Marie-Josee Laforest likes to say everything she grows on her farm, Le Jardin de Marie, was a gift.
From five holy basil seeds, an oregano plant, a few stems of orange mint, six fig tree cuttings and a handful of butterfly pea seeds, her sprouts have grown to become a 200-hectare organic permaculture farm in the mountains of Asono, Oita Prefecture, a tiny hamlet near Aso-Kuju National Park. To date, Laforest’s Le Jardin de Marie is the only permaculture farm in Oita Prefecture.
A portmanteau of “permanent” and “agriculture,” permaculture imitates nature’s closed-loop, no-waste systems, aiming to replicate the “diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems.” Plants such as herbs, trees and vegetables, for example, are planted together in a single field and spaces between beds and plants are protected with a layer of plant matter. Beds are slightly raised and often curved to retain water and prevent erosion. When adequately tailored to the local environment, practitioners find the result is healthier soil and increased yield.
Born and raised in Quebec City, Canada, Laforest spent her childhood wandering woods and fields near her family home before earning a degree in forestry from Laval University. She spent two years as an assistant manager at Mount Carleton Provincial Park, but decided to become a park interpreter when the managerial role proved too administrative. Many saw it as a step down, but Laforest was where she belonged: outside, sharing her love of nature with visitors.
In 2005, while visiting a friend in Oita Prefecture, Laforest met Junichi Kudo while hiking Mount Yufu. They married the next year, and she moved to Japan.
“I sold everything and came here to start my life over,” Marie says. “Everyone thought I was crazy.”
At first, she focused on learning Japanese while teaching yoga and English. However, when her mother-in-law gifted her a small greenhouse at the family farm in 2010 and taught her the basics of farming, Laforest discovered her vocation.
By the end of that growing season, Laforest was hooked. The next year, she implemented organic methods, adding cucumbers, squash, herbs and beans to her rotation of crops.
“I’m an organic farmer because I love nature,” Laforest says. “I’ve always loved nature.”
For Laforest, this love manifests itself in finding the best way to work with nature and not using chemicals. According to a report from Ritsumeikan University, Japan has one of the highest uses of chemicals and fertilizers in the world, and those years of intensive pesticide use decrease soil life, reduce the nutrient levels in food and negatively impact people, insect pollinators, birds, other wildlife and overall water quality.
She also began turning over the family’s fallow rice fields.
“It seemed such a waste of space,” Laforest says. “So, I planted blueberries and then a friend gave me some fig cuttings.”
But Laforest saved some time and space to grow rice, too. Together with a mutual friend, she and Kudo sourced organic heirloom rice seeds and produced their first completely organic rice in 2011.
“Everyone told us it wasn’t possible, that it wouldn’t grow and that insects would ruin the crop,” Laforest says, “but we did it.”
In 2012, the couple moved to the farm full time to help Kudo’s ailing mother. The following spring, Laforest decided to grow herbs and vegetables in line with permaculture principles and methods. “I trust nature,” Laforest says. “Nature is plentiful. It has its own balance and intelligence. If I follow its principles, I don’t need to add chemicals to make things grow well.”
Laforest began selling any extra produce at the Oita Organic Market in 2013, where she slowly built up her reputation and dedicated customer base. A nearby ryokan (Japanese inn) brought her three white sage seedlings to grow on its behalf. A friend dropped off some lemongrass plants, which now occupy two 50-meter-long rows at Le Jardin and is one of Laforest’s signature teas. Gifts of butterfly pea seeds, orange mint and even saffron soon followed suit. The rose geraniums Laforest grows are now distilled by Oita-based natural lifestyle brand Rokugatsu Yohka into an essential oil.
While none of her success, including getting an Organic JAS certification in 2018, has been easy, Laforest is glad she followed her convictions. Each gift added to her repertoire of distributable produce she hopes will connect people sip by sip and taste by taste to nature.
“People thought we couldn’t grow rice without chemicals. They said herbs would never sell. So many times people said I was crazy,” Laforest says. “I think when people tell you you’re crazy, you’re in the right spot.”
Laforest sells her produce at the Oita Organic Market and through other local and national purveyors. Women of Taste is a monthly series looking at notable female figures in Japan’s food and restaurant industries.