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.
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
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
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
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.