Shumei Natural Agriculture:
Farming to create heaven on earth

Yamada town: Osamu Yoshino
Natural Agriculture farmer finds locating a market more challenging than letting go of chemicals

Osamu Yoshino of Chiba prefecture survived a “cold turkey” switch to no-chemical, no-input farming thanks to supporters who were willing to pull his weeds. There was only one problem: nobody would buy the food. Now he's turning his eye on neighboring organic farmers to see what they can teach each other about success and spirit.

By Lisa M. Hamilton, Posted February 13, 2004

Editor's NOTE:

To open “Farming to create heaven on earth” -- her series on Shumei Natural Agriculture in Japan -- California photojournalist Lisa M. Hamilton crafted a three-part historical and cultural foundation. The fourth and fifth installments told the story of Reiji Murota, an inquisitive man who thinks deeply about embedding agricultural systems within the natural world on Kishima Island.

Installment seven featured a visit to Nobuaki Nakayasu in Hyogo prefecture, the third of Hamilton’s five visits to individual Natural Agriculture (NA) practitioners.

This eighth installment is the story of Osamu Yoshino. After further farm profiles, the series will close with the Shumei version of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm in Iwate where the consumers have become more involved as time goes on.

Osamu Yoshino's farm is set in the corner of 30 acres of chemical farms in Yamada town in the Chiba prefecture. (See Yamada town on the map below or click here for a full map of Japan and the other farms in this series).

Yoshino and Keiko Domae have helped build a network of CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) in Japan in response to the struggle Yoshino experienced between the popularity of out-of-season foods and the ultra-seasonal cycle of Natural Agriculture.


About the Author:
Lisa M. Hamilton

Lisa M. Hamilton, a California journalist and fine-arts photographer. Her stories and photos have delighted readers in national publications such as National Geographic Traveler, Gastronomica, Z Magazine and The Humanist. She has edited, written and produced publications on art, entertainment and environmental issues, in print and on the Web. She has distinguished herself in agricultural journalism with an acclaimed series of stories on prominent California crops in The Newsletter of CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers).

The fields appear to have been laid out by a survey crew. The raised rows are perfectly parallel, each packed tightly under plastic like ground beef at the supermarket. Young potato plants that are as unnaturally uniform as the trees lining sidewalks in Tokyo poke through most of the covers. Looking at the rows not yet planted, I wonder if they are perhaps growing the plastic itself; I imagine the farmers at harvest time walking slowly down the rows, pulling the new crop off the field and folding it into perfect square bundles.

Osamu Yoshino must drive all those farmers crazy. His field jogs out diagonally into a neighbor’s bare ground, then swings around in a half-circle rimmed with deep green grass almost defiantly curly. The rows are varied—three onions, three grass, two daikon. There’s a blue tarp here, a red basket there. Sticks and weeds are bundled carefully with twine and leaned against the trees, which in turn hang their longest branches back over the dirt. In fact, sitting in the corner of 30 acres of chemical farms, this field feels more similar to the neighboring forest—like a child raised by wolves. And yet Yoshino is the only human among all the fields; the rest appear to be managed by remote control.

Even without another farmer for comparison, this lithe, handsome man looks different. He has a pink hand towel tied around his head as a hat, a black warm-up jacket with the SUPERSTAR brand logo in red on the chest, and longish fingernails that reach past his fingertips. To me he looks so young and almost hip it’s hard to believe he is a native of this little village, the son of farmers.

To me he looks so young and almost hip it’s hard to believe he is a native of this little village, the son of farmers.

He grew up farming same as the rest: he didn’t like using chemicals, but figured there was no alternative. The difference: he was willing to experiment. One season he decided to forego using herbicides on a rice paddy. Proving the suspicious neighbors right, it was a disaster. There were far more weeds than Yoshino could remove himself, and the field went to pot.

The local Shumei center saw it as an opening. They coerced Yoshino into doing a Natural Agriculture trial that left the paddy free of not just herbicides, but all additives. Once again the weeds were tremendous, but this time Yoshino had an unexpected replacement for the sprays. When it came time for him to weed the field, he was joined by scores of Shumei volunteers.

The success that resulted convinced Yoshino to gradually convert all of his five acres to Natural Agriculture. He knew it would mean a loss in yields, but figured he would adjust his lifestyle; he could live leanly. The new approach would require more manpower, but he grew to trust his volunteers. There was only one problem he couldn’t solve: nobody would buy the food.

He had tried selling at the local Shumei center, but without much luck. The members were sympathetic, but still used to supermarket produce that was both perfect-looking and unrestricted by season. In the moderate climate east of Tokyo, Yoshino had customers only when the desirable vegetables were harvested—which was not often enough. When even meager survival became impossible, he told another Shumei member that he couldn’t continue without a market for his crops. Her response: “Just tell me how many customers you need and I’ll get them.”

