Want a Taste of Social Justice?
“You are what you eat” goes the old adage, but in our increasingly globalized food system, figuring out what it is you’re actually eating, can feel rather difficult. In Japan, where expectations for food safety and standards in quality are high, consumers have been fighting for the right to know what they are putting into their bodies for decades.
When first visioning the type of farm I wanted Yummy Yards to be, I often thought about how to bridge the relationship between consumer and producer. Was it possible to take money out of the exchange? How much could be done through exchange? The closest I came to incorporating these ideas into practice was through the 'farm support fee' that I incorporated into our CSA membership program. Members could choose to 'pay' that fee through exchange of service, labour, goods or currency. But even this felt like it was a part of our capitalist paradigm.
So imagine my surprise (and excitement!) when I heard about Ashigara Nou No Kai (loosely translated to Ashigara Agricultural Association) and how their labour-exchange community farm operated. I hope I can capture in this post the essence of the magic that holds this group together.
It's not everyday that are faced with a small door camouflaged in the sound absorbing wall on the side of a busy highway, and I wasn't sure what would be awaiting us on the other side. The highway bus we had taken had just dropped us off, and the four of us spent a few bewildered moments trying to figure out what to do when we spotted the door. Thankfully, what awaited us on the other side of the door was a smiley Uozumi-san, ushering us into a large and comfortable passenger van.
Uozumi-san is touted as being one of the pioneers of the organic farming movement in Japan. He has been farming for over 40 years getting his start as a hired farmer in a group collective formed to grow organic produce for a consumer group concerned with the health effects of pesticide and herbicide residue on food products. He and his wife branched off to do their own thing shortly thereafter, but were approached by a 100 member consumer group to be their sole produce and egg provider. Those same customers (some have left, and some new have joined) remain the base for their farm sales.
We couldn't have asked for a more beautiful day weather wise, but what we didn't know as we timidly made our way through Blueberry Garden ASAHI farm overlooking the Ashigara Heiya valley, was that this day was going to be beautiful in all senses of the word.
This day, was the annual miso making workshop hosted by Miso No Kai, a group I first heard about the group when I learned of the many projects under the big umbrella of Ashigara Nou No Kai. It was lucky that this year's miso making workshop happened to be during a visit from my good friends Doug and Gemma, farmers visiting from Zaklan Heritage Farm in (sort of) Vancouver. And so it was, that I excitedly signed us all up to pop in to observe.
There's something a little bit different about Masa Toyota. I'm not sure if it was the bright pink polo shirt he was wearing when we first met, his big toothy grin contrasting with broad shoulders, sun leathered skin and a constant stream of cigarettes, but I think we all knew he was a book certainly not to be judged by it's cover.
I had the opportunity to visit Lakeside Farm as a part of a research trip to Shinraicho- a small farming village on the shores of Lake Biwa in Shiga prefecture. The farm was founded three years ago by Toyota-san who used to be a sales person in the apparel industry. Feeling disconnected and disenchanted with his job, and bubbling with a desire for tangible skills he ventured into agriculture 8 years ago. The farm currently employs three people: Toyota, Tanaka and Moriuchi. Tanaka has been with the farm since it's inception, and is solely responsible for the management of sales and distribution. Moriuchi joined the team this year and is responsible for production.
I am not one to get anxious over minor details- I can find order in most chaotic scenes, and prefer piles of paper on top of a desk over clear surfaces with drawers stuffed incomprehensibly. But there is something about seeing a field full of weeds going to seed that makes my stomach flutter with panic.
Visiting Hama Farm helped to put all of that anxiety into perspective though. 9 years into his journey as a natural farmer, a few weed seeds don't mean much compared to the years of weed seeds banked in the neglected soils he's slowly nurtured back to production. Rather than fight the onslaught, he simply alternates which fields he harvests from year to year, clearing only the areas encroaching on the plants he is utilizing that season.
On March 11th 2011, a large M 9.0 earthquake hit off the coast of North Eastern Japan. The subsequent tsunami lead to one of the largest nuclear disasters since the advent of nuclear power production. Fast forward 3 years to March 11th 2014, and I am in the final stages of uprooting my life in Vancouver, BC to to move to Japan to start my Masters’ degree in agricultural economics at Tokyo University of Agriculture. Besides the usual anxieties of starting over in a new city, let alone new country, was the fear that I had no idea what future health effects would result from this decision to live less than 300 km away from where the meltdown occurred. Here I was, reading reports of the environmental consequences of the radioactive waste along the coast of North America, an ocean away, and I was going to move CLOSER to where a nuclear plant was continuing to spew out contaminated waste water?
A week before Christmas, I boarded a bus to Shimizu, a small town in the prefecture of Shizuoka, to visit a small family owned mikan (Japanese tangerine) farm. I was SUPER excited because:
a) I love visiting farms, especially family farms
b) I love citrus and think it would be a DREAM to have too much citrus to deal with
c) I hadn't done any farm work in a couple of months and my body was aching for some physical labour.
Since arriving in Tokyo over two months ago, I've been struck by the number of 'farms' scattered throughout the city. These lots, ranging in size from a quarter to half acre, overflowing with produce ranging from corn and potatoes, to grapes and fields of blueberry bushes. In a city where it seems every square inch is optimized for maximum functionality (remember, this is the city of capsule hotels where people crawl into cubby holes for the evening), how are farms- micro as they are- able to maintain their land base? How are they able to keep their farms alive?
It seems it's a matter of policy... and peer pressure.
Pitchforks might have felt a little heavier on May 29th 2014 the day after Bill 24 was passed by BC legislature which enabled protection of farmland placed in the ALR (Agricultural Land Reserve) over 35 years ago. The struggle for farm land preservation isn't local to BC, rather it is one being faced by farmers globally as evident by the mounds of articles posted on farmlandgrab.org.
I had the opportunity to visit Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology's (TUAT)silk worm production farm on a beautiful weekend in May. The farm site had been established to study the process of manufacturing silk economically and efficiently. Indeed, sericulture was a important field of study for Japan, whose economy as late as the 1950s was still relying heavily on the export of raw silk. In fact, when Japan opened it's doors to international trade in 1859, silk was one of the few products it had to trade with the West. In 1872, the Japanese government established the Tomioka Silk Mill, bringing in a consultant from France to help modernize and mechanize silk production. This mill helped make Japan the largest silk exporter in the world in 1907.
Emi Do: Exploring ideas in small scale agriculture: feasibility, viability, relevance and resilience.