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Meeting the Farmers

Images Courtesy of Kaitlyn Chu

Harvesting Hope

Thick, heavyweight chains secured with hefty metal locks and a loud, yellow cautionary posted sign written in Japanese warned us from entering. Scared, I followed Farmer Ootomo closely. My feet met dusty dirt and waist-high weeds sprouted wildly around an abandoned and rusting playground. Ahead of me, I caught my first glimpse of the middle school which was used as the city’s evacuation center for the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami near Sendai, Japan in 2011. This place saved Farmer Ootomo. The clock above the outside entrance was now dusty and covered in a gray haze. It displayed the exact time when the tsunami raged through the first floor of this building. I felt as if I was frozen in the past.

I closed my eyes and imagined the terrified Japanese people running for their lives to this building as black seawater flooded over their legs. I opened my eyes, and Farmer Ootomo was stooped over, pointing to his knee.

 

He began his story by showing how the water flooded all the way up to his knees. After the earthquake, the tsunami alarm echoed throughout the city. On foot, Farmer Ootomo was rushing to safety. He noticed his helpless, elderly neighbor who was struggling to make it to the evacuation center. He stopped and used all of his strength to frantically carry his neighbor on his back. Suddenly, the black water hit them, surging through the street, over his knees. Within seconds, the unstoppable wave full of debris overpowered him. Ootomo struggled to carry his neighbor on his back, but the raging, deadly water was getting stronger and higher. His neighbor screamed, “save yourself!” and demanded to be left there. They were approximately fifteen short feet away from the entrance to the evacuation center. With a heavy heart, Ootomo left him near a parked car and raced to the second floor of the evacuation center. He could not bear to look out the window to see his neighbor being swept away by the powerful current of the wave. His neighbor’s body was found three days later, just behind the middle school. Farmer Ootomo still regrets not being able to save him. While hearing this story, my eyes flooded with tears. I couldn’t even imagine being in his extremely heartbreaking and tragic situation.   

 

He lost everything within minutes. His house was less than a mile away from the ocean. The destructive tsunami crashed through his whole neighborhood. Cars, some with his neighbors inside, were violently thrown about and drowned in the crashing water. He lost his home, his cars, his tractors, his fields and all of his farming equipment. He received no funds from the government for his losses, and he could not farm again without help. His neighborhood was reduced to rubble. Smashed roofs, children’s dolls, broken photographs and miscellaneous items were all that remained.

 

Farmer Ootomo handed me a photograph of his former home. I held the photo up, matching up the remaining features and tried to picture what his house looked like before it got destroyed. I lowered the photograph, and I couldn’t believe what I saw. All I saw was one row of red, standard bricks that defined the perimeter of his house. Three steps to his front door led me to empty space.

If I were in his situation and lost everything, I would likely lose hope and be miserable. However, he pushed on through life and continued to pursue his passion of farming. He purchased a small patch of land further away from the ocean, and it was encouraging to see that Ootomo did not give up farming, and that he was continuing to do what he loves to do, even if he had to water his plants by hand with a bucket and a hose.

 

I tend to keep things to myself when I’m having a hard time, like the Japanese, because I don’t want other people to worry about me. Throughout my time with Farmer Ootomo, I realized that part of the Japanese culture is not complaining, and not publicly showing weakness. There is a Japanese saying, Shikataganai, which means “we just have to accept it and make the most of what we have.” I know that I have this Japanese trait instilled in me from my family. However, after hearing the incredible story Ootomo shared, I knew that I had to help speak up for the suffering Japanese farmers, especially since there were so few stories being shared by the Japanese.

 

I shared this untold story to raise awareness, to speak for the Japanese who are not accustomed to expressing their hardships and to raise money and support for the farmers. I wrote an essay about meeting Farmer Otomo that was published in the Rafu Shimpo, the largest Japanese-English language newspaper. The editor said that it was one of the best articles he had read about the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The truth is, there are not that many articles to begin with. I want to change that. I may not be the loudest student in the class, but I will continue to speak up and share powerful stories for those who can’t.

