“Fukushima is famous for agriculture, and its coastal region was once one of the richest rice-growing areas (in Japan),” Ryoichi Sato says, highlighting one of the prefecture’s prized assets. “Here, you can enjoy fresh green paddies in spring and beautiful golden rice fields in autumn.”
Sato was forced to abandon his hometown of Odaka, part of Minamisoma in Fukushima Prefecture, for six years following the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters that devastated the region in March 2011, returning in 2017 to found a company called Kohbai Yume Farm.
Named after the kōbai plum flower that used to be the town’s symbol and combining it with the Japanese word for “dream,” the farming venture relies on “smart agriculture,” using machinery such as drones and information and communication technology to make up for a shortage of workers.
Ten years on from the 2011 triple disaster, agriculture in the region is tentatively getting back on its feet. While farming has resumed even in areas that had once been evacuated, reviving the market for Fukushima products — rice, cucumbers, peaches, flowers and beef among them — remains a formidable challenge.
While agriculture, forestry and fisheries account for just 2% of Fukushima’s economy, agricultural land occupies about a tenth of the vast prefecture’s surface.
Following the 2011 calamity, cultivated areas decreased from more than 110,000 hectares to a little over 100,000. Vast swathes of land lay fallow for years, and even with the progressive reopening of the evacuation zone, agriculture’s revival has been slow. There simply aren’t that many farmers in the region.
Almost 82,000 people in Fukushima Prefecture relied on farming as their main source of income in 2010. A decade later, the number has fallen by 30,000 — not only as a result of the evacuation but also because of an aging population, says Yumiko Utsumi of the prefecture’s Agriculture and Forestry Planning Division.
Signs of agricultural recovery are matched by those of prolonged decline. While the value of rice — one of the prefecture’s main crops — is closing the gap compared to the national average, certain crops haven’t recovered from the price collapse set off by the nuclear disaster. For example, after selling for as little as ¥222 per kilogram compared to a Japan-wide average of ¥406 per kilogram in 2011, Fukushima’s famous peaches were being sold for ¥503 per kilogram versus ¥622 nationally in 2019.
And while more than 90% of Fukushima’s agricultural production value has recovered from a 20% drop following the disaster, this prefecture-wide statistic conceals a bleaker picture in the 12 evacuated municipalities in the Soso district, part of Fukushima’s eastern Hamadori region. Here, farming has resumed on a third of 17,000 hectares once tended by more than 10,000 people.
Food safety monitoring
After March 2011, Keitaro Tanoi, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Isotope Facility for Agricultural Education and Research, started making regular trips to Fukushima Prefecture to measure environmental and farmland contamination.
“My research had always been based in the lab, but after the accident, my main task was to check radiation levels and explain what they meant to the public,” Tanoi says.
Radiocesium, a radioactive isotope produced by nuclear fission, was released in large amounts by the explosions at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Cesium-134 has a half-life (a measure of the time it takes for radioactive atoms to lose half of their radioactivity) of two years, while cesium-137, with a half-life of 30 years, is the principal cause of contamination nowadays.
In the months following the nuclear disaster, high levels of radiation were found in products such as beef, leaf vegetables, mushrooms and bamboo shoots throughout Tohoku and the northern Kanto Plain. Tea leaves containing radiation above safety limits were discovered as far away as Shizuoka Prefecture.
However, it was somewhat fortuitous that the nuclear accident occurred in early March, when there were few crops in the fields, Tanoi says. Rice, for example, is planted in spring.
“Though to some extent radioisotopes move through the environment, most adhere tightly to leaves and soil, so new plants weren’t contaminated,” he says.
Safety standards for radioactivity in food didn’t exist in Japan before the disaster. Current limits for most foods, which were adopted in 2011 and made stricter the following year, are equal to 100 becquerels per kilogram — a measure used to express the amount of radioactive material in soil, food and water — and less than that for milk and infant foods. Comparatively, the safety limit in the Codex Alimentarius, a collection of international food standards, is 1,000 becquerels per kilogram.
In the aftermath of the nuclear disaster, extensive food monitoring was instituted in 17 Japanese prefectures, including Fukushima, with results published daily by the health ministry.
A peak of around 340,000 tests were performed in Fukushima in 2015. Since 2013, almost no items except for wild vegetables and mushrooms exceeded the standards. The prefecture also began testing every single bag of rice it produced starting from 2012. In that same year, 71 out of more than 10 million bags tested were found to be above the 100-becquerel-per-kilogram limit. No contaminated bags have been detected since 2015 and, last year, the prefecture reduced the scale of costly blanket testing of rice and will gradually move to a sample-based system.
Preparing the land
Sato left Odaka and the land he’d been farming for three decades on the night of March 12, 2011. For five years and eight months, until the evacuation order was lifted, he longed to return home — just like the lord of Soma who once ruled the area from Odaka Castle and was exiled in 1600, he says.
A year after the disaster and following the area’s decontamination by means of topsoil removal, residents began visiting the town during the day.
“The tsunami devastated farmland, so we started a cleanup effort,” Sato says.
Around 200 people worked day in, day out to remove debris left by the tsunami — including cars and parts of buildings — clear weeds taller than humans and repair the damage caused by wild animals such as boars (which still wreak considerable havoc). Farmers were also allowed to cultivate crops to test radiation levels and held hundreds of meetings to discuss how to revitalize agriculture.
“With the help of many people and subsidies from the government, we launched a land revitalization cooperative, still active to this day, to continue the cleanup and maintain farmland,” says Sato.
