In the waning glow of autumn the rice fields yellow with age. Paddies are drained in preparation for the harvest and the grains begin to dry on the stalk. Flaxen tassels sway in the autumn breeze amidst fields of golden grasses, a sight as quintessentially fall like as the blazing foliage of sugar maples in New England. When they bow heavily towards the earth, the tillers are ready to yield their crops to the farmer. Inekari, the rice harvest, is an active time, a time for reaping what has been sown.
Last week, on a perfect fall day with a high blue sky rising above aureate fields rustling in the gentle breeze, Miyazaki-san, the proprietor of a local vegetable market where I buy my rice, led me towards Kato-san’s fields in a wide valley. As one of very few farmers using organic growing methods in Karatsu, I had long been eager to meet him and to see the rice harvest. It looks quite different than it once did. The days of scythes has passed. Threshing and baling is mechanized in the modern age and it takes far less time to shear a vast tract than it used to, but still the farmers make haste, grasping the dry spells between rain while always on the lookout for typhoons that could thwart the harvest of a long tended field. The rice reaping machines are impressive in their mass and efficiency. In a single continuous flow they shear the stalks at the base, separate the seeds, remove the hull, and deposit the chopped up chaff in their wake. Miyazaki-san helped to spread the straw across the bare earth. He is training to take over Kato-san’s fields.
As the large Kubota engine cut off, there was a feeling of stillness in the newly shaven field. Cropped short the land felt more open. We stood there talking with Kato-san for a while. “You cannot be satisfied to grow organic rice just because it’s safe,” he told Miyazaki-san. “It has to taste good.” It’s unusual to find organic products here in the deep countryside where the Japanese Agricultural Society, acting as supplier and bank, has long held a tight grip on farmers making them beholden to methods heavily reliant on nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides. So what was it that inspired him nearly two decades ago to take this route, I wondered. “I got sick,” he said. It was then that he felt the power of diet to cause and cure disease so he quit his job at the city office and began growing organic rice. I thanked him for his time and seeing that he needed to get back to his work I prepared to take my leave. But before I left he recounted a story from when he first went to study with his farming mentor. He had long suffered from recurring back pain but over the course of many days, though he worked long and hard in the fields, he never once felt a stroke of discomfort. It was then, he said, that he really understood the power of the land. If we nurture the land, it nurtures us in return. I could see that Miyazaki-san was also moved by his words. I left feeling heartened by the commitment of these two men, one receiving the torch from the other, both stewards of the same patch of earth. Driving home I knew that having met him, having listened to his story and seen the kindness in his eyes, that I would experience much more flavor and more joy in my meals.