In 2004, Chuck Kayser faced a first-world problem: How to satisfy his craving for Mexican food in Kyoto? Japan in general and Kyoto in particular faced a dearth of Mexican restaurants or ingredients.
Despite having grown up in the suburbs of Chicago, Kayser decided to roll up his sleeves and tackle the problem himself. He planted jalapeno peppers, bell peppers and tomatoes, staples of Mexican cuisine, on his balcony. These humble roots have blossomed into a business and lifestyle. Fourteen years on, Midori Farm now encompasses several plots of land in rural Shiga, sells produce on a small scale and introduces rural life to those wanting a taste of agriculture and nature.
Midori Farm has sold produce at markets in Kyoto, but getting the right produce to the right place at the right time can be challenging. While organic produce familiar to Japanese consumers such as cucumbers, tomatoes and garlic sell well, others are tougher to move.
“Squash is wonderful to plant,” Kayser, 47, explains. “It grows easily, keeps well and is cold-resistant. It’s just not familiar to Japanese, so it doesn’t sell well, unfortunately.”
One solution has been to do business along the lines of a community-supported agriculture (CSA) model. The idea is for a small-scale farmer — in this case, one who grows organically — to leave produce at a community drop-off point where locals “subscribe” to guarantee a share of all the produce that farmer grows. This is similar to Japan’s teikei system, which also seeks to build a closer relationship between growers and locals.
Kayser also enjoys selling produce at parties held at Yokai Soho, a community event space in Kyoto.
“It’s great to get some beers and have fun while selling,” he says. “Curry sells especially well.” At the moment, curry is the only ready-made dish Midori Farm sells.
But selling produce is just one aspect of Midori Farm’s mission.
“A farm is more than just the sum of its crops,” Kayser explains. His equation for Midori Farm includes three distinct variables for benefits and growth: agricultural, environmental and social.
Japan’s agricultural output is rapidly decreasing as rural areas suffer from depopulation and the younger generation eschews farming. Kayser notes that Japan now imports over 60 percent of its caloric intake, a less-than-ideal situation, especially given that a geopolitical crisis seems just one tweet away.
For four millenia Japan has been utilizing home-grown methods to protect land from topsoil loss. In the past this mostly meant using manure from beasts of burden like oxen, and burning brush to use ash. Brush is still burned (although some residential areas may have ordinances against burning, which are often ignored), and now it can and should include kitchen scraps. Kayser gets cow manure in bulk from local farmers.
Kayser, who has been informed by trial and error, websites and books like “Farmers of Forty Centuries: Organic Farming in China, Korea and Japan,” notes that in the past, “humanure” — using human waste — was also practiced. While today human and dog waste is shunned due to concerns about unwanted parasites and bacteria, if subjected to temperatures high enough, humanure can provide solutions to multiple problems.
While typical composting can’t be trusted to consistently raise the temperature high enough, firms such as Orgaworld have built factories to turn human waste into usable manure. Kayser says he’d love to see Kyoto invest money in something similar, so our massive collective human waste doesn’t merely get flushed down the pan.
Kayser, who is mainly inspired by modern Western gardening techniques, feels Japan is a little behind when it comes to composting and organic gardening.
“Ironically, I haven’t been able to find affordable konbu (kelp) fertilizer, something used in the West,” he says. “Home centers sell too many chemical fertilizers. People in Japan aren’t doing enough organic gardening.”
To supplement his compost bins, Kayser also routinely scoops up bags of leaves awaiting incineration from garbage collection points. Composting the leaves is a simple, eloquent solution to the problems of yard waste, topsoil loss and the pollution caused by incineration.
The third leg of Midori Farm is social. It not only gets individuals involved in gardening and environmental protection, but also brings foreign and local people together.
Midori Farm has been built on the back of goodwill. Kayser first visited the area — which is closer to Takashima, Shiga, than Kyoto — after a friend tipped him off to reasonably priced land suitable for building a cabin. Unable to purchase land due to zoning problems, Kayser embarked on the 70-minute drive from Kyoto after the landowner offered him use of the land rent-free. It wasn’t long before another neighbor offered nearby land for him to grow food on, then third and fourth plots just a kilometer up the mountain road.