About 60 kilometers northeast of Odaka, the village of Iitate was also evacuated, although it was spared much of the damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami. Its farmers also engaged in test cultivation and held town meetings to discuss the eventual resumption of agriculture, Iitate Mayor Makoto Sugioka says.
A year before being allowed to return, they began preparing the land.
“As a result, we were able to start producing flowers just three months after the evacuation finished,” Sugioka says.
The biggest challenge was keeping people motivated.
“After leaving agriculture for six years, it was difficult to come back,” he says.
Planting the seeds
The return to formerly evacuated areas has been only partial, with the number of residents in many municipalities falling well below pre-disaster levels.
Fewer than half those evacuated have moved back to Iitate, which currently has around 1,500 residents. Odaka was home to almost 13,000 residents as of March 2011, but the number of people living there has fallen to 3,650.
“The disaster’s most serious impact was on farmers themselves, who lost motivation to continue after seeing their beloved land devastated,” Sato says. “Because the evacuation period was so long, many decided to give up on farming altogether, even if they were eventually allowed to return.”
The vast majority of the 3,200 households engaged in agriculture in Odaka — 85%, according to Sato — have stopped farming or entrusted their land to others. Out of the 15 village farming groups once active in the town, only three have returned to the fields.
Sato’s main preoccupation since founding Kohbai Yume Farm has been to make up for the absence of workers.
“I hire young people and rely on technology to compensate for their lack of experience,” he says.
The farm took part in a two-year smart agriculture project offered by the agriculture ministry, Fukushima Prefecture and the Fukushima Soso Revitalization Organization, a public-private partnership tasked with reviving businesses and livelihoods in the evacuation area’s 12 municipalities, including by speaking directly to its farmers.
The technology adopted to cultivate Kohbai Yume Farm’s rice paddies, which make up 48 of its 70 hectares, includes a remote system to manage water and gather data on rice’s protein content, drones to spray the fields, auto-steering rice transplanters and robot tractors for unmanned tilling.
“By helping manage large areas of farmland and save on workforce, these technologies have allowed us to attract young graduates and take the expansion of our business to new limits,” Sato says.
To control radiation in crops, Kohbai Yume, like farms all over Fukushima, applies potassium to fields of rice, soybeans and other grains, which inhibits radioactive isotopes from being absorbed from the soil and transferred from leaves to grains.
“This is an essential condition to obtain FGAP,” Sato says, referring to the Fukushima Good Agricultural Practices certification, the prefecture’s own version of international food safety and sustainability standards GAP.
Reaping the harvest?
“We’re still planning on promoting GAP-certified products at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics,” Utsumi says. “This is an important opportunity to share information about their safety and attractiveness.”
Concerted efforts and a substantial budget — which peaked at ¥136 billion in 2018 — have been channeled by the prefecture into agricultural revitalization. This includes promoting the safety and quality of its crops through nationwide marketing campaigns and events such as the fair held multiple years by several government ministries under the slogan “Buy, Eat and Support Fukushima!”
New distribution channels for the prefecture’s produce have also been established. The Soso Revitalization Organization matches the Soso area’s products with restaurants in other parts of Japan, as Hiroshi Ogata, who leads its farming resumption group, explains, and Fukushima products are available in specialty shops such as Midette in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi neighborhood. They can also be ordered online.
Sales through the Fukushima Pride delivery service — featured in TV commercials starring members of J-pop group TOKIO — reached ¥2.6 billion in 2019, a ¥400 million increase from the previous year.
Efforts to change public perceptions of Fukushima’s produce have, to some extent, borne fruit. Government surveys indicate that the percentage of Japanese consumers citing “concerns about radioactivity” as the main reason for caring about products’ region of origin fell from 30% to 15% from 2013 to 2018.
In addition, throughout the surveyed period about half the respondents declared they were willing to buy Fukushima products, approximately a third said they couldn’t evaluate the risk due to a lack of information, and between 16% and 21% weren’t willing to accept the risk at all.
“Some people still don’t purchase our goods simply because (the goods) are from Fukushima,” Sato says, “but I also recognize that many others support us.”
Preparing for the next season
“We only offer our products to those who want them and believe the most important thing is to make efforts to increase our customer base,” Sugioka says.
Iitate’s farmers, who used to grow vegetables, have switched to other, more lucrative ventures such as rice and flower cultivation and calf breeding. The price they can fetch for calves, for example, has doubled since the accident because they’ve focused on keeping the quality high and agricultural practices efficient, Sugioka says.
In his eyes, Iitate’s farmers are pioneers, which he believes is a strong selling point for consumers.
“Madei is a local expression that refers to the time and effort that go into agriculture,” Sugioka says. “We want to make it famous throughout Japan.”
Fukushima Prefecture aims for farming to resume in 60% of the Soso area’s fields in the next five years. Achieving a full recovery is a long-term objective and the passing of time will inevitably bring new factors into play as older farmers age and a new generation emerges.
In the meantime, Sato is determined to push ahead not for his own sake, he says, but for the friends and family he lost in the earthquake and tsunami. He plans to expand Kohbai Yume Farm to 500 hectares and this spring three new full-time employees will join the team, bringing the total to nine. Two are fresh out of high school and one just graduated from university.
“If you ask me whether I would’ve embraced smart agriculture if the disaster hadn’t occurred, I’d definitely say, ‘no,’” Sato notes. “I’d never thought about working with young graduates and starting a business, much less one to restore land and incentivize farmers’ return. In this sense, my life has changed drastically.”
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