Lifestyle

Japanese trainee on Swiss organic farm strives for Hokkaido eco-friendly restaurant

by Maya Kaneko

Kyodo

Yuko Taniguchi leads a busy life at an organic farm in Switzerland, cleaning pony stables, sending goats out to pasture, weeding grass and picking berries in gardens, cooking meals for her host family, and even baking breads and cakes.

But she believes everything she does on the farm in the city of Wildegg near Zurich during her year of training will help her realize her dream of opening an environmentally friendly, recycling-oriented farmhouse restaurant in Japan.

Such restaurants, where nothing is wasted by making full use of foodstuffs, leftovers and animal waste, are still rare in Japan.

The 23-year-old was dispatched to Switzerland under an agricultural training program in March, just after graduating from Hokkaido University, where she majored in animal husbandry and conducted research on cheese.

“At first, I thought about going to the Netherlands to study cheese, but chose Switzerland because I can learn about small-scale farming and Swiss home cooking,” said Taniguchi, who originally wanted to become a cook or pastry chef.

The program, coordinated by the Tokyo-based Japan Agricultural Exchange Council, sends Japanese trainees to the United States, Denmark and Germany in addition to the Netherlands and Switzerland. The training program in Switzerland began in 1956 and more than 300 Japanese trainees have been dispatched to the country.

The farm located on the grounds of Wildegg Castle, which dates to the 13th century, produces crops such as wheat, corn and potatoes and raises domestic animals. It does not produce cheese, but makes other dairy products, including milk, fresh cream and butter, and sells goods to visitors.

Taniguchi, who used to work at Japanese farms during school breaks, said she has found major differences between farming practices in Switzerland and Japan. “Here, animals can move freely and contact between humans and animals is not strictly prohibited. For example, farmers milk cows with their bare hands,” the trainee said. “In Japan, people often wear protective gear and cannot touch livestock easily due to concerns over hygiene.”

The differences are believed to reflect the fact that Swiss farms have far more space available to give to animals. In Japanese farms, where the animals come into close contact with each other, there are more concerns about the spread of infectious diseases such as avian and swine flu, she said.

“I was impressed with the sight of Swiss animals out at feed. If possible, I’d like to graze cows, pigs and chickens when I open my restaurant in Japan, because if consumers can actually see the environment in which animals have been raised, they would feel more at ease eating the meat,” she said.

Compared with Japan, Switzerland is advanced in organic farming, with many consumers eager to buy locally grown organic products certified with “bio” labels, even though they are more expensive than nonorganic items, Taniguchi added.

“Only a few Japanese consumers seek organic agricultural products now because a majority of them prefer nice looking and cheap items. In Switzerland, even if products are oddly shaped, people will buy them if they have ‘bio’ certification,” she said, referring to vegetables and fruit.

Taniguchi said she was shocked to see mountains of tomatoes and prunes dumped at a Japanese farm because they were deemed unfit for sale. After later winning a confectionery contest with a cake made with damaged tomatoes, she began to form her vision for what she calls a “circular” farmhouse restaurant where nothing is thrown away and everything is put to use.

In Japan, organic livestock farmers are almost nonexistent because animal feed is mostly imported, making it difficult to ensure traceability, she said.

Her host, Alois Huber, 53, who has obtained “Bio Suisse” certification for his roughly 60-hectare farm, said animal feed should include naturally grown wheat and straw and use minimum amounts of chemical fertilizers in growing feed grains. Huber’s farm produces its own feed.

According to the farm ministry, farmers certified under the organic Japanese Agricultural Standard system account for only 0.2 percent of total farmers, and only 13 livestock farmers in the country have acquired organic JAS certification. In Switzerland, the ratio of “bio” farmers is 11 to 12 percent.

In order to practice organic livestock farming in Japan, farmers need to secure enough space, Taniguchi said. “Such farming often employs cow manure as a fertilizer, but it stinks and residents nearby could consider the use of it as pollution,” she said.

Taniguchi said that although she faced difficulties during her Swiss training, such as the language barrier and tough physical labor, her life on the organic farm was fulfilling.

“At university, I was confined to a lab and did not have much field experience. Now I enjoy field labor as I can apply what I learned at school,” she said.

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