Tarumi sits on his sofa as often as he can. As a piece of furniture
it’s nothing special to look at, though the well in the
right seat marks it as thoroughly tested for comfort. It’s
not really even in a room, but rather in the strip of hallway
that fronts the house.
Most would prefer another of the many seating options of
this spacious house: the inviting rocking chair, the garden
bench, the thin pillow on the floor in front of a blue iMac.
There are even two tatami rooms to choose from, one within
arm’s reach of the sofa hallway. It’s a gorgeous
room, with decorative swords crossed mightily on the wall
and the sound of water rushing by outside. From the rafters
there, Tarumi’s parents preside in portrait form, each
looking elegant, austere, proud and strong—she in a
black kimono as tight as a corset, he in an immaculate suit.
But Tarumi chooses this seat. It’s the view that draws
him—through the floor-to-ceiling glass door, past his
gardens all blue and purple, and onto his fields. When lunch
was finished today, he waited as long as politeness required,
then snapped back to the seat as if attached by a rubber band
working in slow motion. And so here he is, his hardy frame
sunk into cushions and his owl-eyes staring out to the rice
paddies covered in pink.
For 56 years he has been doing this in one form or another.
He grew up here, went to school in the tiny yellow building
across the street and walked home via hills a half mile away,
so his parents wouldn’t put him to work in the fields.
When they did, he would bide his time by catching bees and
breaking them open to eat the honey inside. The flowers that
attracted them were renge (Chinese milk vetch), the same ones
that today make the view from the sofa this shade of hot pink.
For decades, the flowers were nowhere to be found. His family
traditionally planted them as a perennial winter cover crop
on the paddies, tilling them after they had gone to seed so
that in fall they would sprout again. But after WW II, in
efforts to increase food production, the government instructed
farmers to change their habits. Here on Kyushu, the southernmost
island in the main chain, they were told to drop the Chinese
milk vetch cover crop (renge) and “make use” of
the warm winter season by growing wheat on their paddies.
The pink of the renge faded away.
Years later, when Tarumi converted his farm to Natural Agriculture,
he needed something to rid the soil of its lingering chemical
residues. (Like many Shumei farmers, Tarumi went cold-turkey
from non-organic farming rather than phasing through transitional
or organic stages.) He planted renge because he remembered
from the old days that it was known to suck up toxins, but
soon he found benefits beyond that. The post-war credo had
shunned cover crops for not producing anything, but Tarumi
found by careful watching that renge did do something: it
made the soil richer and suppressed weeds, rice’s greatest
pest. Plus, it sowed itself and cost exactly nothing.
That expectant observation is the essence of Natural Agriculture
technique. “Because you’re not adding anything
to the soil,” Tarumi says, “you must observe what
happens in the field—that is your greatest tool. By
observing well, you can always find a solution within what’s
available to you naturally.”
Now the vetch was a plant-based solution, but to Tarumi things
available “naturally” do not necessarily come
from nature. For instance, when he switched to Natural Agriculture
his yields dropped, likewise his income. To compensate he
expanded his farm from 3 acres to 30, a move possible only
because of the considerable machinery he owned from his days
as an ag supply salesman. He sees these machines among the
“tools that are available,” but not so classically
Tarumi explains that the process is about working in harmony
with nature, but we sometimes forget that humans are part
of nature. “Feeding ourselves using whatever tools we
have is completely natural,” he says, “you just
have to have respect when you’re doing it.”
Nature will draw the lines, he says. And when she says to
stop, you stop.
Take the wheat fields that wave in a silvery mass outside
Tarumi’s window. If he needs to convert the acreage
to rice he will, not back and forth like the non-organic farmers
do, but permanently from one to the other. Obviously this
requires a shift in the field’s characteristics, a humanly
imposed change made possible by two things: the concrete stream
that bisects these fields, and the location in Kyushu, where
the volcanic soil is rich enough to be malleable and the climate
allows for flexibility. Tools.
On the other hand, if his fields were far north in Hokkaido,
he might have irrigation to flood them but they would be slower
to change—in fact, at this time of year they might still
be hard with frost. In Hokkaido success is more about accepting
what a field is and making the most of it during the short
growing season; there’s not much room to push and pull.
The key to making Natural Agriculture work in both places
is to understand when the land reaches its limit. That can
come only from paying attention.
“When I was conventional I wasn’t thinking about
anything,” Tarumi says. “I was almost robotic.
