After 35 years of organic farming in Takahata: An Ordinance

After more than 35 years of organic farming, the town of Takahata got an ordinance to promote “safe” food production and consumption.

Mr. Hoshi, now in his 70’s, started it young, when he was in his late 30’s in 1973. He and a few friends were concerned by the damage caused by intensive use of chemical and machineries, the result of the then agricultural policy taking place all over the world, in a hurry to create a misguided “green revolution” that still lingers with us in many parts of the world. They were particularly moved also by the fact that many of their farmer colleaques got sick. They became winners when a bad weather caused low yield in many non-organic farms, while their organic harvest remained robust.

Takahata, a farmer small town in the Yamagata Prefecture, two hours by Shinkanzen north of Tokyo, has since long been a special rice producing area. In the time of Shogunate it enjoyed a privilege of being under direct control by the highest authority, and supplied the imperial families. Its youth, of which Mr. Hoshi is but a contemporary example, has been known from the old time as active and courageous in voicing their views on agriculture. This proved to be an important social capital for them to make another fundamental turn in modern time: going (back!) organic.

By now organic farming has reached about 50% of the total area in Takahata. It is actually never enough, because an organic farm could easily be harmed by a non-organic farm next to it. Distribution of the organic produce depends very much on intimate relationship between the farmers and their customers, based on trust and total disclosure of the context of production, so that the later know exactly how organic their foods are, and how there are still factors beyond their control.

And Mr. Hoshi and his colleagues have been fighting all the time for “all-organic” Takahata and the world. He said in a typical Japanese well-spirited paradox, “I am entering my old age, so I have to be very active to convey what I have learned to you, younger generations.” He indulged in speaking continuously for almost 90 minutes to us, students of Hitotsubashi University under Prof. Yoshiko Ashiwa and the 7 fellows of Asian Leaders Fellowship Programme (ALFP) organised by Japan Foundation and the International House of Japan (Koksai Bunka Kaikan). Definitely to our benefits.

I did not have the opportunity to work in Mr. Hoshi’s farm, but in another farm belonging to Mr Watanabe, another organic farmer leader of younger generation in his 50’s. He owns one of the largerst organic farms in Takahata. I worked with Mrs Watanabe wrapping celery (don’t squatt! But just bow, said Watanabe-san), harvesting Cambodian pumpkins and the red-beans, making me feel deserving some ogura ice cream. That is enough to illustrate that organic farming is labour intensive. One of Mrs Watanabe’s specialisations is weeding. And there are a lot of know-how’s in it. While it is good to weed wild grasses and other plants next to the celeries in mid-October, don’t weed those among the peanuts, because you might destroy the roots (that will bear the nuts) that are then just growing into the soil. Although only a small fraction of Mrs Watanabe ‘s rice harvest is used by her own family, she has only 20 customers for her organic vegetables and fruit, delivered weekly or bi-weekly. A challenge to engineers around the wolrd: create more small machines that do not use fossil fuel to operate nicely and specifically for each function among the precious organic plants.

Given that history, and the global context of changing our agricuture to organic as one important part of total change towards sustainable living, The Takahata Food and Agriculture Ordinance (enacted in September 2008 and enforced since April 2009) is an important culmination into institutionalisation. Its significance comes from the fact that its contents are already being practiced.
It spelled out “Fundamental Principles” (translation by Junko Ikeda, the International House of Japan):

• Respect the local food culture and tradition and promote local production for local consumption by utilizing local resources and increase the rate of food self-sufficiency.
• Streamline the agricultural environment where producers can pursue agriculture with motivation and seek to recruit those who would work in this field.
• Promote the understanding of the importance of food and agriculture by the citizens of Takahata and promote local production for local consumption in households and localities as well as food education.
• Regarding the production of agricultural products, promote technology etc. that will not present any risk of contamination of farms and food safety.
• Work for the production of food using the multi-functions of agriculture and transform farming and mountain villages into places for living and interacting.

It stipulates promotion of agriculture in harmony with nature, that the former must preserve nature (not deplete it as resource). It commands a new way of seeing agriculture as part of an integrated “landscape” and environment (which in Japanese culture has a respectfully deeper, if not even mystical, sense), to include traditions of agriculture such as a function of land preservation, formation of landscape, and prevention of global warming, and promotion of the interaction between cities and farm villages.

It aims at stable supply of “safe” food, and increasing food self sufficiency rate in the localities, through promotion of local production for local consumption by among other things requiring the use of local food products in public institutions, and promotion of food education involving households, schools and local community.

It also demands regulation on genetically modified food and efforts for promotion of organic farming. It tries to “sell” better through branding and maintaining standard by certification: branding of food products. And it calls for an establishment of “Takahata Shoku to Noh no Machizukuri Iinkai” (Committee for Takahata Food and Agriculture Town Management” to do research on food safety and agriculture and to examine the provisions of the Food and Agriculture Town Management.

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