Shumei Natural Agriculture:
Farming to create heaven on earth

Tsumagoi Town: Toki Kuroiwa
In a region where cabbage is king and chemicals infuse the landscape, this tiny, determined farmer quietly does things her way

The Tsumagoi region in Gunma prefecture is all about uniformity. Toki Kuroiwa takes a different path, however, carrying on the pioneering Natural Agriculture ways of her late son. Her urban customers have turned into workers and friends, while her neighbors are slowly being won over by a system that works – without chemicals.

By Lisa M. Hamilton, Posted April 6, 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 six visits to individual Natural Agriculture (NA) practitioners. The eighth installment was the story of Osamu Yoshino, Chiba prefecture, who farms 30 acres in the midst of chemically farming neighbors.

This story features the cheerful struggle of Toki Kuroiwa in Gunma prefecture to practice Natural Agriculture amid the vast cabbage fields near Tsumagoi. (See Tsumagoi town on the map below or click here for a full map of Japan and the other farms in this series).

Mrs. Kuroiwa, 66, single-handedly undertakes to produce vegetables by natural means on her 10 acres in a region dominated – agriculturally, environmentally and politically – by chemical-intensive farming systems. She has help from urban customers, and sees more of her peers understanding the value of her way of farming.


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).

 

Below Mt. Asama, the snow-dusted trees give way to black, bare soil. I imagine a mighty hand reaching down from the nearby heavens, perforating the edges of the land and just peeling it back in strips.

Initially Kuroiwa thought that the only thing to replace the chemical tools was her own labor; an impossible feat. Then the volunteers started showing up . . . They get to learn about their food—where it comes from, how it grows—and feel some hand in making it. Coming from Tokyo’s concrete and neon sprawl, those experiences are priceless.

Kuroiwa was at first excluded [from the women’s soy-food team] because of her Natural Agriculture farming methods. Since then the partners have slowly accepted them. For one thing, their impromptu taste tests in the factory have proven Kuroiwa’s tofu the best of the bunch.

I don’t speak Japanese, but I understand the first thing Toki Kuroiwa says to me: “You’re so tall!”

I am big, but then she is positively elfin: maybe 5 feet tall, the daintiness accentuated by her white sun hat and flowered pants and apron. Her tiny hands hide inside pink latex gloves, as if she were ready to do the dishes.

We have driven small, mountain roads to reach her in the fields of Tsumagoi, up mile after mile of incline, through feathery pines still asleep from winter. When we finally pulled in, there she was: by herself, bent over the dirt about three-fourths of a mile above sea level, a constant wind blowing down her back. No dishes here; she was—and, after introductions, is again—harvesting what carrots survived winter in the Japan Alps.

She kneels in the dirt as if in casual prayer, and her 66-year-old hands dig without tools: scratch on either side of the carrot top, then wiggle, slide, and toss into the small pile on her way to the next one.

On April 24 the snow is only two weeks gone from this ground, but in some places the harvest is already too late: hungry rats have found her quarter-acre cache. But up here there’s no time to waste, and one must simply accept such a loss. So she kneels in the dirt as if in casual prayer, and her 66-year-old hands dig without tools: scratch on either side of the carrot top, then wiggle, slide, and toss into the small pile on her way to the next one.

This is perhaps the loneliest farm I’ve ever seen. Pan outward, and the landscape’s only familiar character is 8,720-foot Mt. Asama, which today stands stoically under heavy clouds. Its higher slopes are a vision of how all of Tsumagoi used to look: furry with evergreens, too high to touch. But pan down and the perfection ends sharply; the eye crosses over a line from white, snow-dusted trees to black, bare soil. I imagine a mighty hand reaching down from the nearby heavens, perforating the edges of the land and just peeling it back in strips.

The truth is not too far off. In 1961, the Japanese government declared an agricultural revolution aimed at national self-sufficiency. In 1966, it was declared that this land at the base of Mt. Asama, being one of the few areas in Japan that’s never hotter than 80°F, would be responsible for cabbage.

Farmers obediently converted their existing acreage while the government razed the forests for the rich volcanic soil beneath them. By 1975, over 2,000 acres had been converted. That year, a total of 5,000 acres pumped out 130,000 tons of cabbage.

The farmers switched to cabbage because of direct incentives—the government was handing out land and subsidies—but also for the benefit of conformity, such as the established marketing channels and government-sponsored technical support. Their complicity made the system so successful that a second phase of land “reclamation” ran from 1990-2001, converting another 1,000 acres.