Keiko Domae never wastes time. No sooner does she confront a problem than she is already solving it. She had a long history of pairing people with food, so to her the solution to Yoshino’s market problem was a simple equation: all they needed was to establish within Shumei a food buying group similar to the co-ops she had helped form throughout Chiba prefecture.

“There’s no way it will work,” Yoshino remembers telling her. When she asked why, he said, “Because you buy what you want to eat. That’s the consumer way.”

He knew that as a Natural Agriculture farmer he couldn’t possibly satisfy the demands of a conventional palate. Because he understood the natural cycles, he could be happy eating stored root vegetables through the winter or solely greens in early spring; but he didn’t think Domae and the food-buying group she envisioned could.

Because [Yoshino] understood the natural cycles, he could be happy eating stored root vegetables through the winter or solely greens in early spring; but ... He knew that as a Natural Agriculture farmer he couldn’t possibly satisfy the demands of a conventional palate.

For the moment he was right. Domae had long wanted to provide her family with safe food, but never once had she considered seasonality. For her, a pork cutlet was naturally served with cabbage and fresh tomatoes, 12 months a year. All of her co-ops had been successful, but she always ended up leaving because the objective shifted: they would go from providing safe food to providing convenience food cheaply.

“Each one claimed to be supporting healthy attitudes toward food,” she says, “but really the relationship was no different from that in a supermarket.” Now it was clear that the missing link was the relationship with the farmer.

Once again, the solution seemed simple. Domae gathered 60 members for a direct farmer to consumer arrangement, or CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), who vowed to adjust their diets to the natural cycle, and Yoshino kept growing. But for the members to keep their promise, they had to understand what they were adjusting to. As she says now, “The only way to do that was to stand with the farmer in his field.”

Yoshino laughs when he remembers the first time Domae waded into the rice paddy to weed. “I remember her screaming,” he says. She’s not a dainty woman, but the mud squishing through her toes was too much. Shaking his head, Yoshino told her to just go sit down or work elsewhere on the farm.

That time she did excuse herself, but she later returned, again and again. Today, after seven years, she can give a tour of the farm herself. The original buying group has grown into a network of CSAs that covers the Greater Tokyo area. It encompasses 24 groups of consumers and employs 60 farmers, 20 of them full time. A fax and e-mail system links the farmers’ surpluses to CSAs throughout the rest of the country, and a similar network allows Shumei members to buy processed staples like soy sauce from specialized Natural Agriculture producers. Of all the group’s achievements, though, Domae seems most proud of this: “People have come and gone,” she says, “but those 60 original families are all still with us.”

Domae gathered 60 members ... who vowed to adjust their diets to the natural cycle ... But for the members to keep their promise, they had to understand what they were adjusting to. As she says now, “The only way to do that was to stand with the farmer in his field.”

* * *

Just down the road from Yoshino is the farm of Shigenori Hayashi, a non-Natural Agriculture organic farmer whose solo CSA feeds 60 families. We are here walking the fields in the spring rain—Hayashi pointing to everything he sees and talking excitedly, I spinning a bit from the shock of this place.

After a week on Natural Agriculture farms, I’m struck by how professional his operation is, how homogenous. The rows are long and narrow, each planted in a single crop from one end to the other, 120 meters away. (Hayashi knows this distance off the top of his head.) No weeds separate the rows. In fact, the only breath between crops is strips of bare soil, flat and neatly tilled and awaiting their planting. Despite the cool spring there are already maybe 20 things growing here, including parsley, wheat, and peas that arise from black plastic.

Standing in the greenhouse amidst a tidy sea of seed trays, I realize why this place is so strange: it looks just like an organic farm in the States. My perspective has been so skewed by the Natural Agriculture farms, that this order and planning—these eggplants and peppers in gallon pots, this lettuce planted in dirt free of weeds, these employees—it all suddenly seems sterile.

* * *

Reading this now, back in the States, I can say I’m no longer jarred by the sight of an organic farm. And yet as I walk through acres around me in Northern California, their differences from Natural Agriculture fields are glaring. Neither approach seems inherently superior, but that’s because they are trying to accomplish different things. One is a business; heartfelt, yes, but still a business. The other is a religion.

