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.
When I asked how he defined the difference between organic and natural farming, he said it was that he added nothing to his land- no fertilizers, no amendments, nothing. He also didn't take anything away from his land, allowing the nutrients stored in weeds and grasses to be re-incorporated into the soil. I had a hard time coming to terms with soils being able to replenish themselves of nutrients and micronutrients year after year, until I saw his water source: mountain springs. I can only imagine all of the minerals that wash down from the breakdown of rocks and forest hummus year after year every spring, bringing life back to the soils below.
But I am getting carried away, and I'd rather not skim through his rather unusual farming style.
1) Utilizing unconventional growing spaces
Hama-san is a very big fan of making productive use of unconventional spaces on his farm land. He cultivates the banks surrounding his rice paddies, thus reducing the area where grasses can grow and set seed, and also increasing the nitrogen content of his soils. It also creates a permeable barrier, which I think looks rather beautiful.
He also likes to grow between the rows of tea trees in the fields he is harvesting from that season. He lets sunchokes and daikon self seed (allows selective daikon plants to go to seed and then thins out the ones he doesn't want in subsequent seasons), and plants carrots and onions from seeds he's been gifted from fellow natural farmers.
2) Letting the weeds win every other year
Allowing tea fields to be fallow every other year: this is a little bit contradictory to the previous, as it means half of his tea fields are not cultivated. In fact, other tea farms I've visited not only harvest their tea trees every season, most harvest from them 3-4 times a season. Hama's trees are over 60 years old though, where most farms rip their trees out after 30-40 years. You can barely see the tea trees underneath all of the weeds in this photo.
When it comes time to harvest tea, Hama-san simply cuts the weeds down, thus exposing sweet new tea leaf growth, then goes through with a large harvester with his sister. (The large mechanized harvester is similar to the ones I saw being utilized by small tea farmers in Kyoto last year). This way, he is able to harvest the new tea leaves without interference from the weeds. The benefit of having the weeds shadow the tea leaves is that it produces a sweeter tea, one without as many tannins. Many tea farms achieve this by putting shade cloth over their tea trees in the weeks before harvesting.
3) Appropriate technology
I am a sucker for old school farm equipment, and it seems Hama-san is as much of a fan as I am. I loved seeing all of the old tea equipment, from hand weeding tools to the old gas powered drier and tea leaf crusher. He doesn't use a fermenter to ferment his tea leaves though. Rather, after harvesting, Hama-san lays out the tea leaves on the forest floor on top of tarps for three days, allowing the leaves to ferment naturally. He claims the wind, the cool temperature under the forest canopy and the moisture of the forest are all perfect for this purpose. Having drank the tea (quite different than drinking the kool-aid I promise you!), I would have to agree.
Another awesome use of forest spaces is the shitake mushroom space he's created. He has over 700 mushroom logs, the the space to add more every year as he continues to selectively maintain the forest adjacent to one of his fields.
It was a beautiful holistic system that the Hamas are cultivating. I was surprised to learn that they didn't own ANY of the land they farmed, rather it was through sheer determination and hard work that Hama-san earned the trust of this village. He has worked his way up from one rice paddy (1/10 ha or 1/4 acre) to 1.2 ha (~3 acres) of rice production and 2 hectares (~5 acres) of tea fields. His path to farming was also hard earned: he started dreaming of being a vegetable farmer when he was an agricultural high school student in the very urban city of Osaka, then majored in vegetable production at an Agricultural Technical College in Gifu, worked for the national Agricultural Co-operative (JA) in Hokkaido, before starting various internships (one of which was with Masanobu Fukuoka of One Straw Revolution fame!!!) with organic and natural farmers in the Nara area. He was 40 when he was finally able to live out his dream of running his own farm, when gifted the opportunity to farm land in a small village with the number of farmers dwindling.
Hama Farms now sells their wares at about 20 different local shops, holds about 20 individual customers who order direct from the farm, and they run workshops and go to farmers markets about twice a month. They gross about 4,800,000Y a year, of which about 40% goes towards paying the Hamas (they split the income equally between the two). Most people here would balk at that income, though the Hamas seem satisfied with their take home earnings.
Personally, exploring all of their fields in their tiny 4x4, I felt the richness of the life they had cultivated- the community that they found among the ornery older farmers, the simplicity and slow flow of their day, the little moments of surprise and laughter as they discovered unexpected blossoms and fruits (eggplant!) of their labour in among the weeds. I usually leave farms filled with some sort of extreme emotion- shell shocked, inspired, awe-struck... but as I left the Hamas on the night train back to Nara, I was struck by the sense of serenity that filled my belly. Definitely something for me to ruminate as I ponder more agricultural philosophies.
Emi Do: Exploring ideas in small scale agriculture: feasibility, viability, relevance and resilience.