A farmer like no other
Tsutomu Sasaki almost quit farming before he’d actually begun. As a young man he worked side by side with his grandfather, growing award-winning produce. Though he liked the work, he was disillusioned with the return. “Among other things, we were growing goya (bitter gourd). They were splendid goya but we received only 5 yen each. Those very same goya would sell in stores for 150 yen,” he says.
Witnessing an agricultural system that rewarded corporate middle men in suits many times over the backbreaking labor of farmers sent Sasaki into a dark well. “I saw the worst side of people in those days,” he says. “I got depressed. I didn’t work, just stayed home, drank, and watched TV.” This went on for six months. “Finally, one day my grandfather brought me a book by Matsushita Konosuke. He said, ‘If you read this and still aren’t motivated, then get out.’”
Eleven years later Sasaki might be the most motivated farmer you’ll meet. We park in front of a house that once belonged to his great grandparents. He walks me down a dirt road towards a distant bamboo grove. Sasaki is part of a growing movement of farmers in Japan who are taking cues from the nutrient cycle of bamboo, one of the fastest regenerating plants, to develop effective natural fertilization systems for farming.
Inside the grove, he routes around in a surface layer of detritus and brings up a small piece of decomposing bamboo. He identifies the white growth on the underside as hay bacillus, or Bacillus Subtilis, a natural bacterium prevalent in nutrient rich soil. The high concentration of B. subtilis in the soil of bamboo groves serves to metabolize phosphates and nitrates into more readily ingestible forms. It serves the same purpose when integrated into compost, enhancing its effect on crops.
Each spring and fall, Sasaki collects Kaya, a robust grass, from the banks of four river systems in the vicinity. He piles the cuttings on borrowed land and periodically spreads a homemade blend of rice husk, rice bran, yogurt and B. subtilis collected from this bamboo grove, over the piles of clippings. Within a year they break down into nutrient rich black compost that he spreads on his fields.
“There are a plethora of microorganism blends on the market for farmers to buy,” he says, but Sasaki is intent on this method of making his own compost fertilizer. He adheres to what contemporary linguistics would deem a strict locovore philosophy. “There is the thinking that the food grown here in Karatsu is the best match for the physiology of the people who live in Karatsu. Wouldn’t that philosophy apply just as well to the vegetables I grow in Karatsu? This bacterium that is here must be the best match for the soil of this land,” he concludes.
It’s not like we are doing something new. We’ve just forgotten how to farm the way they used to.
We wind our way up a small mountain, passing onion fields and citrus orchards. At the pinnacle, the road ends and Sasaki parks his truck in a clearing. We dive into a thicket of bamboo and follow a path further up the mountain.
Sasaki grows an assortment of certified organic vegetables but his specialty is jinenjo (wild yam). It is the oldest variety of yamaimo (mountain yam) found in Japan. Sasaki’s grandfather belonged to the first generation of farmers who sought to cultivate jinenjo. Until then, it was solely a foraged crop. When grated and stirred in a mortar with pestle, a thick, white, creamy paste is achieved. Esteemed for its viscosity, it’s a valued component in a number of elegant Japanese dishes.
“I have three fields now. I started off renting just that one below,” he says, motioning to where we parked. “It’s a great field.” But when it came time to find a plot for his jinenjo, instinct told him to climb further up the mountain. Sure enough he found a few wild bulbils suggesting a preexisting natural habitat conducive to growing his jinenjo.
It’s a drizzly day, the air damp and still. With woods on all sides and sky above Sasaki’s jinenjo field is isolated. He takes a shovel and starts shaving away one side of a row of dirt. The harvest season, begun when the Ginkgo leaves start to fall is coming to a close. With just a few short weeks to prepare, he’ll plant the next crop when the Cherry trees blossom. He works with a practiced, careful hand. Jinenjo is extremely delicate. A fingernail could break the skin rendering the rhizome susceptible to early decay. He brushes away the remaining dirt with his hands and uncovers a long, tan colored tuber.
