Consumers to the rescue

Organized community support grows stable markets for Natural Agriculture farmers. First in a series of reports from Japan.

By Greg Bowman

Consumers 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 soil.

Listening to the soil: Mr. Nomoto, who started farming 10 years ago, speaks gently but convincingly of the need to closely observe both plants and soil.

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 issues.

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 satisfied.

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 to share.