Not owning might seem precarious, but Kayser understands locals’ reluctance to sell.
“Land is heirloom, maybe 20 or 30 generations. They’d feel like they’re selling off their ancestors.”
The land contains a small cabin that had been used by temporary workers back in the 1970s. Families would stay and work seasonally. After Japan gained greater affluence, that practice largely ended, leaving most cabins to fall into disrepair and, eventually, be torn down. Midori Farm’s, while rough and drafty, has survived and is being improved, with the help of Kayser’s carpentry skills.
Camille Chappuis was introduced to Midori Farm in August 2017 by a mutual friend and ended up staying for four months. He says that Japan’s mountains resemble those of his home country, Switzerland.
Chappuis reckons that agricultural work naturally attracts people of goodwill. “Neighbors gave me so many presents,” he says. “They even brought warm clothes in late fall.”
Beyond the material gifts, Chappuis has felt warmly welcomed in this rural community. He enjoyed a day-long “miso soup party,” while on other occasions they have bonded over stronger beverages. Several times Chappuis helped a neighbor chain-saw trees downed by a typhoon, some of which he was offered for use in the wood stove or to heat the bath water at Midori Farm.
Especially in summer, volunteering on a farm surrounded by mountains and with a cool stream just outside its front door might sound tantalizing to travelers, but volunteers need to be ready to embrace physical labor. And while it’s comforting to have kind neighbors nearby, the cabin and farm are isolated, with no TV or Wi-Fi, and the nearest store is several kilometers away. More disconcerting, a hospital is even farther out of reach.
“One night I foolishly slipped when breaking boards with my foot and gashed my head,” Chappuis explains. “With blood gushing out, I knew it had to be stitched. Not wanting to bother the neighbors to drive me an hour to a hospital that might not be staffed anyway, I took matters into my own hands. After steadying myself with a few beers, I put in four stitches myself. Look, no scar!” Chappuis quickly added that being careful is far preferable to having to deliver your own emergency treatment.
One local elderly couple who speak English, the Kishimas, have befriended Kayser, Chappuis and other volunteers.
“Camille came often to eat dinner and watch TV,” Muneo Kishima says. “We have thoroughly enjoyed interacting with him and the others.”
And neighbors who don’t speak English?
“Camille was very friendly,” Kishima explains. “He would chat with neighbors and ask gardening questions. After their pleasant exchanges they’d come ask me, ‘What did he say?’ Neighbors love having them around.”
In particular, Chappuis hit it off with the owner of the tiny sake-ya (liquor shop). “He somehow figured out Camille’s birthday and gave him a canned beer as a present,” Kishima says.
The giving, however, has not been just one-way. On Respect for the Aged Day, Chappuis made bouquets of flowers and a small food basket and gave them to neighbors.
Chappuis has also gotten along well with the six foreign workers — Workaway volunteers — who also stayed in Midori Farm’s tiny cabin and worked alongside him for weeks or months. Workaway is a group that has been connecting travelers seeking volunteer work with local hosts for decades (see sidebar).
Pauline, a Frenchwoman who roughed it with Chappuis in autumn, had crepes prepared every morning for when he got up and created a buzz with her culinary skills. Arturo, who hails from Cancun, Mexico, ended up planting leafy greens rather than jalapeno peppers. Others from Australia and the U.S. enjoyed their stays there as well. Like Chappuis, volunteers are provided staple foods and board in the cabin in exchange for five or six hours of work a day.
“Most have been really conscientious,” Kayser notes. “Only rarely have I felt the work wasn’t done properly.”
For 2018, Kayser is seeking one long-term volunteer to stay a minimum of one month starting on or around March 19, and shorter-term volunteers who would stay a minimum of two weeks. Unlike my own five-month volunteer experience WWOOFing (Willing Workers on Organic Farms, which predates Workaway) in New Zealand in the 1990s, when all I pretty much did was pull weeds, Midori Farm volunteers have varied tasks that include composting, planting and harvesting. Kayser shares the farming knowledge he’s built over his decade-plus of organic gardening and says he enjoys interacting with the volunteers.
