When Yoshinori Takahashi started
farming, he wasn’t thinking about how he would
do it, he just knew that he had to.
He was an electrician for a cigarette company in Morioka,
in the mountainous northernmost region of Japan’s main
island, Honshu. In the early 1990s he heard the call from
Shumei’s leaders to embrace the philosophy’s essential
but (then) oft-forgotten directive to grow food according
to founder Mokichi Okada’s methods.
Until then, Natural Agriculture had existed largely in theory;
Shumei’s food and farming looked no different from the
rest of the world’s.
Takahashi got a part-time job with the first local Natural
Agriculture farmer, Masamitsu Sakata. As he worked, his devotion
was clarified by the tangible effects of the labor. Whereas
his previous job had left him with rheumatism and a troubled
immune system, growing and eating Natural Agriculture food
was nurturing him back to health.
At the same time he watched a child with a chronic disease
who, after months without solid food, was able to eat Natural
Agriculture rice. As he saw the child’s skeleton regain
strength, he felt the calling to devote himself to farming.
When Sakata dropped out of farming, Takahashi took over his
5 acres and went full time. Land is precious in the area,
and the farmers who own it are loathe to rent to newcomers
because of competition. So when Sakata’s family reclaimed
the land soon after Takahashi took over, it looked like the
end. But the new farmer was undeterred. He called on the local
Shumei community and found 5 more acres. After borrowing money
and dipping into his government retirement funds, he finally
owned his own farm.
But after the initial elation wore off, Takahashi realized
that his survival was now dependent on the consumers. Because
his crops were grown in this alternative way, he couldn’t
sell them outside Shumei. His only income came from leaving
crops at the Morioka center and hoping people would stop in
and buy them.
Some growing, some buying, some rotting
At the same time, eight others in the area had been inspired
by the call to Natural Agriculture and had started farming
part-time. While the strength in numbers meant a sheer bulk
of food that would attract consumers’ attention, it
also meant competition for a limited market. You see, while
Shumei members were characteristically obedient in supporting
the farmers, it simply wasn’t in their blood yet. They
bought whenever they visited the center, but sometimes that
was less than others. Some weeks, the farmers were called
in to retrieve their produce, which lay rotting exactly where
they had dropped it off.
The part-time farmers weren’t hurt too badly, but Takahashi
couldn’t survive on such a precarious income. When his
friend from the cigarette company and fellow Shumei member
Masae Sasaki saw this, she was determined to help. As with
Takahashi, there was no plan on how, exactly, it would happen,
only sheer will that it would.
Working off the model of the successful CSA in Chiba, Sasaki
rounded up 100 members to join what she called the Vegetable
Club. Members contributed 500 yen (about $4.50) monthly to
participate, then paid for weekly shares of the participating
farmers’ produce. Sasaki convened a steering committee
made of farmers and consumers, and after a seemingly smooth
year sent out a survey to assess the program.
A flood of anonymous responses confided that things weren’t
as good as she had thought. The members’ hearts and
minds were committed to the Shumei ideal, but they couldn’t
help that their palates had been trained by supermarket food.
They were disappointed by the food’s appearance and
its seasonality. Further, they were getting way more than
they could eat, especially since many of the unfamiliar crops
were culinary mysteries.
“I finally understood
how difficult it is to coax a crop out of the ground.
With that knowledge, you start to lose the supermarket
As the steering committee began making changes, they knew
one thing had to stay the same: the members had to keep eating
the food—it was the only way the plan would ever work.
In turn, the adjustments they made centered not around appeasing
consumers, but around drawing them closer to the things that
The first step came out of Sasaki’s own experience.
She, too, had come to the CSA with no consciousness about
food-growing, but through visiting the farmers and working
in their fields her perspective had changed. “I saw
how hard the work was,” she says. “I finally understood
how difficult it is to coax a crop out of the ground. With
that knowledge, you start to lose the supermarket mentality.”
Reconciling buyers to mystery crops
The consumers were encouraged to go to the fields and learn
for themselves. And then they were sent back to the kitchen.
The steering committee organized cooking classes that taught
members how to take advantage of every last bit of food the
farmers produced. For tomatoes gone soft, they learned how
to make tomato juice. For carrots gone limp, they learned
to make a gelatin mold. They showed how to make the seasonal
abundance of turnips appealing day after day, and how to make
obscure “mountain crops”” (ambiguous roots,
shoots and leaves) appealing at all.
The final step was to take all this individual learning and
turning it back into a community experience. In what remains
tradition to this day, the farmers and consumers gathered
twice a year to share the experiences they’ve had with
the food: how their views have changed, how their lives have
improved, how their bodies and minds have been healed.
By 1999, things were much better. The consumers were comfortable
with the seasonal diet because they understood it more clearly.
