Fukushima farming hard row to hoe

by Rob Gilhooly

Special To The Japan Times

When Takahiro Nagakura set off for distant Okayama two years ago, his plan was to complete his degree at the prefecture’s agricultural university and then return to Fukushima and work his family’s peach orchard.

His plans, however, went awry last March 11.

“My father wanted me to study in Okayama Prefecture because of its advanced fruit-growing techniques,” said Nagakura, 19, who will graduate in March. “I always intended to go back, but he told me there’s no point.”

The Nagakura farm in the city of Fukushima is one of many of the prefecture’s 80,000 farms affected by the nuclear disaster triggered by last March’s earthquake and tsunami, contaminating land and crippling the ¥250 billion local agricultural sector.

Peach production continued as usual last summer, but shipments were down almost 60 percent, Nagakura said.

“Like other produce from the prefecture, our peaches have been screened and shown to be safe,” he said. “But harmful rumors are hard to overcome.”

It was such rumors, which local growers say are undeserved and are due to public misunderstanding of what constitutes safe levels of radiation, that prompted Nagakura’s family to urge him to stay in Okayama.

Luckily, he will be able to take advantage of a local grower’s initiative in the city of Soja that offers land, equipment, accommodations and a basic stipend to any farmer from Fukushima Prefecture willing to relocate there.

“We wanted to help those affected by the disaster and thought work is a basic requirement for a return to normal existence,” said Kenzo Abe of Hyoryu Okayama, an online retail outfit specializing in local produce that is coordinating the program. “The nuclear situation has prevented many Fukushima farmers from selling produce, so providing a place to work seemed an effective solution.”

Nagakura isn’t the only farmer relocating from Fukushima in search of work, as a number of initiatives similar to Soja’s have cropped up in recent months.

In Miyagi Prefecture, Sendai farmer Mamoru Kikuchi has offered his tsunami-ravaged land to Mitsuhiro Yahagi, a tomato grower from the city of Shirakawa.

Ironically, Kikuchi, of Rokugo Azuri Farm, bumped into Yahagi when the latter visited the Sendai area just days after the disasters to offer support to his tsunami-stricken brethren.

“At the time, shipments of all our produce had been banned, but I really didn’t think the radiation issue would make it so difficult to resume operations,” said Yahagi, who supplies produce to the Saizeriya Co. chain of Italian-style restaurants. “Gradually, it became obvious that it was going to take some time.”

With much of Kikuchi’s land having been inundated by the tsunami, he and Yahagi decided to start production in four greenhouses with a total area of 1.2 hectares using hydroponics.

Employing 10 trainees and starting operations in December, they estimate total output of around 100 tons this coming July, the first year of operations, rising to 300 tons the following year. “It is fortunate that we met and are able to help one another,” said Kikuchi. “We thought there is little point in waiting for government support.”

According to the Fukushima Prefectural Government’s agricultural division, around 16 municipalities and private organizations throughout the country have engineered projects aimed at relocating farmers from the crisis-hit area.

“There are some local farmers in shelters who are unable to return to their farms (in the 20-km nuclear exclusion zone), while others also have been impacted by the nuclear situation,” said official Hiroyuki Asano, adding that information about the projects has been disseminated via the Internet and newsletters. “For such people, it’s a welcome opportunity.”

To date, however, local reports suggest only a handful of farmers have taken advantage of such programs, some of which even include assistance with relocation and accommodation expenses.

A number of Nagasaki Prefecture-based businesses ran advertisements in agricultural publications, but with limited impact, according to Kenichi Maeda of the local association of agricultural corporations.

“There seems to be some mental obstacle that cannot be overcome,” he said. “Of course, it is not easy just to up and relocate.”

Tokyo-based home delivery service Radish Boya has meanwhile received many inquiries regarding its offer of work at company-affiliated farms outside Fukushima with free transportation thrown in, but none has applied for the program.

“Being far from home and fear of being burglarized while away are among the reasons given,” said official Keiko Morisada.

The company, however, is continuing to offer its customers produce sourced in Fukushima Prefecture after having samples screened by a monitoring outfit in Kyushu. “While many refuse (Fukushima produce), others ask for it specifically,” Morisada said. “Like us, they want to support the victims.”

Radiation screening is among the many measures undertaken by Fukushima farmers to try to regain consumer confidence.

Kinju Watanabe from the city of Fukushima, who grows organic grapes and peaches, said that in addition to official scanning, he has also sent his produce for independent screening by a company in Saitama Prefecture on four separate occasions.

All have come back certified “ND” — “(radioactive elements) Not Detected.”

Nonetheless, Watanabe’s sales are down 30 percent, he said.

“If conditions become severe enough, I suppose I’d have to think about moving elsewhere,” he said, adding that he includes a copy of the “ND” certification with all his shipments.

Watanabe has heard of farmers who have relocated but said many have family members who can look after their land back home during their absence.

“For me to do so would be to neglect and destroy 30 years of hard work,” he said. “Growing fruit, especially organic fruit, is not possible by simply throwing down seeds. It would be extremely difficult to return and start again.”

While Watanabe believes relocation is a solution for Fukushima farmers whose sales have plummeted, the prefecture’s agricultural council is trying to encourage farmers to stay.

“If we don’t, we risk losing elite farmers who are key to the future of this prefecture’s agricultural industry,” said Masahiro Suzuki of the council.

Farmers should instead be supporting efforts to end the negative rumors affecting local produce, he said.

Nagakura, the Okayama student, agrees, but he said screening and a plethora of methods to counter contamination, such as zeolites mixed in the soil of rice paddies, so far have done little to quell consumer fears.

“It makes me sad that Fukushima has become a byword for nuclear disaster when in fact much of the prefecture is unaffected,” he said. “I intend to spread the word in Okayama that our produce is safe. Perhaps by relocating, other (Fukushima) farmers could do the same.”