But as a Natural Agriculture farmer I notice myself communicating
with the crops, even talking to them.”
And, of course, he watches—from his sofa, from his
tractor, from down on his knees in the paddy or beside the
irrigation canal. Pretty much anywhere there is water he encounters
a snail called jumbo tanishi (Pomacea canaliculata or jumbo
apple snail), which likes to eat rice and which few local
farmers would watch for long without spraying to death. Tarumi
used to do the same, but once he quit chemicals he had to
find some other way to control the pest.
He remembered that the snail ate rice and weeds. Now, everyone
knows this, but nobody thinks twice about it—they all
also spray 2, 4-D, so there are no weeds. But Tarumi watched
what happened when there were.
Day after day of muddy knees and finally he found the key:
the snail does not eat when it’s out of the water. As
weeds poke through the water’s surface, the snails climb
their stalks to push them back under so they can feast. When
Tarumi had the water level high in the paddy, the snails were
able to similarly mount, submerge and munch the young rice
plants. But when he lowered it, they couldn’t get high
enough on the strong stalks to bend them. The rice grew unimpeded
while the weeds were dead on arrival.
(Today this method of keeping water levels low is the most
prescribed alternative control for jumbo tanishi. That’s
not to say Tarumi is responsible for the innovation’s
spread throughout Japan, but it does underscore the fact that
Shumei exists almost adamantly outside the structures of scientific
research. While their findings might be the same, they result
from inherently different processes and objectives, and are
explained in vastly different terms.)
The jumbo tanishi story pitches Tarumi as a barefooted St.
Francis of sorts, living with and of the earth, but it’s
more complicated than that. The technique only works if his
fields are perfectly level; high spots go dry in this low
water, while sunken spots allow snails to climb the rice.
For this, Tarumi depends on land-leveling implements to make
the nature-based weed-control work.
Furthermore, the snail itself is not “of the earth,”
at least not Japan’s earth. In the 1980s it was brought
from Southeast Asia as a potential food crop—people
eat tiny snails in miso soup, and the importers figured bigger
ones would be even better. Though apple snails are eaten widely
elsewhere, the Japanese found their texture repugnant. The
company that was breeding them locally shut down and basically
dumped the snails in the streams, where they have flourished.
Growers with sufficient machinery could copy Tarumi’s
pest-control technique, but only those with a profusion of
snails can use it as weed control—and that’s a
populace limited to the warmer climate around Kyushu. Like
many Natural Agriculture methods the only thing most farmers
can emulate is the act of watching and listening.
“Nature makes the decisions,” Tarumi says, “not
you. I used to think, This is my land, I’m going to
control it and make things grow the way I want them to. But
Natural Agriculture is about letting go of that. It requires
restraint to not control things, but all you can do is watch.”
Sitting there on his couch, he likens the process to raising
a child. Non-organic agriculture seats its son on a chair
and brings him food, spoon-feeding him all the way to maturity.
When the child is left to fend for itself, he dies. Natural
Agriculture aims to provide the food but leaves the child
to find it on his own. A crude metaphor, yes, but it is exactly
what’s happening in these fields. Tarumi saves seed
and finds each generation of plant better adapted to this
place and its pests. The rice stalks get stronger, which means
better resistance to ambitious snails. They’ve even
begun independently dealing with the other greatest pest.
Unka, or brown planthopper, feeds on the rice plant’s
lower stalks and bores holes there, where it lays eggs. Naturally,
growers spray to kill them; even organic farmers use Neem
oil when the bugs threaten. Tarumi has had only to watch as
they ruined his crop, but recently he noticed a change. His
rice plants have learned to envelop the eggs with their leaves,
effectively cocooning the bundles so they can’t hatch.
Talking about it he’s proud without restraint. Earlier
today, standing by the rice field, he absentmindedly picked
some renge flowers and braided their stems like he did as
a boy. “It’s too bad my parents couldn’t
see this,” he said, and took the same wistful look that
happens on the sofa.
Now at day’s end, he is back in his seat, his parents
watching from above. This is his favorite hour, as the sofa
faces west and the glass doors offer a perfect view of the
sun falling through clouds and behind the jagged coastal mountains.
As the light fades the details fall away—the movement
of the wheat softens, the chugging snails disappear, and the
rice stalks fade to sharp shadows.
Tarumi keeps sitting, keeps watching. Even in the near dark,
there is something to see.
On second thought, maybe he just likes looking.