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The Road to Sustainable Farming in a Not So Sustainable Village

Growing our own food without the use of chemicals for the last 14 years here in Okinawa has been an extremely rewarding experience for our family. Not only do we get fresh and healthy vegetables to eat but we also are able to work outside and become a part of nature. This provides the additional benefit of nurturing our physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. This lifestyle has encouraged us to become more sustainable in the way we grow food. Our methods, however, have not always been perceived locally as the “right way” to farm. Despite this, we continue to learn, expand, and strive toward a more sustainable life with an even larger vision of spreading the sustainable food movement throughout the village where we live.

Agriculture in Okinawa has gone through many changes. Until the 1950’s, rice and sweet potatoes were the main crops grown for income. Some vegetables were grown for self-consumption, and there was little use of chemicals. (This was mostly due to economic reasons since farmers could simply not afford the extra cost.) After the end of WWII, the standard of living in Okinawa, as with the rest of rural Japan, began to increase dramatically. With the increase in economic wealth, farming techniques became mechanized and much more dependent on the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. During the 1970’s and 80’s, sugar cane became the predominant cash crop and gradually the production of tropical fruits, such as pineapple, bananas, and a variety of tangerines, began to spread. By the 1990’s and into the 2000’s, specialty fruits (e.g., mango, passion fruits, star fruits, and atemoya) were more widely grown, catering to the high-end tourism market.

Okinawa’s harsh climate has always made farming difficult. The island is prone to typhoons and its sub-tropical weather provides the perfect environment for destructive pests. Flooding and droughts have also plagued the island, which led to many famines during ancient times. Today, the agricultural industry has adapted to these conditions by utilizing more chemicals, genetically modified seeds, and artificially controlled environments in the form of large greenhouses.

My interest in natural farming practices began as a hobby. The town we were living in at the time had a program where residents could rent small plots of land for growing vegetables. The cost was about 700 yen per month ($7 U.S.), which also included use of water. It was cheap and also fun as there were other gardeners using natural growing methods.

When we first moved to Maeda, we were lucky enough to simply continue our style of farming due to the generosity of my uncle. He let us use a small piece of land that hadn’t been farmed in over 30 years. Our son had just turned 3 years old, so we looked forward to a healthy family-lifestyle that included food we could grow ourselves. For us, knowing that no chemicals or poisons had been used in over 30 years, it was the perfect spot.

The first step was to clear the field. My uncle helped and my son also pitched in. From the start, I was pretty happy, especially after seeing the nice layer of top soil that had formed from years of organic matter that had fallen and piled up as natural compost. When the work was done, we made a few rows and excitedly talked about what we would grow: onions, garlic, carrots, spinach, and some corn.

“I have a bag of chemical fertilizer you can use,” my uncle kindly offered.

I reminded my uncle that we didn’t use chemicals. I realized that even though he knew this from the prior two years where we organically farmed on our rented community plot, for him and most of the other farmers from his generation, using chemicals in the soil prior to planting was the same as brushing one’s teeth before starting the day. It was something that was simply a matter of fact.

In the years that followed, I was constantly barraged by suggestions – often out of kindness and a willingness to help – that mostly referred to the use of chemicals for increasing yield. Even though my small plot was producing enough where I could sometimes give away some of the surplus, other farmers and gardeners would still tell me that it was not possible to grow anything without adding chemicals to the soil. (I guess they didn’t like my strangely shaped carrots that were slightly bitter or my undersized and not-so-pretty cabbage.) It was also quite common at the beginning of each planting season for people to tell me I could get rid of the weeds more easily by spraying herbicide as they walked past my field and saw me pulling them by hand.

At first, I found the comments to be a little frustrating, especially since I couldn’t understand why anyone would suggest the use of chemicals on food when it could be done naturally, which is obviously healthier. Over time, however, I became less judgmental and started to try and understand their way of thinking. The local farmers that I know in Maeda are farming mostly part-time to supplement their income, and although their fields are extremely small when compared to those in the U.S. or Europe, the entire process is a “one-man show.” In order to maintain a profitable business, they become dependent on the same system that huge farms in other parts of the world rely on: monoculture farming that utilizes machinery and chemicals. It is a broken system that turns farms into agribusinesses to support the demands of supermarkets rather than growing healthy food for humans. In other words, I do not fault the farmers completely. They have been forced and brainwashed into the current situation of farming that much of the world now depends on.

