Shumei Natural Agriculture:
Farming to create heaven on earth

Morioka Town: Yoshinori Takahashi
Farmers and customers in this CSA began their mutual involvement out of obligation, but the romance of earth and the power of food won their hearts

The process was rocky, the results amazing. Stumbling into farming, the farmers learned to balance consumer demand against their own sheer joy of growing food. Their customers grew to see the healing power of their food and develop deep respect for the farmers’ role. Further changes have the farmers renting out their land and helping families to grow their own.

By Lisa M. Hamilton, Posted June 14, 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 (Click here to visit the very first article in the series). 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 eighth installment was the story of Osamu Yoshino, Chiba prefecture, who farms 30 acres in the midst of chemically farming neighbors. Story nine featured the cheerful struggle of Toki Kuroiwa, 66, in Gunma prefecture, who practices Natural Agriculture amid the vast cabbage fields near Tsumagoi.

The final series entry and farm visit describes the metamorphosis of a CSA in Morioka in Iwate, one of the northernmost prefectures of Japan’s main island. (See Morioka town on the map below or click here for a full map of Japan and the other farms in this series).

Yoshinori Takahashi began farming “cold turkey” in the early 1990s when Shumei’s leaders began the modern re-emphasis on Natural Agriculture, as taught by their founder, Mokichi Okada. He learned from an older farmer then suddenly had to take the lead in both growing and marketing.

It was only when a Shumei non-farmer felt compelled to do whatever was necessary to help the local Shumei farmers succeed that the rest of the spiritual community rallied around. They formed a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) variation that succeeded in building relationships – and finally trust – between Shumei consumers and farmers.


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).

Taste of food,
soil soft

Homemaker Miyoyo Tanooka reports that she has been touched in a number of ways. She started out with the same blind devotion that made new food hard to deal with. Initially, she was impressed by how her severe food allergies were left unaggravated by Natural Agriculture meals. It was the sheer taste, however, that won her over. “I had lost my palate,” she says. “But now that it’s back, I won’t return to that other way of looking at food.”

She also recognized differences outside herself. Now that she knew where her food came from, she was horrified to think about her previous diet. She noticed that the non-organic farm where she lived was devoid of all insects but leeches, and empty of animals aside from the occasional frog found dead in the drive. When she first helped in a Natural Agriculture rice paddy, she found the ground not cold and hard as she was used to, but soft and warm—a place she wanted to be.

SLIDESHOW: Farming to create heaven on earth
The beauty of Natural Agriculture

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 mentality.”

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 repelled them.

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 a living.

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 hike.

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 opportunity

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 profit.

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 it produced.

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.”