Today, the fields blanketing this valley move in a synchronized pattern to which you could set your watch. On April 24, Kuroiwa’s top field is one of hundreds in a miles-long patchwork of black: all tilled, none yet planted. Down in town, the fields have faint stripes of gray-green, all just plugged yesterday. I’m told Japanese high school tests ask what the national cabbage region is. If a student answers the larger prefecture name, “Gunma,” she’s wrong. The answer is Tsumagoi, and Tsumagoi only.

Cabbage here has become not just a crop but the crop, the livelihood—the identity. In the modest, mountain villages, manhole covers are decorated with a raised steel rendering of the perfect pastoral landscape. In the picture’s foreground sit two cabbage heads—leafy, round, and proud. There’s not a person in sight.

* * *

Predictably, repeated monocropping of this heavy-feeding crop quickly left even the rich volcanic soil sapped. The government answered early on by introducing farmers to chemical fertilizers. It would have been bad enough alone, but it’s said that some shipments of the American-made NPKs also carried the komaga, or cabbage worm. Until then, local insects had picked at the outer leaves, a nuisance for the farmers but not a liability. The komaga, on the other hand, not only drilled to the cabbage’s core, it flourished in this landscape composed entirely of its favorite food. And so came the insecticides—lots of them.

If you can find locals willing to talk about the problem, they will begin by warning you to stay inside as much as possible during summertime, when the air reeks of chemicals. Tsumagoi’s short growing season doesn’t allow for mistakes, which means farmers regularly spray insecticides five times over two months. All that spraying on the loose, eroding soil of a former forest means major local water contamination. Further, the Tone River carries both the fertilizers and pesticides downstream, where it serves as a major water source for the Kanto (metropolitanTokyo) area.

For both the contamination of the water supply and the destruction of the mountain habitat, the Japanese press has decried the cabbage farms of Tsumagoi. And yet nothing has changed, many say because in the past three decades, three prime ministers (Fukuda, Nakasone, and Obuchi) have come from Gunma prefecture. Their concern is pleasing a constituency of farmers whose hands are tied: Cabbage is their livelihood. They don’t like the chemicals necessary for growing it, but they don’t see an alternative. In fact, many of them believe that those farmers who don’t use chemicals hurt the community by encouraging pests.

For a long time Toki Kuroiwa felt the same. Like the rest, she followed the mandates handed to her from above. Her only son, on the other hand, had a mind of his own. He reasoned that while losing pesticides might be a threat to their livelihoods, continuing to use them was a threat to their lives.

The evidence was undeniable. At my lunch with some local farmers, the talk always came back to mysterious black spots on the skin and black growths underneath, to stomach cancer and nerve damage. Everyone is Tsumagoi knows at least one person who has is believed to have died from pesticide use, most know more. And so in 1991, despite his parents’ disapproval, the youngest Kuroiwa began Natural Agriculture farming.

Ten years later, at age 37, he died of cancer.

Now Toki Kuroiwa is not a rebel by nature. She grew up in a Tsumagoi farm family and has lived here all her life; never ran off with a cowboy or hopped a freighter for Los Angeles. But when her son died, she felt it her duty to keep his dream alive no matter what lines she had to cross. She took over his 10 acres and continued farming in the Natural Agriculture way.

And here she is today, three years later, pulling carrots from the cold ground like business as usual . . .

It’s enough to be an independent farmer in this bandwagon community, and on top of that an independent woman in this male-dominated culture. But to then farm 10 acres alone in the conditions of Tsumagoi—with run-off that brings in pesticides and takes away soil, temperatures that can vary 25 F between noon and midnight, insane numbers of pests—and without any crop protection materials, chemical or organic?

Initially Kuroiwa thought that the only thing to replace the chemical tools was her own labor; an impossible feat. Then the volunteers started showing up.

As Kuroiwa greeted me at the field, the rest of my van’s passengers exploded onto the dark field. In sweatpants and rain gear, these denizens of Tokyo transformed into farm workers: three digging carrots here, two over there, one fetching the wheelbarrow to cart the orange gold to Kuroiwa’s tiny Daihatsu truck.

They have been helping ever since they heard through the Shumei grapevine that Kuroiwa was carrying on her son’s work. The first time they arrived out of the blue, just showing up at the field and offering help. Coming from the conventional world of Tsumagoi farming, Kuroiwa was first flummoxed, then delighted. They have returned throughout subsequent seasons, to help weed, pick off insects, or whatever else the day’s hand labor is. They never get paid, and if there’s food to harvest, they take only what Kuroiwa is selling to the CSA and transport it to the Tokyo distribution site.