In early 2020, we were able to increase our food production when my uncle offered me to take over his pineapple field. He, of course, like all pineapple growers in Okinawa, used a special type of chemical fertilizer suited for pineapple when he first planted, so this piece of land was not as pristine as the first. He harvested one crop and then abandoned the field, which had sat for several months before we took it over, so the field was completely overgrown with weeds. The pineapples were in their second year of fruit production. My plan was to first pull all the weeds by hand, maintain the field and continue harvesting without the use of chemicals for a few more years, and then completely clear the field to start a process of regenerating the soil. (Pineapple plants usually will produce fruit for 3-4 years before yields become smaller and less.) Basically, I wanted to take on the challenge of switching this field from chemically grown pineapple to organic. We also thought that it would be nice to offer organically grown pineapples to our guests at our bed & breakfast.

It took about two months to clear the weeds, which included huge clumps of susuki (Chinese silver grass) and also bamboo that had spread throughout one corner of the field. I soon found out, however, that maintaining the field and preventing weeds from taking over again was extremely difficult and time consuming. The weed problem became even more exasperated due to the fact that I also decided to take over another field that my uncle had stopped using a few years ago. I now had three fields that totaled close to 500 tsubo (about a little less than half an acre), which is not a lot, but it is when considering that I was doing everything by hand with a shovel and hoe. To make matters worse, the third field was like a jungle! (In the end, we were able to harvest about 100 pineapples at the end of the summer, and we “continue to learn as we go.”)

Why did I expand so quickly with just a few tools and my bare hands? COVID-19 was one reason. Along with the rest of the travel industry, COVID had shut down our bed & breakfast business completely. I needed something to do, and I thought I could use my experience at growing vegetables to make a little money by selling my produce on a commission basis at a few local stores and veggie baskets directly to customers. Surely, I thought, people would want to buy fresh natural food! The second reason was my interest in sustainable living. I simply wanted to grow more food, while creating something that could serve as a model for other local farmers to follow. I thought that instead of rows of sugar cane or a greenhouse full of mango trees supported by the constant use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, I could have an abundance of vegetables and fruits growing in a natural environment and ready to eat.

My first goal exploded in my face when I quickly became aware that selling vegetables is a lot harder than growing them. I created a Facebook page and a website, which grabbed the attention of several customers, but my inefficient system for harvesting to prepare a few baskets a day plus delivering to a few local stores was not very profitable considering the time it took. It was also disappointing to see that few locals were interested in paying just a little more for food that was organic; most of my customers were foreign residents. I also faced the huge problem of not having enough to sell. The experience, however, taught me that in order to make the jump from growing to selling, a viable plan was necessary. It also gave me a deeper understanding of the problems faced by farmers who try and earn a living from agriculture. I decided to go back to the drawing board.

My second reason for expansion, which is where I am at right now, is more of an ongoing experiment and the subject of future stories to come. After putting the selling part on hold, I knew that in order to expand, I needed more support than just me and my gardening tools. I called upon some good friends who had already been active in natural farming to work on my newly acquired fields together. After a few sunset cocktail meetings up at the third field (it has an incredible view), we came up with a permaculture-based plan to have a thriving and diverse mini-farm that will eventually and hopefully include chickens, goats, and honey bees, mixed with a small food forest.

For now, even though we have yet to figure out a way to manage all of this, we are extremely thankful for what we have. We have our original “natural” veggie garden, which has been producing food for over 12 years, the pineapple field, and now the “future” permaculture field and mini food forest, which will be a group effort. (All of this was made possible thanks to the generosity of my uncle.) I am not sure if we will ever get to the point of actually selling agricultural produce for extra income, but if we can sell enough to cover costs, and these three fields can supply us with naturally grown fruits and vegetables, along with some eggs and honey, that would make our lifestyle even more sustainable. Even better, we might even get other local farmers observing and wondering if “our way” could be an alternative to monoculture and the overuse of chemicals. This would be the ultimate success.

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