Organic farming, Japanese recipes


New rice hulling and bagging machine

Our old rice hulling machine featured previously finally gave up the ghost, and was replaced with a new model, which naturally features a bright color that makes it easy to coordinate our outerwear when we use it.

The essential functions are unchanged but there are plenty of handy new features which we are finding indispensable such as blinking lights, little buttons, and (I know you know I’m not making this up), when a bag of rice is filled it plays the Mickey Mouse theme song.


Rice harvest: dryer to bags to storehouse

The rice in the dryer reached 15% moisture content today, so we hulled and bagged it and moved it into the storehouse.  We ended up with 28 30-kilogram bags, which represents a good year for rice despite the sometimes very strange weather.

This video is a real quick introduction into the hulling and bagging process.

When it’s done, what do you have?  Wakayama rice!


We have two more loads to do, each spaced three to four days apart to account for drying.  So we should be done sometime next week.

(Without delay, let’s eat!)

Rice that was harvested a couple days ago–delicious!!

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The Japan rice harvest has begun!

When it gets close to rice harvest time, everyone watches the weather.  Harvesting after a rain means a very heavy harvest, and letting mature rice get hit by a typhoon can be disastrous–it can get flattened and must be harvested by hand immediately or it will rot.

This week’s forecast is for clouds and rain, so naturally it was sunny today.  We went to cut the weeds at the entrances to the rice fields so trucks can get in and out without slipping, and just in time, as the friends who do our harvesting decided to get a jump on the weather and harvest today.

You may remember that their rice planter is bright blue.  To round out the garage palette they bought the orange harvester.









It was a beautiful day!  Keep going for some videos that show the operation of the harvester.




It's rice planting time in Japan!

The landscape is changing here every day.  Fields that were dry yesterday are flooded today, and the rice planters are out in force from morning to evening.  Some warmer areas of the peninsula are completely planted, and depending on the water supply some neighborhoods are just now setting their seed.

We were a day ahead of schedule and had some pretty short sprouts, but our rice is in and things are looking good.  This year’s been much colder than most: crops in general are two weeks behind average, and lots of people are reporting that their rice sprouts aren’t growing to expectation.  Ours were generally plenty tall, with some strange short spots due to too much dirt over the seeds in the trays or temperature differences inside the tunnels.

To prep for planting the rice, the fields are flooded and then gone over one last time with a tractor to level the ground under the water.  Then pretty much every field bigger than spittin distance wide is planted with a 田植え機 (ta-ue-ki), or rice field planting machine.  Since we don’t have one we contract with a friend who does.

Why don’t we have one?  The big difference between running a field with this machine and doing it with a regular tractor is that with a regular tractor, if you make a mistake you can just go around again and cover your tracks, but if you’re planting rice you only have one go-round.  You really have to know how to cover all the ground without repeating yourself.  So it’s not just a matter of having the machine and the time.

The tractor itself looks like a cross between a bumblebee, and the queen ant if the worker ant were a Segway.  But blue.  Maybe they threw Hello Kitty’s cousin in the vat as an experiment?








It rides on wheels that look like they were lifted from a turn-of-last-century bicycle, so as to disturb as little mud as possible.  The rear consists of a curved feed device for feeding the seed trays toward the planters, which are helped by gravity but controlled by a belt that moves each row of seed trays in steps toward the planting devices.








There’s a hopper for distributing moto-goe, or fertilizer, to the base of the planted seedlings, and finally, there are four rows of rotating twin planting forks.  The videos will go a long way to help explaning the whole thing.

Since the rows have to be straight the four planting forks can’t move side to side; thus, the entire feed mechanism moves back and forth, with the belt feeders notching the seed trays down one row with each pass like a manual feed typewriter.








Often early and the morning and with little notice, the driver’s wife swoops by our garden to pick up trays in a small truck and then runs off to the first field.  The planting tractor is carried directly to the field in a heavy truck.

At first the seedlings are transferred from the trays to a transport tray; the root system holds the whole thing together at this point, making transport easy.  Then they’re slid onto the feed mechanism.