Further, they were able to see the remarkable physical effects
of eating Natural Agriculture food, after the benefits had
accumulated for several years. Their commitment was indomitable.
Only one problem remained: Takahashi still wasn’t making
In order to survive, he needed his customers to buy more
or pay higher prices. But they were stretched thin as it was,
both economically and practically. They were accepting produce
that was sometimes mediocre and still buying as much as they
could eat. Their wallets couldn’t accommodate a price
Neither side could compromise any more than it already had.
In addressing the issue, the steering committee realized
that the farmers (10 part-time and one full-time) had been
producing far more food than the Morioka members could eat.
Takahashi was even sending excess to the Tokyo-area CSA, which
complicated things for farmers there.
In its first stage, the CSA had gone from no food to full
capacity because of the growers’ unbridled passion to
produce crops. They simply grew as much as they could of whatever
worked best, driven by the spirit of the act. But now that
the organization had matured, the production management had
to follow suit.
“Community” guidance boosts
The steering committee began directing who would grow what,
how much, and when. The mere mention of such outside control
makes most non-Natural Agriculture farmers bristle. For these
growers, though, agriculture was more of a spiritual act than
a professional one. What’s more, their roles were not
as individual business-people but as players in a community,
so it made sense to plan the farming as a unit. Perhaps the
central organization would even mean less waste, and more
Agriculture was more
of a spiritual act than a professional one . . . their
roles were not as individual business-people but as players
in a community.
The systematization allowed the steering committee to branch
out into food processing, which meant more market for the
farmers. The committee ordered increased soybean production
so it could start making tofu and miso and selling it to members.
It researched ways to dry potatoes and other produce. It even
found a factory that would process Natural Agriculture soy
sauce. Suddenly, the farmers’ sales stretched beyond
the six-month growing season.
Meanwhile, a similar change was taking place on the farms.
When several growers fell ill and couldn’t work, they
found that their fields were taken care of by consumers. Takahashi
and others realized what had really been missing: trust. Until
then, despite good intentions they had all been acting as
individuals rather than as a community that worked together.
Their hearts and minds were committed, but their actions were
stuck in old patterns.
This was an essential realization for dealing with the economic
downturn at the turn of the 21st century. As consumers took
second jobs, they found themselves without time to volunteer
at the farms. Predictably, Takahashi had to switch some fields
from vegetables to the less labor-intensive grains. But the
next step was totally unexpected. Instead of pulling away
because they couldn’t afford it, consumers chose to
move closer. They began renting parts of the farm so they
could grow their own food.
It started with rice, a crop one can grow without daily maintenance.
Growing it themselves wasn’t much cheaper, but they
found that because the fields were their own, they wanted
to go out there—they made time to farm.
CSA roles evolve
Mitsuko Hasegewa and her family took on 1/10th of an acre
at Takahashi’s. Both her husband and father were reluctant
at first, but eventually got so excited they started vegetable
gardens to complement the rice production. Her kids treated
the paddy as a playground, a set-up that delighted Hasegewa.
Not only was it a safe place for them to be, it allowed them
to develop their own relationships with the land and the food
Connecting people to
food this way acts as a time-release education: the families
change what they’re eating this season, they learn
how to do it on their own next season, and they alter
their views of food for years to come.
“When my son goes out to play now, he’ll make
himself a rice ball to take with him for lunch,” she
says. “He doesn’t put anything in it, just a little
salt. It’s amazing, with all greasy fast food around
him, he now just enjoys the taste of the rice. That’s
because he knows it.”
The Hasegewas and many others now rely more on their gardens
and paddies and less on the CSA. In fact, some members have
dropped out completely, as they grow all their own food. New
members are still joining, but the CSA’s ranks are ultimately
decreasing. According to Takahashi’s wife, Kinuko, that’s
not such a bad thing.
“This has always been less about 'Let’s start
a CSA' than 'How do we form this around the food?'”
she says. “In this case, full-time farmers feeding the
people is not necessarily the best solution. It’s a
natural evolution. In fact, it’s almost like a school:
people graduate up through the ranks.”
Many farmers still grow for the CSA, but others have moved
on to fill the new need: education.
Yoshiteru Shimisa, one of the former part-time farmers, now
runs a farm that teaches food growing to people in Shumei
and beyond. School groups come through for one-day lessons,
but the garden is run by families that participate for the
whole season. Together with Shimisa, they decide what they’ll
plant, grow it together, and each take home some of the harvest.
As he sees it, connecting people to food this way acts as
a time-release education: the families change what they’re
eating this season, they learn how to do it on their own next
season, and they alter their views of food for years to come.
“McDonald’s operates on the theory that if you
get kids eating something before they’re ten years old,
they’ll eat it forever,” Shimisa says. “Well,
hopefully that means that because of this experience, they’ll
be eating Natural Agriculture food for the rest of their lives.”