LET IT GROW: Cultivating Future Farms in Miyagi Prefecture

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Yasuhiro Naito, owner of Naito Farm.

By KARA CHU

(Published June 15, 2019)

“The earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear incident have been the biggest crisis Japan has encountered in the 65 years since the end of World War II,” said a somber Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

It has been eight years since the 9.0 earthquake off the northern coast of Japan triggered a tsunami that washed away towns and fertile farmland and triggered a catastrophic nuclear meltdown, but recovery efforts are still ongoing and in need of help. Combined with our community’s steadfast help, OCO and Tanaka Farms have been providing emotional and financial support to farms in the devastated areas since 2011.

The disaster took the lives of an estimated 20,000, and more than half of the victims were 65 years of age or older. The average age of Japanese farmers is also over 65 years old, and many of them were forced to retire in the face of all the rebuilding challenges. The “Walk the Farm” fundraiser is helping prepare young students and farmers in the Tohoku area.

Yamamoto-cho before and after the March 2011 disaster.

This year, with connections made by Nanka Fukushima Kenjinkai and Rumi Kumada, “Walk the Farm” is looking to provide scholarships to students in Fukushima University’s Fukushima Future Studies program. This brand-new area of study’s purpose will provide specialized education for their students to revitalize, understand, and build the future for affected communities based on field studies and hands-on experience.

Introduced by Takashi Seki and coordinated by Hiroko and Norihiko Kondo, the “Walk the Farm” fundraiser is also working with a young farmer, Yasuhito Naito, in Yamamoto-cho in Miyagi Prefecture.

When disaster struck on March 11, 2011, Mr. Naito was working in sales in Tokyo. He reveals, “The earthquake was so big that I thought Tokyo was the epicenter.” The devastatingly powerful earthquake fiercely shook buildings, and then the tsunami raged through the east countryside in Tohoku, destroying everything in its path.

After Naito heard that his mother’s hometown had been severely affected, he rushed to Miyagi Prefecture to help them recover. He left his job in Tokyo to move to the city of Yamamoto-cho, determined to stay until the city is restored.

During his time volunteering and rebuilding there, Naito’s outlook on life changed. He was once focused on money and business, but he made friends with the locals and discovered that he loved working with nature. “Everyone is so warm in Yamamoto-cho. They treat me like their own son,” he says. “My personal farming experience has enriched my mind and spirit, enabling me to make extraordinary connections with people and nature.”

After the earthquake and tsunami, it was reported that not a single house in Yamamoto-cho was left undamaged. The JR Yamashita Station’s buildings and tracks were washed away. Miyagi Prefecture had the most loss of lives and injuries. There were over 10,000 killed or missing and 4,000 injured. Most victims drowned in the tsunami’s ferocious floods.

Replacing contaminated soil in Yamamoto-cho in 2018.

The agriculture industry in Yamamoto-cho declined rapidly: many farmers and younger residents left the area because it was too difficult to rebuild, there seemed to be no interest from younger generations to begin farming, and the average farmer was the age of a senior citizen. In order to attract people to the city to farm, Mr. Naito resolved to build his own business that would do just that.

He decided to build his own farm, but there were many challenges he had to overcome first. The soil was ruined by the tsunami, so he had to remove the top layer and replace it before he could grow anything. Having absolutely no farming experience of his own, he did not know any good farming techniques and had to learn. Despite many failed harvests, Naito turned every failure into an idea of how to improve the next time.

He struggled but would not give up, and has finally been able to show a profit. He sells his crops at town events and festivals, directly to consumers and indirectly through a farming group. He has also been creative and uses Facebook to sell to interested followers.

Although Yamamoto-cho is famous for strawberries, he grows Manchurian wild rice (kome), several types of organic garlic (ninniku), Japanese pumpkin (kabocha), Manganji hot peppers (togarashi), and more. By picking more rare and unique crops, he hopes to interest the media so that they will spread his mission to more people who will support him and his town.

Garlic and napa cabbage grown at Naito farm.

In the beginning, his farm received government funding, but the contract was to last only five years. Last year, 2018, was the last year. From now on, he must succeed without it.

“Walk the Farm” will be supporting his efforts with quarterly donations over the next four years. The donations will also help him invest in such capital purchases and necessities such as machinery, warehouses, fertilizers, and other supplies, as well as for gaining a deeper understanding of agricultural methods, techniques, and business and marketing practices. The goal is to consistently produce excellent products and maintain profitability.

Mr. Naito has noticed that there were others who wanted to get into the agricultural business, but like him when he first began, have no idea where or how to start. So, he has now begun to train two new farmers who will hopefully be able to start their own farms.

Thinking beyond his farm’s goals, to his community and even to his country, he says it is important to create and provide opportunities for novice farmers. “I understand what kind of questions people have about farming, and I can help connect those with an interest in agriculture…I want to bring life back into town, and farming is a fabulous tool to do that.”

Kara Chu with Farmer Fumie in 2017.

Mr. Naito has high hopes for the future of farming, and he pictures himself continuing to farm for the rest of his life and mentoring more new farmers. He believes that a farming lifestyle has lots to offer, and he would recommend it to his future children. He is so grateful to “Walk the Farm,” and he can’t believe the support he is receiving from another country for his farming. Wild rice seedlings have recently been planted in early May on Naito’s farm, and his garlic will be ready to be harvested in June.

This year, “Walk the Farm” will be held on Saturday, June 15, from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. It is an enjoyable 1½-mile walk around Tanaka Farms in Irvine, which is a real working farm. Fresh fruit and vegetable samples and local entertainment combine to create a fun community service event to attend with friends and family to support our farmers and student scholarships.

Every year, I love to contribute — whether it’s making posters, cheering on walkers, manning a booth or handing out shave ice and strawberry sundaes with a smile and a thank-you.

Even though you may not hear any more stories about the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown victims, eight years later, the farmers still need our help. “Walk the Farm” is our way to show them that we have not forgotten about them. I am inspired by their ingenuity, perseverance, and courage, and I am so glad that “Walk the Farm” supports them along with scholarship students with aspirations to make change in their community.

I am committed to cultivating both treasured bonds and new farms, and I hope you are too!

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For more information on the project and to donate, visit www.walkthefarm.org. “Walk the Farm” not only supports Japanese farmers, but also aids local farmers here in the U.S.

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