Shumei Natural Agriculture:
Farming to create heaven on earth

Hyogo: Nobuaki Nakayasu
Amid an industrial landscape on a reclaimed coastland, a Natural Agriculture farmer mellows his soil with care

Nobuaki Nakayasu has it far worse than most farmers, cramped on his small plot in a suburban nightmare. Yet gradually and patiently over the past 6 years, a farm has bloomed in Himeji.

By Lisa M. Hamilton, Posted December 17, 2003

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, an inquisitive man who thinks deeply about embedding agricultural systems within the natural world on Kishima Island.

Installment six featured a visit to the farm of Yasuo Tarumi on Kyushu Island, who used intensive observation of his fields to convert them from chemical farming to the biological systems of Natural Agriculture.

This seventh installment is the story of Nobuaki Nakayasu in Hyogo prefecture, the third of Hamilton’s five visits to individual Natural Agriculture (NA) practitioners. After further farm profiles in 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. Nakayasu’s farm is on the outskirts of Himeji City, where both farmland and new industrial sites have been reclaimed from the sea. (See Himeji on the map below or click here for a full map of Japan and the other farms in this series).

Nobuaki Nakayasu uses 100 truckloads of tree trimmings per year to build up the thin layer of topsoil on his three-quarter acre. It is situated on top of nine feet of sand in coastal area reclaimed and proclaimed “farm land” 150 years ago to give the Edo-era rulers more taxable real estate.


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).



Nakayasu’s main field is three-quarters of an acre that huddles amidst four acres of similar plots owned by neighbors. Standing there, Nakayasu could throw a rock at the Apex Sanyo factory, one of the gray boxes that borders this scrap of green on three sides. Instead, he looks south and motions with his hand—not at the factory there, but as if he had x-ray vision to see through these walls and beyond to the Inland Sea.

This is where his family farmed before he took over 20 years ago, and he lives as if things are no different now. Standing by his lotus root field, its black pools crisscrossed with the reflection of electrical towers, I ask him how he has the heart to persevere in an environment that seems to want only to swallow him.

Any guidebook to Japan will recommend you visit Himeji City for the sole purpose of seeing Shiragasi, the grand castle that has stood on the hill above town since 1580. And every time I have mentioned Himeji’s place on my itinerary, the listener’s response is the same: "You’ll have to see the castle.”

Even my interpreter, Alice, who grew up in nearby Kobe, is talking about “The White Egret” as we ride the bullet train to Himeji. She recalls excitedly how when she last visited, they pulled into the station and the white beauty sat right there above them, as if the train had docked at the castle gates.

But then, Alice has been gone for a while. Standing outside Himeji station, the local horizon is not a wispy 16th-century scroll painting but a harsh abstract of red and white electrical towers connected by thick wires. Rather than actual pedestrian life, there are mere suggestions of it: a bulldozer pushes mounds of thin dirt from one end of a lot to the other, and from the concrete next door there springs a park so green it looks fake.

Looking back on the city as we leave the station, the White Egret is nowhere in sight.

Nobuaki Nakayasu turns around in the van’s passenger seat to face us, a bit hesitant but clearly eager to show us his world. His cheeks are round and permanently blushed, his smile is slightly crooked and totally generous. Though his black hair is thinning, this man has the untainted energy of a new adult who has never been burned. Odd, since in some ways he has it worse than any farmer I’ve met.

“Ten years ago this was all farms,” he says, as we pass vacant appliance stores, windowless factories, and more parks that seem too green, even vaguely cloned. In fact, 3 1/2 acres of this wilted metropolis used to be his farm, and before that his family’s farm, ever since it became solid ground 280 years ago.

Before that it was beach. The story is that during the Edo period the rulers’ main source of revenue came from taxes paid by farmers. More farms meant more taxes, but in these tight and volcanic islands the only way to increase arable acreage is to carve into the mountain or reclaim flat land. And so this sandy coast in central Japan was covered under a foot of topsoil, and proclaimed to be rice paddies.

The pattern has resurfaced in recent years, but this time the topsoil is concrete and it aims to grow industry. In the farm villages that hold on elsewhere in central Japan, noon and five o’clock are heralded by a brief and scratchy song played over tall, communal loudspeakers; standing on the road as it plays, you see farmers emerging from the orchards and fields like mice called out by the piper. In Himeji, noon means a siren that blasts achingly loud to reach the people inside the crowded buildings. Nobody emerges for lunch.

Nakayasu’s main field is three-quarters of an acre that huddles amidst four acres of similar plots owned by neighbors. Standing there, Nakayasu could throw a rock at the Apex Sanyo factory, one of the gray boxes that borders this scrap of green on three sides. Instead, he looks south and motions with his hand—not at the factory there, but as if he had x-ray vision to see through these walls and beyond to the Inland Sea. “When I was young, there were still strips of sand stretching into the sea,” he says. “Now there’s no coastline left, just factories spreading into the water.”

