing what they can to clear the land, a chronic lack of manpower and resources is stalling efforts. In the meantime, farmers will have to think of alternative ways to support their families while they work to restore their ruined land.

“I’m lucky to know people who say I can use their trucks and machinery to remove the rubble, but it’s going to be hard, hard work,” Endo said.

Farmers and merchants are further concerned by public anxiety toward produce harvested near the Fukushima nuclear plant and damaging rumors that might hurt even producers of goods free of contamination.

Endo is worried that even when infrastructure is rebuilt, a general distrust toward produce from the area may affect sales.

Reflecting such fears, farm minister Michihiko Kano said during a news conference Tuesday that the government is trying its best to stop damaging rumors regarding farm produce from spreading.

“We’d like to ask people to base their judgments on objective, scientific grounds,” he said.

But despite the numerous challenges confronting him, Endo said he has no plans of deserting the land he and his ancestors have been tilling for decades.

“We’ve lived off this land for generations, and I’m not about to leave it now,” he said.