Ogawa-machi in Saitama Prefecture - everyone engaged in organic farming must know the name of this town. In 1971, in a time when the words "organic farming" didn't even exist in Japan, Mr. Yoshinori Kaneko began organic farming in Ogawa-machi. This year marks the 36th year, and his Frostpia Farm has become an example for cycle-based organic farming; thus many people from the government and individuals, and even youths now visit the farm on tours and for training. As the desire for safe food becomes more pronounced, the Frostpia Farm will draw more and more attention. I went and visited this farm to interview Mr. Kaneko.
Back to Table of Contents Ogawa-machi and Frostpia Farm
Located approximately 60 km from the center of Tokyo, Ogawa-machi is surrounded by the Chichibu Mountains in the northern part of Saitama. From its early days, the town was known for its washi (Japanese paper) and sake brewing. When you enter the town, you will seen signs for "handmade washi" or "sake brewing" here and there. Both require ample water, so this town must have been blessed with limpid streams from long ago.
The Frostpia Farm is located 3km southeast of the Ogawa-machi station, and is located in the beautiful countryside. In the west, there are small hills and it is surrounded by the Tsukigawa river, which trickles down from the Chichibu Mountains. Its farm lands, including its rice paddies, amount to 3 hectares. For a farm that is run by a private individual, it is rather large. Sixty to seventy types of vegetables are cultivated here yearly. And of course everything is completely pesticide-free, organically grown.
It was back in 1971 when Mr. Yoshinori Kaneko took over the lands from his parents and began organic farming. It's the 36th year this year, but what continues to strike deep into his hear is that "everything in nature is truly a part of a cycle." Nature does not need a helping hand from mankind; it maintains a complete cyclical system on its own. And if this is the case, then we can make produce within that natural cycle without using pesticides or chemical fertilizer. "Naturally, the cycle would take 100 years, but we are shortening this cycle to 10 years by lending a hand." Mr. Kaneko says, that is the art of organic farming.
Stepping inside the Frostpia Farm, you will find that the farm is full of cyclical systems that make use of nature. The cycle of nature and the techniques of organic cultivation obtained through years and years of hard work and research, and blending this in with modern technology ? that is what Mr. Kaneko's farm is like.
Back to Table of Contents How the cycle works
Back to Table of Contents Everything begins with soil
What he values the most when it comes to organic farming is creating soil. The soil provides the foundations of all life on Earth.
"If you have good soil, then great tasting vegetables will grown on their own" says Mr. Kaneko.
There was a heap of compost on a plot of land set aside for compost on the one side of the farm.
Organic waste from home, fallen leaves from the mountains, chips of wood and branches that the gardener gives him free of charge : the manure of farm animals are mixed and cut (top and bottom portion are mixed to make sure to get air inside in order to help make the microorganism more active), and after over a year, the compost is sprinkled onto the fields and paddies. The soil is full of microorganisms, and optimal for crops.
If you have good soil, all you have to do is wait for the vegetables to grow. Having said that, there are many difficulties. What I think of when I hear pesticide free is damage caused by bugs and weeds.
Bugs such as aphids that are harmful to vegetables suddenly appear in great numbers. But, the knight in shining armor takes care of most of the harmful insects. Even if there are harmful insects, if you wait a while, helpful insects, etc. that Mr. Kaneko calls knight in shining armor such as lady bugs, snakes, and lizards, start to increase and eat the harmful insects.
And people on the farm take care of insects without perennial nemesis. Or, they also make efforts to nail down when there won't be harmful insects and plant crops then.
Mr. Kaneko casually says, "It's quite simple."
Even if you use pesticides, the generational change of insects occurs quickly, so in no time, types of insects that are immune appear. And what's more, their instinct to survive kicks in, and sometimes, although the insects only used to lay 200 eggs, they can start laying 600. And if that happens, they have to keep using even more stronger pesticides, that are more harmful to humans as well, creating a vicious circle you see in modern day farming.
And when it comes to weeds, Frostpia Farm has another unique way of dealing with them. With rice, they plow the paddies full of water with tractors twice, and add more water to raise the water levels, and plant bigger seedlings to keep the early weeds at bay. And with help from ducks, you don't have to worry about pickerelweed (Monochoria vaginalis) and Japanese barnyard millet (Echinochloa esculenta).
And weeds on fields may be significantly decreased by covering the fields with a biodegradable paper sheet when the crops are still seedlings. Of course it's not 100% weed proof so you have to mow the weeds.
The weeds are then fed to the farm animals, and the feces of such livestock return to the fields as high quality soil.
That is how a good cycle, blessed by nature, has been established using the techniques Mr. Kaneko has cultivated over the years as the foundation.
Back to Table of Contents The farm animals
There are livestock that are treated like family at Mr. Kaneko's farm.
They are 3 cows, 200 chickens, and 100 ducks. It seems that this is a good number for a farm 3 hectares large. The cut weeds and hay are mainly given to the cows. The scraps of vegetables and organic waste are fed to the birds.
And in return, the cows provide milk, and chickens, eggs, and ducks, well, protein. Of course their urine and feces become valuable organic fertilizer, and return to the field.
