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
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
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
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
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.”