Farming organically in this Western rural nook of Japan takes a yeoman’s effort. Locating a natural habitat for jinenjo was one call for climbing to the top of this mountain. Additionally, fearing drifting pesticides and water contaminated by chemical fertilizers, Sasaki felt he could never achieve a purity of elements if he wasn’t higher than the surrounding croplands. It has taken years of self-directed study to perfect his operation. “Probably long ago, farmers naturally did this same thing,” he imagines. “It’s not like we are doing something new. We’ve just forgotten how to farm the way they used to.”
Sasaki’s reverence for his own lineage and a sense of injustice fuels his determination. He is quietly soldiering against the Japan Agricultural Cooperative (JA), the corporate monolith that holds an iron grip on every aspect of agricultural production and food distribution in Japan. “We farmers put in the same effort year after year,” Sasaki says. “When we have a poor crop, JA pays more but we have little to sell. Then when we have a good year with abundant crops to sell, the pay plummets. In the end there is little difference. When do we prosper?”
Sasaki sings a common refrain. Farmers have been jostled and squeezed, thrust between policies of expansion and forced fallowing of fields in the decades since the end of WWII. They are denied a direct line to retail their own crops, obliged instead to sell to JA who then redistributes them, reaping in the bulk of the profits. It was JA that implemented and prospered from the 3000% price increase of his grandfather’s goya, a practice that sent Sasaki into his initial despair. He emerged from that despair determined to become a force for change. “But a young guy like me can’t easily change the system alone,” he concedes. “So, for the time being I can at least show the world my ability to take action and achieve my dream. That’s what I can do.”
You have to go beyond number one to be number one.
Unwilling to engage with JA, Sasaki is excluded from retailing in supermarkets. He’s been propelled to aspire to something bigger, setting his sights on the gourmet outlets found in department stores and big city markets that source outside of the JA network. But to succeed at that level, he must make an exceptional product. “At first I wasn’t given a single business card or meeting,” he says. But he pressed on. He took his produce to a gourmet market chain called Bon Repas in Fukuoka. The buyer offered praise but said it wasn’t any better than what he already had. Determined to see his own produce on those shelves one day, he studied what was there and realized that he had to do better. “If you set your sights on number one, you’ll never surpass number two or three,” he says. “You have to go beyond number one to be number one,” he says with the pride of a man who did what he set out to do.
Sasaki is a lone wolf, largely misunderstood by the farming community he belongs to. He possesses a fortitude born of solitude. “I used to encourage my farmer friends to go organic, but now I don’t say anything,” he says. “If I take an elevated stance and say, ‘be like me’ or ‘do what I do,’ I won’t pull anyone along with me. So I just forge ahead.” But inspiring a movement isn’t far from his mind. “If a young guy like me from the remote countryside of Karatsu can provide goods to Michelin starred restaurants, or even to the emperor himself, if I can become that farmer, maybe other young farmers will yearn to do the same.”
Sasaki’s desire to set right a system that failed his grandfather and carve a new path for the next generation of farmers is a steady wind at his back. But Sasaki’s passion flows from a still deeper spring. When he quits his fields at the end of each day, the greatest rationale and reward for his work awaits him at home. He remembers a time, not so long ago, when his wife couldn’t conceive. “She suffered from nephritis.” A couple of times a year it would get so bad that she would end up in the emergency room. “I wondered if at some point I would lose her,” he says.
Sasaki could see that western medical treatments weren’t improving her condition and wondered if an eastern approach could provide some relief. Recalling that the Chinese name for jinenjo, 山薬, combines the characters of mountain and medicine, he had his own jinenjo dehydrated for use as a medicinal remedy. He and his wife also ate a steady diet of jinenjo in its raw, most nutritionally effective state. He wanted to offer her a complete diet equally nourishing and toxin free but was at a loss to find other organic vegetables on the local market. “So I had to grow my own,” he says with characteristic pluck. He can thank the work of his own hand for a great impending joy. His wife is healthy and will bear their first child this spring.