So everything is part of that cycle; nothing is wasted.
Back to Table of Contents Circulating energy
After establishing a cycle in the paddies and the fields, Mr. Kaneko next thought of energy circulation and self-sufficiency. Mr. Kaneko has experienced the oil shock. So he has always thought that it would be better to not depend on a resource that may run out in the future.
Back to Table of Contents Sunlight
There is a solar panel on the roof of the main house had a large solar panel.
That is why the monthly electricity bill is scarcely anything, and sometimes the electric company purchases the left over electricity. The water from the well is brought up using solar energy. And the electrical fencing around the livestock is powered by solar power.
Moreover, there is a glass greenhouse that was built to make ample use of sunlight. By making the greenhouse out of glass, it's quite warm even in the winter.
In the fields, there were huge plastic tubes propped up and facing south. This is a water heater, which will heat the water in the tubes using the heat from the sun, which will then be used in the kitchen and for bathing.
Back to Table of Contents Firewood boiler
It's easy to get firewood in the rural areas ? from trees that's been cut, branches that have been used for artificial pruning, fallen trees, scrap building materials. Mr. Kaneko thought that he should make use of that, too, so he set up a boiler that would use firewood next to the main house.
It's a simple structure ? you burn the firewood to heat water. The hot water will be used for baths, and will travel through pipes under the flooring, so that in the winter it will provide floor heating.
Back to Table of Contents Biogas
At Frostpia Farm, feces from people are also used as part of the cycle!
Human feces taken from the toilets will be placed in the biogas fermentation compartment buried in the ground. In an environment without air, anaerobic fermentation takes place, and the feces that have been decomposed by bacteria will be turned into liquid fertilizer and methane gas. The liquid fertilizer will be used in fields and paddies, and methane gas is used for cooking.
Back to Table of Contents Bio-diesel
Three hectares of great big fields and paddies. So you need mechanical tillers and tractors. But I discovered that ingenuity has been employed here as well. The tractor runs on bio-diesel, or used oil, such as tempura oil. This plant-derived fuel is said to be much kinder on the environment than gasoline or diesel.
Back to Table of Contents There is no "mottainai" - nothing goes to waste
As I spent time at the Frostpia Farm, I felt as though there wasn't anything more you could try to cut back or that anything was going to waste.
I can see why Mr. Kaneko told me, "Anything that has to do with circulation and cycles, I have put into practice here." He has borrowed nature's force in every aspect, and everything had a good cycle. It was as though the farm was a place that was experimenting on cyclical systems.
"From now on, I would like to share what we have done here at Frostpia Farm with the rest of the world. It is important to create a cyclical system 1 farm, 1 settlement, 1 town at a time."
Ogawa-machi, where Mr. Kaneko lives, can make this happen. I felt as though I got a glimpse of what Japanese farming villages in the future should be like.
Back to Table of Contents Organic farming of the future
Back to Table of Contents Intuition
In 1971, when the Japan Organic Agriculture Association was established in 1971, there were 30 members involved in the launch and one of them was the 22-year old Mr. Kaneko. It was a time when the term "organic farming" hardly existed.
Looking back on the reason why he started organic farming, he said "It was intuition!"
In 1970, the rice acreage reduction policy began, and it seemed that the government thought that rice, which was the primary food for its nation's people, was no longer so important. Mr. Kaneko realize that there will come a time when we would have to import rice. And 1971 was also called the first year of the era of environmental pollution, and with the development of industries, various environmental pollution became a social issue.
"I just wanted to make food that was safe to eat and to save and nurture the environment. If I continue on this path, people who feel the same will certainly offer support." So Mr. Kaneko's intuition told him, and he began organic farming.
Back then there were approximately 20 million households in Japan. Of which only 5 million were involved in farming. So he thought, if 1 farming household created enough agricultural produce for 4 households, Japan would be able to completely support itself on organic farming.
"First, let's make enough produce for 10 households through organic farming."
That is when he started partnership agriculture, which back then was quite forward-thinking. He signed contracts with households, and began delivering produce direct. At first it was trial and error, so he ran into a few problems, but he still has contracts with 30 households, and that forms one pillar of the Frostpia Farm. Now, it's so popular, that signing a partnership contract with Frostpia Farm is close to impossible.
Back to Table of Contents 30 years
Looking back on when he started organic farming at Ogawa-machi, Mr. Kaneko said "there were so many obstacles; in fact there were nothing but obstacles." The village and agricultural cooperatives, and people around me thought I was bizarre.
The government won't teach us anything. There's no know-how or text books. Mr. Kaneko and a small group of friends had to develop the techniques and methods of organic farming through trial and error.
"It took 30 years to be recognized by society!" says Mr. Kaneko. He diligently worked at it, never strayed from his path, and at last and only recently the things started to change.
During that time, he established a network of many friends he describes as being "organic." At first, Mr. Kaneko was the only one with an organic farm in Ogawa-machi, but people heard rumors, and disciples and interns knocked on his door. And after some time, these people established their own organic farms in Ogawa-machi and in other parts of Japan. They too had disciples, and these disciples go on to have their own farms. That is how just on its own, Ogawa-machi managed to help nurture about 25 organic farms.
