Shoes off, pants rolled up and emptied plastic soil bags tied securely around our waists we plunged eagerly into the deep end of our friend Kazu’s organic rice field on a recent Saturday to help weed this year’s crop. It was one of the first genuinely hot days of the year so it was with eager feet that we slipped our naked toes into the cool mud. We finished our first sweep in about 20 minutes, each of us responsible for an area that matched the span of our arms, which was for me about 4 rows, and for Sune and Kazu about 5.
When you stand on the edge of a rice field with the task of removing the rice-like weeds from the weed-like rice, the job can seem fairly intimidating. At first glance, it was either all weeds or all rice. But as we waded patiently through row after row of rice I started to notice the small details that distinguished a nourishing grain from a strangling weed. You’d never think that a rice paddy would have a deep and shallow end, but it does… especially the paddies that are closer to the ocean. Kazu explained that the side of the paddy furthest from the sea was more shallow because as the typhoon washes from the ocean to the land the winds re-deposit the soil in the rice paddy like a great wave washing over the field. We found that weeds grew in neither the deep nor the shallow end, but it was the sloping middle that was rife with them. As our eyes became adjusted to the swift task of deciphering what was rice and what was not, we started sweeping each row in 10 minutes.
It took the three of us three hours to finish one field. Our backs were broken and my arms were red and itchy from brushing up against the blades of rice. We walked 2 kilometers in one field of weeding. This is Kazu’s seventh year of growing organic rice, but only his second year where the crop seems to be successful. It’s been a long process of trial and error, an endeavor his father usually think is worthless until he sees what people in Tokyo will pay for high quality organic rice from Niigata prefecture, where the champagne of rice in Japan is grown. Six years ago Kazu said he could see more weeds than rice when he looked out over the field, and he could measure the task of weeding in days not hours. But after learning to rotate his fields, flood his organic fields even in winter and restrain from cultivating the soil in the Spring, his organic crop now looks quite healthy.
Not all of Kazu’s paddies are organic, it’s something he’s easing into and hopes to spread to more farmers in his village. But he is mindful of the long-term effects of fertilizers, so he keeps his usage to a minimum. During a rest between rows we looked over at his neighbor’s field where the rice looked uncommonly green, thick and at least 2 inches taller than Kazu’s organic rice. “Too much nitrogen,” said Kazu, “it’s not good, the rice will start to bend before harvest.” He said his neighbor doesn’t care about quality, it’s quantity that matters to him. His over-fertilized crop will have a good yield perhaps, but too much nitrogen not only makes the rice grow too fast, Kazu thinks it also gives the rice a bad taste and smell. Strangely, the Japanese Rice co-op will pay the same amount for Kazu’s carefully tended organic crop as they will for his neighbor’s steroid rice because the co-op pays according to location, regardless of organic. This incentive-lacking scheme from the co-op factors greatly into why Kazu sells his rice directly to his customers, cutting out the mega co-op.
The process of moving slowly through the rice, making small waves stretch out before each shin is calming, almost meditative. Swooping down for each weed, bending and folding for hours is backbreaking work, and it humbles me to see the majority of elderly rural farmers who are permanently bent in rice-tending position. It’s satisfying to finish our work at the end of the day and scrub the mud off our toes in the refreshingly cold water the trickles down the canal from Lake Oike. It’s even more satisfying to be “paid” by Kazu’s family with box-fulls of organic vegetables from their family garden.
In just these few short months I’ve learned so much from Kazu about modern farming, and it frustrates me that most young people don’t appreciate what a good life an innovative farmer in Japan can lead. But just as we were finishing our last row of weeding, and just as my frustration over the governments failure to recognize Kazu’s organic rice crop was building, we stopped suddenly and were instructed to step out of line and walk in wide circles around two blue poles stuck in the field. These poles were for testing, from the government actually. Kazu says they’re interested in why organic rice is better, “they don’t know why,” he says, “but they’re curious.”