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Fukushima farmers in two-front war

Holdouts plow ahead against radiation, and its negative image

by Mizuho Aoki

Staff Writer

Both the reality of radiation and the rumors surrounding it continue to plague farmers in Fukushima Prefecture a year into the crisis that started last March 11 when a megaquake and monster tsunami put a local nuclear plant on a path to three reactor meltdowns.

Many farmers had to give up growing and just get away, particularly those in the immediate fallout zone of Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 power plant. They left their fields to whither and their livestock to fend for themselves.

But there are others trying every means possible to remain in farming and overcome the crisis.

“Even after vegetables were declared safe and the ban on their shipments was lifted, that didn’t erase the image etched on the minds of consumers that the produce is tainted. It’s really hard to eliminate that. A lot of effort is needed to (reverse that image),” said Mayumi Sugeno, 51, a grower of organic rice and vegetables in the city of Nihonmatsu.

Growers were seeing cancellations of purchase orders for the rice crops they were set to grow after March 11, even though subsequent checks in many areas turned up no or very little radioactive cesium. Buyers were rushing to judgment.

“Rice was supposed to be shipped to the Kansai region. But (consumers) thought all produce grown in Fukushima was unsafe. I don’t know how to describe how I felt,” Sugeno said.

Fukushima was the nation’s fourth-largest rice-growing region in 2010, with a 445,700-ton harvest, according to the prefectural government.

Now a dark cloud hangs over the prefecture’s rice growers because of the nuclear disaster.

After the catastrophe struck, about 8,500 hectares of paddies located within the 20-km radius no-go zone of the troubled power plant and other evacuation zones, including the village of Iitate and the town of Kawamata, were ordered to lie fallow during the last planting season.

Based on soil tests conducted in April by the agricultural ministry, a ban was imposed on farmland that contained more than 5,000 becquerels per kilogram of radioactive cesium.

Although Fukushima Gov. Yuhei Sato in October vouched for the safety of rice grown in the prefecture, grain exceeding the government’s provisional cesium threshold of 500 becquerels per kilogram was found in nine municipalities in the cities of Fukushima, Date and Nihonmatsu, further devastating many farmers.

Due to the ban as well as damage caused by the earthquake and particularly the tsunami, Fukushima fell from fourth to seventh place last year in terms of prefectural rice output, with a harvest of only 353,600 tons.

The agricultural ministry announced Feb. 28 that the rice-growing ban will be expanded to about 9,400 hectares from 8,500. Add to that voluntary curbs by farmers around the town of Minamisoma and the total area to be left unplanted will measure about 10,900 hectares, or around a sixth of Fukushima paddy fields.

Although many farmers face a grim future, some are taking action, including screening their produce for radiation at their own initiative, working to reduce the level of soil contamination and engaging in public relations efforts to dispel the consumer image that their produce is tainted.

But even before the disaster struck, farmers in Fukushima, like most other parts of Japan, were part of a graying, and dwindling, population as young people left the countryside for work and life in the cities.

Thus to even abandon farming for just a year will severely impact Fukushima’s already struggling agricultural sector.

Makoto Ebisawa, a part-time vegetable farmer in the Towa district of Nihonmatsu, about 40 km northeast of the crippled power plant, does not plan to stand idly by.

“Many local farmers said they are worried about the quality of the vegetables and rice grown in their own fields due to the disaster, and some are losing the will to continue on,” said Ebisawa, who also belongs to a local rural solidarity group, the nonprofit organization Yuki no Sato Towa Furusato-Zukuri Kyogikai. “I thought, if we don’t do something (to change the situation), the area’s depopulation will further accelerate.”

The NPO was established in 2005 by some 200 local farmers, with the aim of reviving Towa, whose population was declining, by regenerating abandoned farmland and promoting organic crops. The NPO also runs a nearby “michi no eki” (roadside stand and rest stop) to sell and promote members’ organic produce and processed foods.

After repeated pleas with NPO member farmers on the verge of calling it quits in Nihonmatsu, Ebisawa said he managed to persuade most of them to start planting last spring.