When I visited Japan in late April, Hayashi had started sweet potatoes in a deep bin in his greenhouse. Even in the rain the soil sat at about 90 degrees, which meant the vines were growing like mad, their purple veins threading through deep green leaves. Once planted out, they would be way ahead of the season. On the same day at Yoshino’s, the seed sweet potatoes grew in the field, shielded from birds by a mesh tunnel anchored with sacks of rice hulls. They grew slowly and would be harvested later than Hayashi’s—and pretty much everyone’s—but that didn’t bother him. He had chosen that approach to be closer to what happens in nature. Getting an early crop was unimportant, perhaps even antithetical.

...at Yoshino’s, the seed sweet potatoes grew in the field, shielded from birds by a mesh tunnel anchored with sacks of rice hulls. They grew slowly and would be harvested later than Hayashi’s—and pretty much everyone’s—but that didn’t bother him.

At least in the case of Yoshino and Hayashi, the difference between Natural Agriculture and standard organic farming is the way the market drives the choices. For instance, Hayashi grows udo, a traditional “mountain vegetable,” in a pitch-black room with mounds of dirt on the floor—literally a walk-in cooler that has been unplugged. In the wild, the asparagus-like stalk would grow in natural light and turn green, but here the objective is an entirely blanched stalk—like the Japanese consumer is used to.

Needless to say, Yoshino wouldn’t dream of growing udo that way, but he has that luxury because of his customers’ commitment to the emulation of nature. Their role has become like that of the passive consumer in the wild. A deer, for instance, takes what nature gives it without demand or expectation and rolls silently with the vagaries of season and weather. Likewise Domae and the others are devoted to taking what Yoshino and the elements give them.

When times of trouble do come, Hayashi can fall back on some pest protection with a spray made from ground-up insects and fortify tired fields with manure and compost. His customers don’t demand it, but his goal is to provide them food, and that seems the most effective way. When a crop fails for Yoshino, he can do nothing but watch and wonder how to manage it differently next time. “Unless you’re prepared to do that physically, mentally, and financially you can’t switch to Natural Agriculture,” he says. “It gives you no safety net.”

* * *

The difference in technique would seem to separate the two ideologies, but Yoshino maintains that those differences are what they have to teach one another. While organic farming in Japan is part of an alternative culture, Natural Agriculture comes from a spiritual belief that is driving to change things within a conventional world. In Shumei, growers switch over directly from chemical farming and fast food consumers throw themselves into seasonal eating. Because the change is led by deep conviction in an abstract concept, the transition can be bumpy. Yoshino admits that many Natural Agriculture farmers follow the idea rather blindly; they believe in the concept, but struggle to translate it into successful farming technique.

On the other hand, organic farmers like Hayashi have very precise goals that are both practical and ideological: eliminate pesticide use, provide safe food, and serve like-minded customers. Yoshino argues that that experience, wherein motivation and technique are the same, is exactly what Natural Agriculture farmers need to make their approach work. Likewise, Yoshino admires Hayashi’s absolute conviction. Not that Natural Agriculture farmers don’t trust their goal, but it’s a more difficult one to wrap their heads around. Success is just plain simpler when you aim to eliminate pesticides than when you aim to create a heaven on earth.

But what organic farmers have in conviction, Natural Agriculture farmers have in devotion. They return their fields immediately and completely, rather than taking what they see as the slow road of holding onto things such as B.t. and animal fertilizer—which provide a safety net but seem to compromise core values. Domae would add that this absolute transformation extends beyond mere technique. She says, “I had always thought, Yes, we have this great philosophy, but making a living is a separate thing. Now I know that if you really want to understand nature and the true meaning of living, you can’t separate them.”

“I had always thought, Yes, we have this great philosophy, but making a living is a separate thing. Now I know that if you really want to understand nature and the true meaning of living, you can’t separate them.”

And so Natural Agriculture consumers make sacrifices to allow the farmers to join craft and spirit in a fashion unfettered by finances. Having been given this chance, Yoshino speaks of his non-Natural Agriculture non-organic neighbors almost with pity. In his eyes, farmers driven entirely by the market aren’t always free to make the best choices. “For them, farming has become a way of making a living, rather than a way of living itself. They can’t get out of the web they got trapped in, thinking this is the only way they can survive.”

Now Hayashi is hardly a slave to the grind; even in the steely rain he radiates such joy from his farm that it’s difficult to see him as a victim. He is somewhere on that continuum of what farming should be, just as the plastic farmers are, just as Yoshino is. For now Natural Agriculture and organics are distinct marks on that continuum, their objectives and the worlds they exist in so disparate. But Yoshino believes that they are converging into one practice.

“Yes, technically we’re different, but [we’re] both trying to get to the same goal,” he says. “In the future, our differences will be fewer. It’s almost like the practices that are meant to be will prevail. Some of it is what you do in the field, some of it is what you think while you’re doing it. What those should be exactly, we’ll only find out in time.”