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.
I had stumbled into this opportunity, having met Aiki- the daughter and future bright light of this family farm- at a conversation circle I was presenting at. She had casually mentioned that come harvest season, their family was always short hands, so without missing a beat I gave her ALL of my contact information with fingers crossed that she would allow me to come lend a hand.
Luckily the call came in early December, which is how I found myself on a two hour bus ride to a town by the sea. In my days with Yummy Yards, I hosted a lot of volunteers: all curious community members wanting to know more about what I did and why. I hope that has given me the karma points to make up for all of the questions I ask of all the farmers I meet now! I am experienced enough to know that the little bit of labour that I provide doesn't make up for the time and energy needed to host me, but I am every so grateful that people keep opening their doors and let me peer into their businesses.
photos include captions with descriptions
The Kondo's have a long history with agriculture. They were originally a tea farm, until about two generations ago when they switched to mikan. It seems the climate and geography of Shimizu makes it ideal for mikan production, and in fact, one of the only mikan research institutes in Japan is located in the city.
Currently, the Kondo's own 1 hectare of mountainous land where they farm about 0.6 hectares of mikan. This land is seriously steep- and I can see why they were hesitant to allow me to help with harvesting those orchards. The terrain is rough, and if you take a tumble, it's a loooooong way down. Recently they have been scaling back on their mountain production in favour of farming flat land (about 1 hectare in total) they have leased from friends and family. Though less ideal for mikan production, harvesting is much easier and they can use a fancy shmancy ride-on pesticide sprayer that reduces their workload 100 fold.
So for fellow farming geeks, here's the breakdown of how mikan production works in Japan:
What I found incredibly interesting was the approach that the Agricultural Co-operative in Shimizu took to promoting agriculture in the region. The geography of Shimizu is stunning- located right by the ocean and very mountainous, the landscape is varied and occasionally (if the weather cooperates) provides one of the most stunning views of Mt. Fuji. However, as stunning as this landscape might be, it also makes it quite challenging for agriculture. Thus with an aging farming population, the local JA chapter was able to obtain grant money from the government to purchase the hilly, difficult to farm properties in the area- which they then proceeded to terrace and create infrastructure to make more accessible to older farmers. Looking at some of these sites (the Kondo's have leased two 0.5 hectare chunks for a rate of 20,000Y/year) it seems to me that these shaved off mountains- vegetation is stripped off, and bulldozers level off hill sides- would lead to terrible erosion, but interestingly, the exact opposite problem is causing problems for citrus farmers: the flat surface is causing too much water to seep into the soil leading to wet feet for citrus trees.
In addition to creating patches of flat land amongst the hills, the JA also put in paved roads and installed an irrigation system which holds water in a tank at the top of the area, and allows on demand water at a very high pressure to each of the farm sites. It's an incredible show of what farmer directed and initiated solutions can look like. The Kondo's now are able to fill their 500 L ride-on pesticide machine in 3 minutes, they can irrigate their fields by simply turning on their faucet (they have a drip system installed), rather than doing everything by backpack sprayer and hand watering which was their only option in their predominantly mountain farming days.
Some other interesting little tidbits that I gleaned:
I've mentioned pesticide use several times now, and as a proponent of sustainable agricultural systems, this might seem rather contradictory. However, the organic vs. non-organic debate I feel sometimes doesn't capture the economics or scale of the operation. The Kondo's run a very tight ship, and are incredibly concerned about ensuring that they are able to make a living through farming. This means making sure that their labour, their bodies, can be sustained while farming and the old school method of farming those steep hillsides just is NOT sustainable when you think about the demand required of the humans to farm that way. Back in the days when Aiki's father was a child, the household would have 6-7 full time live-in farm hands who would come only during the harvest season. Currently, with only three full time able bodied farmers, it is impossible for them to get all of the very 'hands on' tasks necessary to grow a quality product. They use pesticides sparingly and only in response to observed damage. They conveyed how though they hear consumers say they want 'organic' product, that the true demand is only for organic product that looks as perfect as conventional product. As we all know, the reality of organic production is that a smaller percentage of product looks 'perfect', due to not being able to attain the perfect mix of nutrients, not being able to prevent pest and disease damage. Thus, the loss in revenue- selling significantly less product for marginally more- doesn't make organic production viable. Personally, I would much prefer the Kondo's to keep farming than to insist that they grow organically- and hope that the market and the research into organic pest control methods will eventually make it viable for them to make the switch.
I feel like I gained a textbook worth of information from eating and working alongside these tireless farmers for two days. My head just about exploded with questions and I hope they'll have me back sometime next year after I've sorted through some of my ideas. So grateful that I keep having these opportunities to meet and learn from such humble yet incredible humans.
To learn more about the Kondo's Farm (In Japanese) check out their website and Facebook page.
Emi Do: Exploring ideas in small scale agriculture: feasibility, viability, relevance and resilience.