The Towa district before the catastrophe was in the same boat with the rest of the nation’s farm sector, which, according to farm ministry statistics as of Feb. 1, 2010, found that 61.6 percent of the nation’s farmers, or 1,605,000 of them, were 65 years old or older. At the time, farmers in total numbered 2,606,000, reflecting a fall of 22.3 percent, or 747,000, from five years earlier.

Sugeno of Nihonmatsu, also of the NPO, said it is vital that cultivation not be interrupted.

“If we don’t plant, our paddies will be ruined. . . . They will be covered with weeds, . . . harmful plants,” Sugeno said. “Once abandoned, it will be really tough, both mentally and physically, to start all over again, especially when many farmers are aging.”

With a goal of growing produce safe enough for their grandchildren to eat, the group began taking atmospheric readings at each member’s farm and created a detailed map of contamination around Towa.

From October, they began scanning their produce at the roadside stand, using two donated screening devices.

By the end of February, more than 900 samples had been tested and none had topped the government-set limit. Also, over 90 percent of their produce was below 50 becquerels, Ebisawa said.

“What we must do now is take all possible measures to reduce the soil contamination and prevent produce from absorbing radioactive cesium from the land. For example, we plan to use water filters in an experiment to reduce the amount of isotopes draining into our fields and rice paddies from streams . . . and screen the vegetables and rice before we sell them,” he said.

Although the group saw collective sales fall 30 percent immediately after the meltdown crisis started, things have been picking up slowly over the past few months, Ebisawa said.

NGO members are also working digitize the contamination map and create a system for displaying the latest radiation readings, results of soil tests and any contamination of produce.

“We want people to be able to trace each area’s contamination record. . . . Disclosure of information is the most effective way to win back the trust of consumers,” Ebisawa said.

From this spring, together with Niigata, Ibaraki and Fukushima universities, the group also plans to begin an experiment to reduce the amount of radioactive cesium in the soil as well as snow melt from the surrounding mountains, he said. The plan includes planting tea because the plants are believed to absorb radioactive cesium in the soil, he said.

But there is no guarantee these measures will reduce the cropland contamination.

“Our countermeasures to lower the cesium contamination have just started. By cooperating with the universities, we hope to return to our rural way of life,” Ebisawa said. “Considering the 30-year half-life of cesium-137, we have to keep watching and continue taking measures for at least another 30 years.”

But beyond the physical steps to reduce the radiation is the tall psychological order of eradicating the negative image consumers attach to their produce.

Koichi Suzuki, a vegetable grower in the city of Koriyama, said that although all his crops underwent screening ordered by the city, and no cesium was detected, he saw sales drop by 30-40 percent in 2011 compared with the previous year.

“It was too much to bear. I wondered why on Earth this happened. . . . I was anxious about not just my family’s future but also about the future of all the other farmers in Fukushima,” said Suzuki, 49, a third-generation farmer. “I lost the will to go on. But as I studied and gained knowledge about radiation, I realized farmers must also make efforts to get consumers to understand more about the safety of our produce.”

Suzuki since 2003 has put a lot of energy into growing high-quality vegetables in hopes of reviving the spirit of Koriyama’s rice farmers, who were struggling after the market price fell.

He has been growing nine different vegetable varieties, including “gozen ninjin” carrots rich in sugar. “They were really popular,” he said.

But with the nuclear disaster, “consumers began to judge farm produce based on contamination levels,” Suzuki said. “If produce is judged on (becquerel) figures, I thought, why don’t we show the contamination level together with other figures that show positive functions, such as betacarotene and sugar content?”

Together with eight neighboring farmers, Suzuki is developing a way to put all that information, as well as details about who grew what, into a QR code, a kind of bar code that people can scan with their cellphones.

After consulting with manufacturers, universities and research institutes, Suzuki thinks such a system is possible.

“If we can do that, I believe we can add some value,” Ebisawa said. “I want consumers to know we are fighting” against radioactive contamination.”