Even now, Frostpia Farm takes in 7~8 interns a year. On the day that I went to visit the farm, there were 4 Japanese and 2 Korean interns.
"I hope to continue to make a living by making food, the most fundamental need for human beings. And safe organic vegetables at that" said one of the interns. There aren't many days off, and their working hours are as long as the sun is out, so it's not easy by far, but it seemed that every one of the intern felt content. Many were in their 20s and 30s, and it seemed that I could see a bright future in the horizon before of them.
Back to Table of Contents Hand in hand with the regional community
It seems to have taken 30 years for people to understand, but the Frostpia Farm is facing a new conjuncture. Until now, it mostly drew attention from the urban areas that tended to be more food sensitive, but people from the region around Ogawa-machi have started to become interested.
About 5 years ago, he was asked to provide produce for the morning market held in the local shopping area. He got to know someone from there and began farming potatoes together and holding a harvest festival.
He had made processed foods with vendors in the local region from before, but because he has established even closer ties with the region, the types of processed food have increased. So far, Frostpia Farm's crops have been processed into soy sauce and tofu, Japanese sake, fermented beans, dried noodles, and sausages, and sold as a regional brand.
Among such produce, tofu sells quite well, and now organic soy is cultivated not only at Frostpia Farm but on 5 hectares of land in the surrounding settlements.
People from the regional settlements and Ogawa-machi are beginning to realize the potential of the future of organic farming.
The day when Ogawa-machi's name becomes known nationwide as a "model region that has been built on organic farming" may not be so far off in the future.
Back to Table of Contents Effects of climate change and Frostpia Farm
Things at Frostpia Farm seems to be going well, but it is feeling the effects of abnormal temperatures and climate change.
Mr. Kaneko told me that "Since 15 years ago, it's hard to predict the weather."
Cold weather said to only occur once every 100 years, hail said to only occur once every 80 years, and this year the summer was longer by 1 month.
In the good old days, if you ask an elderly, you could find out the temperature of the land. But because of the frequent abnormal temperatures, you can't rely on climate data from the past.
Mr. Kaneko cultivates different types of produce depending on the temperature, so he had been able to adjust to the change in the climate. However, with respect to the abnormally hot summer experienced this year, he says, "There was nothing I could do about this summer. The temperatures were so abnormal, it upturned the theories I have built over the last 30 years of organic farming."
But Mr. Kaneko has the ability to read the changes in the environment and the skills to adjust to it. If he comes to understand what caused the abnormal temperatures this year, he can quickly think of a countermeasure for next year.
Modern farmers who rely on science will be hit even harder with global warming and climate change we are experiencing recently. As global warming advances, ironically the presence of organic farms like that of Mr. Kaneko's will become more prevalent, and will be like a star shining in the darkness.
Back to Table of Contents Future of food in Japan
"The biggest problems Japan will face in the future will be food and energy."
So fears Mr. Kaneko. Certainly, we are about to face a grave crisis. Japan's self-sufficiency with respect to food is merely 39% (calorie based). And what is more, many of the farmers are over 65 years old.
Mr. Kaneko has continued to say that among the developed nations, Japan has placed the least importance on farming, which is the foundations of life on Earth. Ordinarily, industries should be established on agriculture, but Japan is a peculiar country that has always placed more importance on industries.
I did also hear good news. In the past few years, there has been a significant increase in the number of people who want to work on organic farms. And data from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries indicate that the decrease in farmers have been blunted, and there is an increase in new recruits.
Moreover, by the end of last year (2006), the law to promote organic farming was enacted, so Mr. Kaneko predicts that from now on organic farming should be benefiting from a great tail wind.
Mr. Kaneko has great hopes that "In 10 years, Japan's self-sufficiency may be close to 50% thanks to organic farming."
"Japan has constantly gone through 180 degree changes, for example the Meiji Restoration and losing the war. Such change is sure to happen in the world of agriculture."
Mr. Kaneko and his friends have established a milestone for building the foundations for safe and environmentally conscious food over the past 30 years.
So what can each and every one of us do?
If there is a plot of land near by you can farm, it would be good to grow your own food. It would be great if you took the leap into organic farming. Of course it may seem like a great leap, but there's more you can do. The action we can take is to "choose."
Choose vegetables that are in season. Choose domestic produce, and those produced nearby. The closer the food is produced, the less energy it takes for transportation. And if you choose domestic produce, you can support domestic agriculture, and this will lead to raising the domestic self-sufficiency.
And of course, choosing organic vegetables that are safe for our bodies, that are environmentally sound even though they may be more expensive.
Frostpia Farm seemed like a utopia because it respects the blessings of nature and there, everything cycles. When thinking about the future of food in Japan, the presence of organic farmers like Mr. Kaneko is very important. However, I realized anew after having visited the Frostpia Farm that what is equally important is our mindset as a consumer.
Report and original Japanese text written by: Takuji Sasaki (Think the Earth Project)
Translated by: Yuri Morikawa (oxygen inc.)
Photographs by:Takuji Sasaki (Think the Earth Project)