This community of customers provides Kuroiwa not just a labor force but a ready-made market. Further, her place in a CSA consortium of many farmers means she can sell smaller amounts and thus diversify. She now grows not just cabbage but also carrots, daikon (radishes), and soybeans. This past winter, she experimented growing enoki mushrooms in rice bran hulls donated by her customers, a venture that was possible because she knew even a meager trial crop would sell.

It isn’t a one-sided equation; frankly, it wouldn’t work if it were. The helpers’ work is rewarded with the guarantee that their food is safe, nutritious, and in line with their spiritual philosophy. They also get to learn about their food—where it comes from, how it grows—and feel some hand in making it. Coming from Tokyo’s concrete and neon sprawl, those experiences are priceless.

* * *

The Shumei community has allowed Kuroiwa to survive against the odds, but it has been in looking beyond Shumei that she has thrived. Rather than let her methods isolate her from fellow farmers, she has found common goals by which she bonds with them.

Recently she and four friends came together over their concern for local children: the school lunches include tofu and natto, both made from soybeans imported from the U.S. and therefore probably contaminated with GMOs (genetically modified organisms). The five women pooled resources to convert a local building into a tiny soy-foods factory. They process their beans separately and maintain individual accounts, but all five split the work for each batch of food, no matter whose it is. This year they’ll supply the school with a good portion of its tofu and natto, and make some extra money off the farm in the process.

As my interpreter, Alice, and I talk with Kuroiwa in the factory, one of her partners smiles from the room where a case of natto is being labeled. We find out later that the beginning wasn’t quite so rosy, as Kuroiwa was at first excluded because of her Natural Agriculture farming methods. Since then the partners have slowly accepted them. For one thing, their impromptu taste tests in the factory have proven Kuroiwa’s tofu the best of the bunch. (A finding confirmed by a device they own, which measures sweetness.)

After the factory tour Alice and I are strolling through the village’s lonely lanes, watching farmers on their tiny tractors planting identical cabbage plugs. Cody Deguchi, our official Shumei representative, walks up and, with a song in his voice (I can recognize it even in Japanese), he tells Alice the latest news. It seems the ladies of Kuroiwa’s factory had already been considering switching to Natural Agriculture, but feared the risk. This afternoon, after Alice and I left, they announced to Kuroiwa that they were ready. Maybe the timing is a coincidence, but Alice speculates it wasn’t.

“Seeing someone come all the way from America to talk to Mrs. Kuroiwa says a lot,” she ventures.

On one hand, it’s true. The visit demonstrated that there is life beyond Tsumagoi—that somewhere there are people who have found a way out of the chemical trap, and that Kuroiwa’s struggle is supported by people from far beyond Tokyo. Still, anything that happens in this tight community ultimately comes from within. The world is a big and exciting place, but in some ways life here ranges only so far as there are manhole covers bearing cabbages.

Either way, we are delighted with the news as we walk up the road. Alice and Cody stop in front of the town cemetery and speak softly in Japanese. It is a garden of sharp black obelisks, commanding on its own, but breathtaking after Alice explains that every one of these graves is marked with the same name: Kuroiwa.

The metaphor could be read as vastly different things, either a dark common fortune or the proliferation of hope as a means of survival. Writing this at my desk in California, I vacillate between the two, always landing on the positive but nagged by the negative. And then I realize what matters is not what I divine here, a million miles away, but how it is read by all of them: Kuroiwa—Toki and the rest—, the ladies at the tofu factory, and the man on his little tractor, planting rows of cabbage almost automatically.

Maybe this year something new will spring up there, in the ghostly wells of last year’s crop, in the soil that is tired but still alive.

Lightly, fancifully,
Sprinkled upon this world--
Tiny rains of spring.
Matsuo Basho (1644-94)

 

Next (the final story in this series): Morioka CSA of Iwate Prefecture "The [CSA leaders’] adjustments centered not around appeasing consumers, but around drawing them closer to the things that repelled them. After consumers went to the fields and then learned new recipes in the kitchen, they bought food from Yoshinori Takahashi’s CSA more gladly. Now its members happily rent land to grow their own health-giving food in more economically challenging times.” CLICK HERE TO READ MORE

Farming to create heaven on earth, Introduction:
Farming measured by a different yardstick altogether