Farmer Tsuneo’s new home 2017

Image Courtesy of Kaitlyn Chu

Walk the Farm is not only about helping others in need, it is also about helping us, the donors and volunteers, by opening our eyes and seeing the difference that kind gestures can make. My family’s travels to the Tohoku region aim to amplify those stories.

 

On our most recent trip to Japan, we returned to Sendai to visit the farmers and check on their progress. Here's my sister, Kara's perspective from our recent journey.

Kizuna: The Bonds of Friendship

Ever since the horrifying 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, I have walked and volunteered at Tanaka Farms and the Orange Coast Optimist Club’s Walk the Farm fundraiser which helps Japanese farmers and other agricultural groups in need. In 2013, my sister Kaitlyn asked Mr. Glenn Tanaka from Tanaka Farms in Irvine if we could visit some of the farmers that Walk the Farm supports. Thanks to his introduction and coordination, we were able to spend time with a few farmers, including Farmer Tsuneo near Sendai. Living less than one mile from the coast of the Pacific Ocean, the earthquake and tsunami had mercilessly obliterated his home, his farm, and his entire farming community of Idohama which was near the epicenter of the earthquake.

When I first met Farmer Tsuneo that summer, he took us to the community evacuation center which was a middle school when tragedy struck. It was so eerie to see March 11th on the chalkboard with the words “Graduation Day” still visible in chalk and to see the water marks so high up on the ceiling of the now abandoned school. I remember fighting back my own tears when he choked back his as he shared his story, filled with pain and regret. He tried to carry his elderly neighbor on his back to the evacuation center, and they were almost there when the tsunami suddenly overtook them. His neighbor forced Farmer Tsuneo to leave him on the street, ordering him to save himself as the water surged around their legs. Farmer Tsuneo couldn’t bear to look as his neighbor was swept away by the raging waters. He was found drowned three days later. Farmer Tsuneo’s willingness to open up and share such personal stories with me created an everlasting bond that I have cherished over the years.

Four years later, I asked Mr. Tanaka if we could visit the farmers again in Japan to see their progress on the road to recovery. I was so happy when he said yes, and I was looking forward to seeing the farmers who we had bonded with. At the train station, huge paper decorations for the Sendai Tanabata festival swayed colorfully in the wind. Once we reached the station, I eagerly raced off the bullet train, so excited to greet my old friend, Farmer Tsuneo. He welcomed us back with open arms and a huge smile. He looked more upbeat and confident than before. I wanted to find out what had changed since the last time I saw him, both for him and his community.

We all piled into his van, and as we drove through town, I noticed some changes right away. I solemnly noticed a highway overpass with a sign that marked where the water level had reached during the tsunami. There was also a new elevated structure for residents to run to in case of a future tsunami. We drove by public housing which were newly-built apartments instead of the hurriedly built rectangular portables placed on top of tennis courts we saw four years ago for displaced residents. But sadly, I learned that depression (kokoro no byoki) and domestic violence continue to be a cruel reality for residents after so much loss and trauma. Farmer Tsuneo told us that the public housing units were all full with many elderly and those still unable to find work.

After the tsunami decimated his home, Farmer Tsuneo’s dream had been to move out of temporary housing and into a permanent home. As we drove up, I was so glad to see a newly built house in the field we had visited before! He still grows fruits and vegetables like my favorite edamame, but he was sad to say that he had retired from farming as a career. Like many fellow aging Japanese farmers, it is too difficult for him to farm now that he is older. Instead, he and his wife spend their time hosting community and church events in their home. They arrange activities such as informative talks, sewing projects, exercise classes, day-trips, and picnics to lessen post-traumatic stress and anxiety for earthquake and tsunami survivors. They also organize and deliver donated food to temporary housing residents, including freshly harvested fruits and vegetables from his field. Farmer Tsuneo told us, “We are so grateful and thankful to Walk the Farm. You have encouraged us and given us tremendous joy. It is so emotional to know that we are not forgotten. It has inspired us to make it our mission to lift the spirits and to create and deepen kizuna within our community.”

