Thursday, April 7, 2011

Farmers Hang Tough after Great Tohoko Earthquake

Onoda (left) and wife Hiroko (center) talk shop with local agricultural expert inside his greenhouse amid sprouting strawberry plants. March 31, Kashima Ward, Minamisoma.
“Please come out back and have a look.” Hitoshi Onoda’s (58) house stands atop a small hill in Kitayakata (Kashima Ward, Minamisoma City, in Fukushima Prefecture). Today is March 31. Looking out over the scene of devastation below, I am quite literally lost for words. The tsunami enveloped a few hundred hectares of paddy fields, planted on land reclaimed from what was once a shallow inlet before World War II. The tsunami has returned the paddy fields to an inlet once more. A Japan Self Defense Force (SDF) helicopter hovers above, still searching for signs of the missing. “Local folks say the quake caused the reclaimed land to sink a full meter,” Onoda says.

Onoda works about 10 hectares of paddy fields and sells the popular Koshihikari strain of rice. The tsunami covered three hectares of his paddy fields with seawater. The accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has added insult to injury.

The young rice seedlings should have been covered with fresh water in preparation for planting by now, but Fukushima Prefecture’s municipal government has asked farmers to postpone this work. Onoda’s anger is mounts as he wonders out loud just how long this situation will last.

Kashima Ward lies outside the maximum 30-kilometer radius from the nuclear power plant for which an “in-house evacuation” is in effect. “Both mine and my family house are safe, but local farmers may lose their livelihoods because some malicious rumors spreading about,” says Onoda.

Amid the turmoil created by the suspension or voluntary ban on shipments of agricultural products produced in Fukushima Prefecture, a neighboring producer recently complained to Onoda: “Why are customers in Tokyo cancelling orders for rice produced last fall? It’s pretty obvious that rice isn’t contaminated by radiation. Why would are they doing this?”

When Onoda visited friends in Aizu to ask for help three days after the quake, the hotel owner asked to see a radiation test certificate. “When I went to be tested, I had to wait 12 hours in my car. Some 2,000 people were left waiting in the snow. Everybody was furious, saying ‘this is not the way to treat people.’”

Onoda grows strawberries in seven greenhouses for winter income. March is the peak for strawberries, but the two nearest produce markets were closed by the quake. Onoda’s pride and joy 16+ Brix strawberries are red and ripe.

“All the registered farmers in Kashima Ward are in their sixties. While the tsunami damaged their fields and machinery, greater damages have been wrought by malicious rumors. Some rumors include those that these farmers are giving up because of financial difficulties. Though I still have paddy fields, it is going to take a lot of work to repair all the damage to the area. I think it’s gonna be difficult to grow rice around here this year,” he says.

Onoda began growing rice 23 years ago. He was born in a farmer’s house in what was once known as Haramachi City (Currently, Haramachi Ward, Minamisoma City). After working for a major heavy-machinery sales company, he returned to his hometown. He built a log cabin here with his wife, Hiroko (57), and began growing rice on one hectare.

Onoda grows a particularly robust strain of rice by raising healthy seedlings and employing a sparse planting method. He devised his own pest repellent liquid and made continuous improvements for better water retention in his rice. “My friends in Tokyo are behind me, telling me that my rice is delicious. I have 150 clients in the Tokyo metropolitan area and western Japan. I developed ties with those clients one by one,” Onoda says.

Onoda’s customers haven’t cancelled a single order. They have called him with words of encouragement: “I’ll eat your rice no matter what happens.” “You should hang in there and grow rice this year.” A chef in Tokyo actually drove up for a visit, arriving in a car filled with relief supplies, and offering to help with strawberry picking. "It’s quite encouraging more than anything else," Onoda says. These acts of moral support fill his heart with joy during these tough times.

Five years ago, Onoda began planning active training to educate young people who want to be farmers. College students in Tokyo, Fukushima and other hold meetings in his log cabin. The dream is only halfway complete.

Fukushima Prefecture conducted a soil survey in Kashima Ward and other areas. Onoda is waiting for the results. “Only for this year, I have no choice but leasing 10 hectares of paddy fields in other area to grow rice, but I will grow rice here in my fields next year."

The paddy fields in front of Onoda’s house were the ones on which he grew rice for the first time after becoming a farmer. Onoda plans to plant only 10 hectares of paddy fields in May, as trial to prove himself that he’ll be able to stick with his land, and grow safe rice here.

Kahoku Shimpo by Hideya Terashima
Tuesday, April 5, 2011

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