Now imagine this scene but put a calm look on Nakayasu’s face. This is where his family farmed before he took over 20 years ago, and he lives as if things are no different now. Standing by his lotus root field, its black pools crisscrossed with the reflection of electrical towers, I ask him how he has the heart to persevere in an environment that seems to want only to swallow him. “When you live in the middle of it you don’t notice much,” he says plainly. “The change has seemed gradual. I figure it’s just part of the overall trend of development in Japan.”

Even with his honest eyes, that’s hard to believe. It would be one thing to grow food with the usual crop-supporting chemicals here—the odds are against it, yes, but in a way it seems related, like the factories’ agricultural counterpart. But to farm here with Natural Agriculture’s purist approach to organics, to return the farm as close as possible to nature’s way?

I mean, where would one start?

Nakayasu took the gradual approach, transitioning his fields to be additive-free over three years. Those were tough times, and not just for growing the soil but for finding a community of consumers that would believe in him—a task difficult even within Shumei.

Today, six years later, his soil is still sandy but his greenhouse bursts with life. Strawberries, eggplants, melons and cucumbers sit impatiently in green pots and spill out onto the driveway. Nestled in seedling beds, the sweet potatoes have unfurled vines to cover all the bare dirt with their leaves.

This hope comes because Nakayasu has found a way to see what tools he has. Even in this most industrial setting, the land has a life that can instruct anyone who bothers to be a student. And he has done just that.

In the lotus root pond there are power poles rising literally out of the water, their peaks taller than the blue mountains in the distance. Nakayasu’s neighbors use fertilizer for the heavy-feeding plants and add limestone to neutralize the soil’s characteristic acidity. When Nakayasu gave up such additives, he drew on things he had heard about in stories over the years. Today, his fields get only straw, which acts as both a sort of compost and a weed suppressant. He says his yields are half, maybe two-thirds of his neighbors’, but his soil has neutralized itself, almost gone alkaline in some parts—a change unheard of in Japan’s sour soil.

He draws on old ways with his row crops, too, saving seeds to culture the plants that can cope best with the poor soil. The seed bank growing in the small garden behind his house is nothing special, but the vegetables within it are spectacular. This marks the eighth year for his turnip seed, and this season’s progeny is gigantic and heavy with blossoms. Tall, bushy white carrots, bright yellow daikon blooms — this garden of flowers we don’t usually see belies the area’s meager topsoil and the nine feet of sand beneath it.

Drawing on the past is essential to Nakayasu’s success, but it wouldn’t work if he didn’t also pay attention to the present. Rather than bemoan the area’s urbanization, he has found ways to take advantage of it.

For instance, those two-green parks: With all the factories in Himeji came factory workers, and the houses that sprung up for them created a third element in this city’s patchwork identity, that of suburbia. Seeking to make the city more livable, in 1998 the government bought much of the remaining farmland and converted it to parks. It was by selling 3 1/2 acres to the project that Nakayasu was able to weather the financial transition to Natural Agriculture.

More so, though, he has seized the parks’ ongoing benefits to build up his fields. His soil alone is not strong enough to grow many weeds, certainly not enough to make compost. (When he began farming this way, he used to go desperately to the riverbanks to collect fallen weeds.) However, the city’s trees, with all their leaves and branches tucked into those tidy parks, grow greener than they need. In an arrangement made through a relative who works with the local disposal company, twice a year Nakayasu diverts 50 truckloads of trimmings from the incinerator to his field. “At this point,” he says, “I couldn’t survive without the parks.”

Likewise, his sales rely on the city. With suburban growth it has become possible to sell directly to individuals, which means not just cutting out the middleman but getting a premium for food grown naturally amidst all this artificiality. His non-organic neighbors who sell wholesale are gradually selling off their plots to developers and the city. Despite their attachment to the land, the market just isn’t profitable enough to make it worth staying.

And the reality is, as one farmer falls, so the rest are weakened. Nakayasu’s main field is the last in a line of 12 such plots. The thin berms between them are more evidence of attachment than separation. When one farmer sells his 1/4-acre strip, the new, non-farming owner must buy all of those adjoining in order to use it. I remark that this must lead to more pressure to sell, and Nakayasu replies with characteristic optimism: “Yes, but luckily I’m on the end. Someone could buy all eleven of those, and I could still farm here.”

On the drive back to the train station, he confesses to being torn between worlds. He is attached to the land for its history, and yet he dreams of moving to more hospitable land because it would mean a better life in the present and future. Of course then he bounces back to the bright side, and says that ultimately it doesn’t matter where he farms. “My work is to pass on the philosophy, techniques and heart of Natural Agriculture,” he says, “and I can do that anywhere.”

Driving back to the train station, I think of the sad lotus fields punctured by telephone poles. They remind me of the sutra I read last night in The Teachings of Buddha, the Japanese hotel’s equivalent of a Gideon Bible. The lesson described the lotus flower, purest white, which grows forth only from mud:

Undefiled by worldly dharmas
Like a lotus flower floating on the water
They have welled forth out of the earth

Nearing the train station, I see flashes of ancient white through the cracks between buildings. Maybe it sounds too perfect a story, but it’s true: you can still see the White Egret from these gray and empty streets.

 

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