May 6, 2010
Ureshipa is an Ainu word that means something similar to Gaia or Nature as all inclusive and interconnected. It is the name given to the Sakawa family farm in Iwate prefecture. We have been at Ureshipa farm for about three weeks now and will be spending a total of two months here.
The Sakawa’s established Ureshipa 17 years ago on 2.5 hectares of leased rice paddy terraces surrounded by conifer dominated forests. Sakawa Toru was an early and enthusiastic advocate of permaculture in Japan and continues to be a key figure in the Japanese permaculture movement. Ureshipa is one of the only permaculture farms in Japan (there are many permaculture influenced home or community gardens) and one of the few permaculture farms in the world that is creating livelihoods for the occupants from farming (that should be a shocking, worrying, and hopefully motivating, statement for all advocates of permaculture!).
When we left Tokyo and headed north to Iwate we thought we would be traveling with the sakura (cherry) blossoms but an unusually cold spring kept them at bay. The blossoming of the sakura marks the time to plant rice and the lack of blossom when we arrived had the farmers worried. The rice growing season is relatively short in Iwate and the farmers were concerned they might not get their seedlings out in time. As most of the farmers are rice farmers and growing little else they had every reason to be worried. Toru-san was also concerned about the late spring and his rice crop but as rice is just one of many things they grow at Ureshipa the weight of his concern was considerably lighter.
As well as rice other commercial products grown and produced by Ureshipa farm include: soy beans and miso, soba (buckwheat noodles), sembei (rice crackers), millet, eggs and mayonnaise, pork, shiitake mushrooms and surplus vegetables. They grow and process many more foods and are largely self-sufficient in food.
Such variety obviosuly creates food security and economic resiliency but also makes for very diverse and interesting work.
Ureshipa farm is slowly being converted from an organically managed farm to a natural farm. As I have mentioned elsewhere “natural farming” is interpreted in many different ways and at a later date I hope to write about the different types of natural farming being practiced in Japan but for now suffice it to say that here natural farming means simply no inputs. That’s right. Not just no external inputs but no inputs at all! The process of conversion to natural farming is necessarily a very slow one. This land has been continuously farmed for the past seventy years (it has probably been farmed for a lot longer but the existing terraces are known to be about seventy years old) and for all of those years some form of fertilizer, be it chemical or organic, has been applied every year. What Toru-san is attempting is to now remove this drip feeding and reestablish a system so perfectly balanced that fertility is maintained while growing crops that yield enough food to support the Sakawa family and provide them with an income. Both chemical and organic farmers are likely to think this an insane idea but experience has shown it can work and there is growing demand in Japan for food to be produced in this way. This demand for naturally farmed food does not arise from concern for the environment or peak oil as one might expect but rather because a growing number of Japanese consumers are blaming their allergies and increased sensitivity to food items on fertilizers of any sort. Customers that buy Ureshipa farm’s naturally farmed millet claim that they are having allergic reactions to organically farmed millet but experience no reactions with naturally farmed millet.
We have already learnt so much from the Sakawa family in our short time here. Its going to be a rewarding two months for sure and I just hope I can find enough time to share some of it with you.