Kizuna. Before this trip, the only association I had with the word “kizuna” was with gokizuna.org, which provides valuable programs that I’ve participated in for Japanese American youth. I didn’t know what the word meant. Kizuna means “bonds and connections.” One month after the devastation in 2011, Prime Minister Naoto Kan spoke of kizuna as the “bonds of friendship” as he described how over 130 nations and 40 international organizations swiftly came to Japan’s aid. Throughout my visit that day, the farmers kept mentioning kizuna and stressed with appreciation the importance of these local and international relationships in their recovery process. Every cloud has a silver lining. For the farmers, that silver lining has been kizuna. To me, kizuna is like that quote from Lilo and Stitch, “Ohana means family. Family means no one gets left behind or forgotten.” By showing the farmers that we have not forgotten about them, we fill their hearts with hope and optimism.

 

We drove to a nearby farm, and after proudly showing me her smaller but flourishing restored plot of land, Farmer Kayoko firmly grasped my hands with her own worn and weathered hands. With her stooped shoulders, slight frame and grandmotherly glasses, I was surprised by the strength of her grip. I was then taken aback when she bowed so low and deeply towards me, a mere teenager. With raw emotion, she wiped away her tears and said, “Even though I lost all my material possessions when my home was swept away by the tsunami waves, and even though so many things changed in my life, because of what happened to us and how the world responded, we have been able to make bonds with people that we never before imagined, and that makes me happy. Please tell everyone thank you for helping my family rebuild our home and farm. We are so grateful for everyone’s support and for all the blessings that kizuna has brought.” I was floored by Farmer Kayoko’s deep gratitude, and I realized how profound of an impact Walk the Farm has made on her life and on mine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Farmer Sachio and Farmer Keiko, husband and wife, showed us pictures of their destroyed home and shared with us their horrific ordeal on that March 11th. Just as they began to describe it, Farmer Keiko began to cry, overcome with her memories from that day. Farmer Sachio was away from the farm when the frightening earthquake and intense aftershocks hit and when the violent tsunami surged through their community. Luckily, Farmer Keiko was able to run up to the second floor before the water inundated their first floor. However, four new tractors that they had just bought were swept away. One even turned on its side and slammed against the front door, trapping her inside overnight all by herself. The next day, her frantic husband was able to reach her by making his way through the chaotic mangled debris and thick mud which covered his property. Climbing on top of his ruined overturned tractor, he was finally able to enter his home by smashing a window high-up in order to reach her. Farmer Sachio pointed out that tractor in his photo. I could not imagine going through that all by myself like Farmer Keiko bravely had nor could I imagine the desperation Farmer Sachio must have felt in his efforts to reach her.

After the tsunami, they had to painstakingly remove contaminated dirt from their field and replace it with soil from a nearby mountain. Farmer Sachio amazingly built a greenhouse by himself and has resumed farming but on only one third of the field they had before the tsunami because of cost and labor concerns. Due to water damage to their home, they now work out of a light blue portable building, and they have fixed up their storage shed with translucent siding. Even though you can still see the effects of the tsunami on their property, they do the best they can and grow what they can.

Before, they used to grow a lot of lettuce. Now, with a smaller field, they have adapted and sell different vegetables. We saw organic cucumbers, green beans and Romanesco cauliflower. Later that year back home at the New Year Mochitsuki celebration at Tanaka Farms, I instantly flashed back to their Romanesco cauliflower when I saw this uniquely-shaped vegetable in the vegetable stand. What a coincidence! It reminded me of how small our world really is and how connected our bonds, or kizuna, are to each other. Although the Japanese farmers Walk the Farm supports have found a way to continue farming after the tsunami, they still need help amending their soil and producing crops.

Next stop on my Miyagi Prefecture Agricultural Tour, I would meet a pioneer in AgriTech who is making huge strides producing local strawberries worldwide with talent, tenacity and technology.

Farmers Kazuyoshi and Kayoko

Image Courtesy of Kaitlyn Chu

Farmer Sachio

Image Courtesy of Kaitlyn Chu

Mr. Tatsuya Katsube and Mr. Hiroki Iwasa from GRA Inc.

