From The Daily Yomiuri, May 9, 2012
Many trial-and-error projects are being undertaken to balance agriculture with the restoration and preservation of the environment throughout the country. These projects have not become widespread enough to rehabilitate the agriculture industry throughout the nation as a whole, but they present many opportunities for regions to develop unique practices. This ranges from traditional agricultural methods to innovative ones.
In Shiiba, Miyazaki Prefecture, slash-and-burn farming is still used.
This involves burning bushes and weeds before sowing the seeds of buckwheat and Japanese millet into a field. The flames kill pests and the ashes provide the soil with nutrients.
Shiiba is in the central part of the Kyushu mountain range. Slash-and-burn farming, which is no longer used in other regions, remains popular in this village because Shiiba has many bushes and limited arable land. The practice has been passed down from generation to generation.
In 2010, Masaru Shiiba, who runs the minshuku inn "Yakihata" in the village, began offering a course for visitors to learn about this method of farming. It includes lessons on how to burn fields and thresh foxtail and Japanese millet. Students can learn to make soba noodles using buckwheat harvested from the village.
About 300 people have completed the course. "Some people said they think this method of farming destroys the environment, but it actually helps reinvigorate forests and promote regrowth," Shiiba, 59, said. "For years, people in this village have performed [this method of farming]. Recently, we have been using it as a tool to invite people from outside as part of efforts to revitalize the village."
Organic farming and forest preservation activities are widespread in Aya, Miyazaki Prefecture, which is home to huge evergreen broad-leaved forests. The town has only experienced a slight drop in its population, from 7,700 in 1970 to 7,200 today. This is because it attracts many people from big cities around Japan who support the concept of environmental preservation.
In 1966, the town became more independent when it disagreed with a central government project to log the forests. While the project was supported by some residents, particularly those involved in the timber industry, then Aya Mayor Minoru Goda developed a policy to protect the forests, and warned that if the logging went ahead, "The town's assets would be lost."
In the following year, the town launched its "one-tsubo [3.3 square meters] vegetable garden campaign," which promotes a self-sufficient lifestyle through organic farming. The town distributed vegetable seeds to residents for free.
In 1988, the town created an ordinance to promote "natural ecosystem agriculture." Under the ordinance, which was the nation's first of the kind, the town certifies the safety of vegetables at three levels based on how farms are managed and their chemical fertilizer use.
The town said 387 farms were certified in fiscal 2010. As people have become more health-conscious, there are many cases in which farmers are directly signing contracts with consumers and retailers.
In the Katsunuma district in Koshu, Yamanashi Prefecture, which is well known for its grapes, there is an attempt to increase the profitability of agriculture while giving consideration to the environment.
Shikisai, an agricultural production corporation that grows tomatoes in the district, sells vegetables that are not normally offered by most wholesalers.
It is said that nearly 40 percent of fresh produce do not meet supermarket standards in terms of size, shape, color and taste. Shikisai sells this produce as a "substandard product" in different packaging than what is used for normal produce.
At a shop along a national highway where many tourists visit by car and bus, substandard produce sells well because it is cheaper than regular produce.
"As the number of public work projects is declining, I'd like to support the regional economy through agriculture," said Shikisai President Noboru Yamazaki, who previously worked in the construction industry.
Shikisai's projects breathe new life into the agriculture industry. One such environmentally friendly project is the creation of a system that uses geothermal heat to adjust the ground-level temperature of greenhouses so it remains at a level ideal for the growth of vegetables.