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.
I had the opportunity to meet with the legendary Sasamura-san by tagging along on a follow up interview a professor of mine was doing for her research. Sasamura-san decided he would try his hand at self sufficiency in the early 90's and through various trials and tribulations, found himself at the helm of a group of like-minded friends wanting to participate in their food system. A talented artist, Sasamura-san speaks slowly and softly with careful deliberately chosen words but with a twinkle of mischief in his eye. He is the anti-thesis to my frenzied personality and I wonder if this is why this group has been able to weather the many storms it has encountered. He, himself, realized his dream of being self sufficient about 3 years into his project. He has since coined the idea that in Japan, self sufficiency can be achieved with just 1 acre (per person) and 4 hours of labour per day (per person). His detailed blog documents day by day, his progress and set backs throughout this period (complete with hours of labour/day). I will have to save his love of chickens for another post because that is a story in and of itself.
Like most organizations that start organically, Ashigara nou no kai does not have a clear trajectory to how it developed into its current form. When I ask about the current membership numbers, everyone around the table chuckles: numbers aren't kept and members do not sign on the dotted line. Rather, the group is fluid and it's various projects are a reflection of the changing nature of the interests and skill set of the membership.
At its core are groups managing rice paddies. Approximately 10 families share one rice paddy (about 1/4 acre). Throughout the year, the members gather to plant, weed, weed, weed,fix ditches, weed, weed and harvest. And this is where things get interesting. Hours of labour/ member are not regulated or managed. Instead, each member trusts that the others are going to contribute as much as they can, whenever they can. At the end of the season, regardless of how much each member has contributed, the harvest is split evenly. In one particularly comical anecdote, one rice collective member that would show up to every work party and promptly take a nap in the sun while the other members would be hard at work. Rather than 'punishing' this member for his lack of work ethic, other group members thought that this type of opportunity to be part of a group and getting the chance to be outdoors was what this member needed and were happy to provide that opportunity for them. I am told that this is a minority, and most take pride in their contribution to the group. For most, their portion of the harvest is far more than they need to feed themselves for the year. Sasamura-san says that it is this abundance that enables the 'generosity' of the members to not 'care' whether or not others are deserving of their share. When I pushed him on this point, Sasamura-san said that there have been people in the past that have felt this system unfair, and they were encouraged to branch out on their own. To show there were no hard feelings, the group would help set them up with a new plot of land. Indeed in the middle of the season, when the weeds get out of control, the group would usually help out the lone member keep on top of their paddy. The high road indeed.
At the end of the season (and sometimes throughout) members of individual rice paddy groups will assemble to share their experiences. Ideas for how to deal weeds and pests, maintain ditches and water management are exchanged and solutions proposed for those that had disappointing yields. In this way, each group is able to learn from not only their mistakes, but those of their fellow rice paddy groups.
Apart from the rice paddy groups (lumped into a bigger rice collective), there is a a tea collective, a soy and miso collective, a wheat collective, a micro-brew group and others continue to spring up as new members bring new interests. I believe salt making and oil pressing were also explored in the past. Each of these operate on a similar ethos to the rice groups. Each is managed loosely, with no hard and fast rules regarding member conduct or expectations. No contracts are signed, disputes are settled through civil discussions.
So what about veggies? Originally, the group used to also support new farmers by helping them acquire land to cultivate. They then would purchase all of their veggies, setting up a CSA-like system to distribute the produce weekly to members. Though this system worked well when farmers were just getting started, as they moved onto bigger pastures, rather than continuing to work with one another, farmers divvied up the customers amongst themselves and began servicing them as individual farms rather than through the collective. There is currently no veggie purchasing program through the collective, though this doesn't seem to bother anyone very much as most still participate in a CSA-like program affiliated with farmers from that time.
In 2011, with the Tohoku Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, the group experienced it's darkest hour. They lost a big part of their membership over fears that they weren't going to be able to cultivate food safely any longer. A year of extensive testing, monitoring and consultation with experts helped them overcome the uncertainty of this difficult period. I am told that though it has been 5 years since the earthquake, the group is only just starting to regain momentum. But with the strong sense of community and compassion that form the bedrock of this group, I feel that it will continue to be resilient and will be here for many more years to come.
Below is a diagram developed by Dr. Keiko Yoshino, the professor whom I was able to accompany to meet Sasamura-san.
Emi Do: Exploring ideas in small scale agriculture: feasibility, viability, relevance and resilience.