Photo Courtesy of GRA Inc.

AgriTech and Skills-Based Volunteerism in Japan

After hugging the farmers from Idohama, telling them we should all continue to “ganbaryo”(do our best!) and saying again that we will not forget about them, we traveled on to see Mr. Hiroki Iwasa, a strawberry farmer who is known as a pioneer in Agri-Tech in Japan. Unlike what I pictured a farmer to be, he looked like a surfer dude (which he is!) He is also a successful young IT venture businessman with an MBA. He has been a speaker at TEDx, Google, and even in the city of Detroit to talk about using technology to revitalize declining cities into successful and sustainable communities based on their best asset, like agriculture. His innovation in farming has led to his inclusion in an elementary school science textbook. He even checks his crops on a Segway with a tablet in hand!

Mr. Iwasa was living in Tokyo in 2011, but three days after the disaster, he rushed to help his coastal hometown, Yamamoto-cho in the Miyagi prefecture. There, the 33 feet high waves swept away 125 out of the 129, or a heartbreaking 97% of all the strawberry greenhouses. With almost 80 percent of the town flooded, most of the survivors’ livelihoods were destroyed, and they were left with very little except each other.

Mr. Iwasa knew that he had to help after seeing the devastation. He started off volunteering with the clean-up efforts. He approached the city’s elders, and they pleaded with him to create jobs in their city. Their own sons and daughters and other young residents had left for bigger cities to find work. For the younger generation, farming was no longer considered a viable career option, highlighted by the average age for farmers being close to retirement age, the high costs of small field farming, and the 25% fall in agriculture’s contribution to the economy.

 

Iwasa had no farming experience. His only work experience had been in his startup IT ventures, but he did not let that stop him. He decided to “put the thought into action, work hard, and achieve.” So, he thought about what made his city unique and marketable. Yamamoto-cho was known for its delicious strawberries. His own grandfather had grown strawberries there 50 years ago. Iwasa was determined to help rebuild his hometown by getting younger generations more involved and interested in agriculture by reviving the local strawberry industry.

 

Amazingly, he and his his co-founders, Tadatsugu and Yohei Hashimoto, created General Reconstruction Agency Group (GRA, Inc.) in July of 2011, just a few short months after the earthquake and tsunami struck. Iwasa eagerly learned the traditional techniques of growing strawberries, but he realized the grueling hours and long 15 year learning curve would discourage younger generations to farm. Other roadblocks included the lack of resources in raising the capital needed for a farm and farm equipment, the ability to consistently produce a quality product, the establishment of reliable sales, and the attainment of a desirable work-life balance.

Iwasa took risks and used unprecedented methods for producing the strawberries. Due to the contaminated soil, he adapted by planting his berries in “benches” that are about one meter above the ground. He used his experience in computer programming to create cutting-edge technology for strawberry greenhouses using one hundred sensors and custom climate-control software to manage temperature, irrigation, nutrients, pests without pesticides, humidity, and sunshine to grow the highest quality strawberries. GRA utilizes information and communication technology such as cloud and even big data analysis for these state-of-the-art greenhouses. Incredible!

Iwasa planted fifty-five different types of strawberries, most of them failures, to find the best one. The best varieties for Yamamoto-cho were determined to be the Tochiotome and Mo Ikko varieties. They named these strawberries, Migaki Ichigo, which means “strawberry gems.” Just one of his deliciously sweet strawberries with its diamond logo can sell for $10 each in high-end department stores in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand. The strong brand recognition for his high quality and stable supply of products has tripled the price of his strawberries. He also sells strawberries to supermarkets and through online sales, and he has come up with products including strawberry beverages and skincare that help sustain business when strawberries are not in season.

“I want Japanese farmers to know that even from a small Miyagi town, you can expand worldwide. I want them to know Japanese agriculture can be a global success.” Thanks in part to advances in Agri-Tech in Japan, farm workers under the age of 49 increased from 18,000 in 2010 to 23,000 in 2015, although retiring farmers have resulted in an overall decline in total farmers. To generate interest in farming in even younger generations, GRA organizes tours for junior high and high school students. Iwasa’s farm, Ichigo World (Strawberry World), has become a popular tourist farm destination, and attracts over 10,000 visitors worldwide annually. I know I would love to go back during strawberry season to do Ichigo World’s all-you-can-pick-and-eat strawberries!