While the volunteers and the local community have gotten along swimmingly, battles with the animal population have been more or less constant.
“There have been years when animals have wiped out a crop,” Kayser says. “It was disheartening to see all that work end with nothing tangible.” Kayser knows monkeys in particular have gorged on the fruits of his labor in the past.
Hoping to remedy the problem with an electric fence, Kayser started a Faavo crowdfunding project (see sidebar). Faavo, Japan’s version of a Kickstarter or GoFundMe page, connects people and projects needing capital with people who have the financial means and goodwill to help.
The ¥100,000 raised fell far short of the desired mark of ¥800,000, but Kayser was able to put that money to good use (Kickstarters, on the other hand, are all-or-nothing).
“Using Faavo was probably not a good move,” Kayser now admits. “It’s not a page that gets a lot of attention.”
Kayser purchased fencing for one plot, sans the electric shocks. Thus far, this fortress has been keeping monkeys at bay. The wire fence is several meters high; atop each post are spiked pieces that don’t, in theory, allow monkeys to get a good enough grip to leap over the extended inner fencing and feast.
Expansion may be in the cards. Across the river from Midori Farm’s cabin is an abandoned campground. Until 2015 the village had run the Hera Fureai Center, which taught agriculture and nature appreciation, on the site. Kayser has used the grounds to camp, barbecue, hold events utilizing the hiking trails and will likely be allowed to use two more large plots for gardens. “It’ll be a big job to reclaim the land from nature,” he concedes.
And just 5 kilometers down the road is Daikokutani, another government-funded campground that is falling into disarray. The grounds, which contain 10 cabins and a huge lodge, are now used just once a year — for all-night raves. Other than that night of music and dancing, Midori Farm might be able to put the venue to use for events, volunteer housing or, more ambitiously, an ecology center.
While operated as a de facto nonprofit, Kayser has applied the brakes to making it official. “NPOs don’t really have special status in Japan,” Kayser explains. “And there are a lot of hoops to jump through to get it.”
In the meantime, Kayser has pledged to maintain NPO-like diligence by working with directors and keeping financing and activities transparent.
While in a sense Midori Farm started as the solution to a tiny problem — Kayser’s desire for Mexican cuisine — problem-solving remains central to its operations. Many interconnected problems regarding the environment, the economy and society can be neatly solved by refocusing on earthy matters.
Kayser, who runs his own school for kids, among other teaching jobs, hopes to dedicate himself completely to Midori Farm by 2022. In the meantime, he will keep farming and hosting volunteers.
“The main goal,” Kayser explains, “is to get people to return to Japan’s traditional food system of eating locally, in season, and having a relationship with farmers the same way they do with other professionals. Along the way, I hope they fall in love with nature and work to protect it.”
Get back to the land
Looking for a money-saving adventure abroad? Workaway connects hosts with travelers who are willing to work in exchange for room and board.
An annual membership fee of $34 gives travelers the opportunity to choose work situations from an extensive country list, from Albania to Vanuatu. While many opportunities involve gardening or outdoor work, they include any sort of unskilled labor.
Workaway is a lot like the granddaddy hosting organization, WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farm), which also, despite its name, contains nonfarming work opportunities. Workaway has the advantage of only requiring a single fee for all countries, whereby with WWOOF, each country has its own organization that must be joined.
While Kiva, which offers microloans to individuals on low incomes who otherwise can’t get them, might have been the first crowdfunding site, Kickstarter soon became the standard. Kickstarter projects tend to be more oriented to artistic pursuits and, significantly, project funding is all or nothing.
GoFundMe, which more than doubles the amount of money that Kickstarter transfers to project starters, welcomes any type of project, and even if the amount raised falls short of the goal, it is possible to get that money. Faavo, which is only available in Japanese, has hosted over 1,100 projects since 2012.