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
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
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,
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
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
“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.