 

GRA has purposefully started a strawberry academy to educate young farmers and support them until they can start their own farms. Since there were no hotels in the area, GRA built its own dormitory just for them. Academy farmers are given training for a full year and then provided help to locate, set-up, and build their own greenhouses. This gives them a safety net to quit their current job and pursue agriculture as a feasible career option. Afterwards, GRA supports them by remotely monitoring their environmental data, offering advice, sharing cultivating techniques, and fine-tuning equipment set-up. Additionally, these new farmers are given help with branding their products and establishing sales channels for dependable revenue. In this way GRA supports farmers to increase productivity, lower costs, use less resources like water and pesticides, decrease labor, and improve crops for maximum profits.

 

Not only was I so appreciative of the opportunity to meet and be inspired by Mr. Iwasa, but our two scholarship recipients were as well!

Genta Takahashi is majoring in Biological Sciences. He was the first recipient of a four-year Walk the Farm scholarship. His home was damaged by the earthquake and tsunami, and he remembers going hungry during the disaster. It motivated him to want to study agriculture and somehow be a part of the solution to prevent that from happening again. He wants to be a “power of reconstruction” in the Miyagi area and to engage in the production, processing, and research of food. He was very interested in Mr. Iwasa’s use of technology with agriculture to help reconstruct Yamamoto-cho. Genta was also inspired by the farmers’ enthusiasm and perseverance who we visited who never gave up even with repeated and disheartening failures. Genta is one of our four recipients of scholarships to Iwate University. This year he is working hard in a laboratory studying soybeans. He says, “I am now examining the structure and ingredients of soy. I am studying very hard, and I want to go back to my hometown and become a civil servant. I will do my best in a career that is useful to others.”

 

Minori Goto, another scholarship recipient from Iwate University, has been studying nutrition and biochemistry. She plans to contribute to the safety and security of food made in the Tohoku area. Minori hopes to do this by evaluating the radioactivity and agricultural chemicals in local food.  She was inspired and impressed by Mr. Iwasa’s vision and journey. She admires the farmers we visited for their strength and spirit in rebuilding their neighborhoods and actively planning events for their community. “It was unforgettable!” she exclaimed. This year Minori has been conducting many experiments to study how nutrition imbalances affect health negatively. She says, “I would like to make contributions in securing food safety and technical research to achieve and maintain safe and hygienic environments.”

Mr. Iwasa’s story was so inspiring to me because although he didn’t know a thing about strawberry farming, he created a better method to grow strawberries by focusing on the skills he did have in IT and saved his ailing hometown. His story of being rejected by department store fruit buyers even when he brought free mouth-watering strawberry samples every single day for six straight months until he finally got a sales order shows me that I can succeed even when I fail hundreds of times.

Mr. Iwasa opened my eyes to skills-based volunteering and social entrepreneurship to achieve innovative change for social, cultural and environmental challenges. He has taught me to have confidence in my dreams, to never give up, to question traditional ways of doing things, and to always take action by collaborating and giving back to others in my hometown of Irvine and in my Japanese American community.

Mr. Iwasa with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

Photo Courtesy of GRA Inc.

Hiroki Iwasa educating and inspiring agriculture students

Photo Courtesy of Kaitlyn Chu

Let it Grow - Cultivating Future Farms in Miyagi Prefecture

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Walk the Farm fundraiser is also working with a young farmer, Yasuhito Naito, in Yamamoto-cho in Miyagi Prefecture. When disaster struck on March 11th, 2011, Mr. Naito was working in sales in Tokyo. Mr. Naito reveals, “The earthquake was so big that I thought Tokyo was the epicenter.” The devastatingly powerful earthquake fiercely shook buildings, and then the tsunami raged through the east countryside in Tohoku, destroying everything in its path. After Naito heard that his mother’s hometown had been severely affected, he rushed to Miyagi Prefecture to help them recover. He left his job in Tokyo to move to the city of Yamamoto-cho, determined to stay until the city is restored.

