gather to support their local farmer: A
group of consumers met The Rodale Institute visitors
on Mr. Machida's farm (he's at the far right of
the picture). Ms. Domae, second from left, is the
driving force behind the CSA movement that has helped
farmers in the Shumeikai network so much.
Three intense December days in central Japan. Three small
family farms – one in the hills, one in a valley, one
on flat land. Three communities where families care enough
about farmers to cooperate for their on-going success.
And one organization inspiring urban young adults –
as well as conventional farmers -- to take the risky plunge
into organic food production. The group uses seven simple
words that have sustained these farmer-supporter relationships
through intensely difficult times: “Love soil, respect
nature, and face God.”
These farmers, their families and the scores of people who
have rallied around them in recent years told their stories
to three visitors from Rodale Institute in December. The Japanese
participants stood happily in the cold, wet, cloudy weather
on the farms to watch the U.S. guests taste indigenous greens,
gape at mega-daikon radishes and marvel at the dark tilthy
to the soil: Mr. Nomoto, who started
farming 10 years ago, speaks gently but convincingly
of the need to closely observe both plants and
Hosting the trip was the Natural Agriculture Department of
Shinji Shumeikai and its Kanto region leadership. The Institute
sent its president, John Haberern, for his 10th visit, and
two NewFarm.org staff members for their first encounter with
Japan. Chris Hill, executive director, and Greg Bowman, on-line
editor, lead the collaboration with Shumei staff.
By carefully examining the efforts of this large network
of farmers (around 1000), the New Farm.org editors hope to
paint a portrait over time of how small-scale organic farmers,
motivated more by spiritual values than by profit, have struggled
and survived in a heavily urban culture fed by a conventional
system of agriculture that is awash in pesticides. We believe
that we’ll be able to draw out valuable lessons and
insights for farmers around the world struggling with similar
Shumei members usually attend a local center for healing
prayer, social fellowship and teaching that includes the tenets
of Natural Agriculture. A renewed emphasis in 1992 to apply
this part of the group’s philosophy spurred many new
farm efforts. The farmers we met all began within this period,
and experienced similar things:
- strong early skepticism from family and neighboring conventional
farmers that they could produce crops without chemicals.
- gradual improvement – not without set-backs -- of
growing skills, field conditions, and food quality;
- eventual excess production.
- development -- sooner or later -- of consumer support
from within the farmer’s local Shumei center.
The farmers also shared the same feelings that kept them
going: they had a growing sense of reverence for their soil
and the natural cycles they observed. They had a deepening
conviction that they were on the right track despite their
production and marketing difficulties. Their families and
their neighbors came to recognize that their non-conventional
approach was working for the crops that they selected to grow.
(Natural Agriculture rice has won national taste contests.
Its more spacious plant arrangement can produce sturdier,
easier-to-harvest plants than neighboring conventional rice.)
At our meetings in the Gunma, Saitama and Chiba prefectures
(provinces) we listened to personal stories from many people.
Each played a part in a farmer’s success. One aging
mother helped her son with weeding in his early years, a role
that continues. Another older woman – from a site we
did not get to visit -- carries on primary operation of a
five-acre farm after her son died from cancer just as his
community support was growing.
One center’s youth wrote and produced a play based
on the account of how their local farmer learned to love his
soil. These young people are growing up with a respected farmer
in their midst who is also a philosopher and teacher. He speaks
gently of how he changed his original outlook of dominating
and controlling his plants. He has learned instead to cooperate
(through intensive observation and thoughtful reflection)
with all parts of nature that he finds in his fields. His
greens taste superb.
Some of the Shumei centers had Natural Agriculture leaders
who encouraged the new farmers of this region around Tokyo
in the late 1990s. However, the farmers who were succeeding
with their production needed additional guidance in how to
market and distribute their crops. These were the next steps
toward making the farms practical for the long term. We learned
that both farmers and members of the local centers who wanted
them to succeed felt frustration – even profound sadness
and anger – during the awkward period when no clear
way forward was evident.
Into this situation came a non-farmer who listened, went
through her own transformation in what it meant to support
farmers, and who helped create a truly supportive network
of Shumei members. Ms. Keiko Domae recently wrote that the
core of her work during this time was to “…understand
what farmers cared for in their work, and what they would
like us to do for them.”
Ms. Domae drew from the best elements she had seen in the
Japanese co-op movement of the 1970s. She applied more recent
insights she learned by attending a Community Supported Agriculture
conference in the U.S. She began by finding out what farmers
had to sell, then demonstrating to them there were members
were willing to greatly increase their purchases.
The consumers became more involved as they understood the
strong dedication the farmers brought to their work. They
saw how much the farmers had been changed as they grew in
their spiritual understanding of their role in bringing love
and health to others through their food.
As consumer involvement has grown in the past several years,
some individuals regularly volunteer their labor in fields
under “their” farmer’s direction. Some drive
long distances to do this work. Others help by hosting collection
of food from several farms at their home. Some consumers pick
up their food at these homes, while the balance of the produce
is efficiently transported to more distant pick-up locations.
Building relationships between farmers and consumers requires
time and energy. Ms. Domae says that “steady effort
to change each member’s heart” will be the core
activity to strengthen and expand Natural Agriculture. Out
of this work “will develop our circle of gratitude,
understanding and cooperation,” she says.
Natural Agriculture -- like all regenerative, small-scale
agriculture anywhere that incorporates ecological and social
values -- requires appreciative people who will change their
lives to make it work. There were often tears during the early
parts of these stories as people recalled hard times and tense
relationships. Yet the three farmers we visited (and other
farmers participating in the meetings) were enthused and deeply
Their future is far from secure in practical terms, but they
are individuals, newly-weds and extended families at peace
on the paths of reverence, relationships and discovery through
Natural Agriculture. They have learned much, and have much