Shumei Natural Agriculture:
Farming to create heaven on earth

Kyushu Island: Yasuo Tarumi
After decades as a conventional farmer, Yasuo Tarumi put away the pesticides and began to learn from nature

Observation by the hour and by the day -- on his knees in the field and from his favorite farm lookout -- helped the experienced farmer find, in nature, the answers he needs to manage his 30 acres successfully.

By Lisa M. Hamilton, Posted November 19, 2003

"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."

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, the master farmer of the movement -- an inquisitive man who thinks deeply about embedding agricultural systems within the natural world on Kishima Island.

This story of Yasuo Tarumi is the second of Hamilton’s five visits to individual Natural Agriculture (NA) practitioners. After further farm profiles in Hyogo, Gunma and Chiba prefectures, the series will close with the Shumei version of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm in Iwate where the consumers have become more involved as time goes on.

Mr. Tarumi’s farm is on Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost major island. (See Kyushu Island on the map above or click here for a full map of Japan and the other farms in this series). He utilizes his farm’s fertile volcanic soils and temperate growing conditions to rotate traditional leguminous cover crops that improve soil quality and fertility while adding to the farm’s ecological richness.


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).



...after WW II...they were told to drop the Chinese milk vetch cover crop (renge) and "make use" of hte warm winter season by growing wheat on their paddies. The pink of the renge faded away...The post-war credo had shunned cover crops for not producing anything, but Tarumi found by careful watching that renge did do somehting: It made the soil racher and suppressed weeds, rice's greatest pest.

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.

"Because you're not adding anything to the soil 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."
Yasuo 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 “natural.”

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.

 

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