Yasuhito Naito, owner of Naito Farm

Photo Courtesy of Naito

The Walk the Farm fundraiser is also working with a young farmer, Yasuhito Naito, in Yamamoto-cho in Miyagi Prefecture. When disaster struck on March 11th, 2011, Mr. Naito was working in sales in Tokyo. Mr. Naito reveals, “The earthquake was so big that I thought Tokyo was the epicenter.” The devastatingly powerful earthquake fiercely shook buildings, and then the tsunami raged through the east countryside in Tohoku, destroying everything in its path. After Naito heard that his mother’s hometown had been severely affected, he rushed to Miyagi Prefecture to help them recover. He left his job in Tokyo to move to the city of Yamamoto-cho, determined to stay until the city is restored.

During his time volunteering and rebuilding there, Naito’s outlook on life changed. He was once focused on money and business, but he made friends with the locals and discovered that he loved working with nature. “Everyone is so warm in Yamamoto-cho. They treat me like their own son,” he says. “My personal farming experience has enriched my mind and spirit, enabling me to make extraordinary connections with people and nature.”

After the earthquake and tsunami, it was reported that not a single house in Yamamoto-cho was left undamaged. The JR Yamashita Station’s buildings and tracks were washed away. Miyagi Prefecture had the most loss of lives and injuries. There were over 10,000 killed or missing and 4,000 injured. Most victims drowned from the tsunami’s ferocious floods. The agriculture industry in Yamamoto-cho declined rapidly: many farmers and younger residents left the area because it was too difficult to rebuild, there seemed to be no interest from younger generations to begin farming, and the average farmer was the age of a senior citizen. In order to attract people to the city to farm, Mr. Naito resolved to build his own business that would do just that.

He decided to build his own farm, but there were many challenges he had to overcome first. The soil was ruined by the tsunami, so he had to remove the top layer and replace it before he could grow anything. Having absolutely no farming experience of his own, he did not know any good farming techniques and had to learn. Despite many failed harvests, Naito turned every failure into an idea of how to improve the next time. He struggled but would not give up, and has finally been able to show a profit. He sells his crops at town events and festivals, directly to consumers and indirectly through a farming group. He has also been creative and uses Facebook to sell to interested followers. Although Yamamoto-cho is famous for strawberries, he grows Manchurian wild rice (gohan), several types of organic garlic (ninniku), Japanese pumpkin (kabocha), Manganji hot peppers (togarashi), and more. By picking more rare and unique crops, he hopes to interest the media so that they will spread his mission to more people who will support him and his town.

In the beginning, his farm received government funding, but the contract was to last only five years. Last year, 2018, was the last year. From now on, he must succeed without it. Walk the Farm will be supporting his efforts with quarterly donations over the next four years. The donations will also help him invest in such capital purchases and necessities such as machinery, warehouses, fertilizers, and other supplies, as well as for gaining a deeper understanding of agricultural methods, techniques, and business and marketing practices. The goal is to consistently produce excellent products and maintain profitability.

Mr. Naito has noticed that there were others who wanted to get into the agricultural business, but like him when he first began, have no idea where or how to start. So, he has now begun to train two new farmers who will hopefully be able to start their own farms. Thinking beyond his farm’s goals, to his community and even to his country, he says it is important to create and provide opportunities for novice farmers. “I understand what kind of questions people have about farming, and I can help connect those with an interest in agriculture...I want to bring life back into town, and farming is a fabulous tool to do that” he affirmed.

Mr. Naito has high hopes for the future of farming, and he pictures himself continuing to farm for the rest of his life and mentoring more new farmers. He believes that a farming lifestyle has lots to offer, and he would recommend it to his future children. He is so grateful to Walk the Farm, and he can’t believe the support he is receiving from another country for his farming. Wild rice seedlings have recently been planted in early May on Naito’s Farm, and his garlic will be ready to be harvested in June.

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