The tractor has trays near the driver’s compartment for holding extras; in the case of one of our smallest fields eight trays were loaded into the feeder, with two extra near the driver just in case.  But our driver is really good with his settings, and plants the fields with just a little left over for hand-planting.









While the tractor’s going, the driver’s wife gets in the field and plants the corners by hand which the tractor can’t do.  When they’re done, we get in the field with our special boots that are held on with some extra loops of rubber.  We check that each planted spot has five or so sprouts in it.  If there are too few we add some since they grow better in bunches.  The mud is really soft so it’s just a matter of tearing off some sprouts from the bunch, squish in the mud, and repeat.  The hard part is keeping your balance while shin-deep in mud.  No one’s fallen over yet…


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Rice update, recent stuff from Japan

I had hoped to be posting more about local culture and travel opportunities in Wakayama and Japan–we’re very safe down here!–but right now is ‘throw a seed on the ground and it’ll sprout’ season, so we’re busy prepping, planting, and harvesting all at the same time.  The spinach is ready to eat as baby leaves, and that means more planting in the spaces left by harvesting.  The radishes came in quickly, and we have to keep eating or serving them before they get bitter!  The daikon is a real mixed bag, but some are sprouting quickly and the ones that didn’t come in I’ll replant soon for a rolling harvest.

The potatoes are also a mixed bag, but as you can see in the picture, the row that we planted under a dry grass mulch is coming in very nicely, while the row that was under a plastic mulch pretty much sucks.  I can’t make any real claim to this success as I had no idea what I was doing when I did it except a sense that you shouldn’t have to cover everything with plastic if you want it to grow, but I’m happy to find that the grass held nicely against some pretty strong winds, is keeping the weeds at bay fairly well, and allows enough air and light to pass so the sprouts find their way through at the right time.  So the neighbors who thought I was crazy can go stick a piece of dry grass in their eye.  At least until I make a fatal mistake with my next venture.

Our rice at day 12 (2 days ago) was at 5 cm.  We checked it for water at 1 week, and after that it’s every three days–if there are no dew drops on the sprouts, or if the dirt on one side of the trays is dry, we open up the whole thing and water it.  Due to differences in height many trays are growing lopsided; those trays we turn 180 degrees before watering.  Our nosy neighbor who loves to give advice (I love to listen, most of the time) says, ‘I tell you guys every year to make it more level…’ and I want to say, ‘And every year we make a small mountain of rice that everyone loves to eat…’  Forgive us if we’re not perfect.  We’re doing fine, thank you.

The bamboo mountain must have absorbed some radiation or something, because everything is coming in huge this year.  No more monster shoots like last time, but the average size is well above normal; today we harvested about 20 kilos easily, and that was with a crowbar handle that was partially broken from overenthusiasm.

By the way, how many bamboo shoots can you find in the next picture?  I see 4.




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Rice update: sprouts growing nicely

It’s been nearly a week since we put the rice in the tunnels, and since we’ll be too busy to water it tomorrow we did it today.  This involved pulling the plastic out from under the dirt that was weighing it down, folding it up along one side of the tunnels, removing the layer of black mulch and giving the trays a good dousing.  There were some dry spots, so a day early was probably just right.  The dry spots are due to high spots on areas that weren’t level enough, so there’s a good note to myself for next year.

As you can see, they’re coming along nicely.



Also in today were ten broccoli sprouts, two tomato sprouts, a handful of ginger and a handful of myouga, which you can see in the google image link.  The broccoli and tomatoes are inside those silver bag cylinders for protection from wind and bugs.  Do you have any experience with this method of planting?  I couldn’t find any information online but the local experts say it’s necessary.  I’m a little worried about sun exposure.

Finally, a Japanese vocabulary word for you: ぐたぐた, or guta guta–it means exhausted or totally worn out.  G’nite!


Measuring in Japanese 2: field sizes

Yesterday was a long day of prepping the rice for planting. We used our isshou masu a while back to measure our rice seeds, and yesterday we measured those into the trays that we will later load into the robot tractor for planting in the field.

You recall that isshou is 1.8 liters, and that we measured 2 of those into most of our mesh bags for germination. That’s because we line the trays up in sets of 10 for seed spreading, and 2 shou is just the right amount of seed for 10 trays.

We line these trays are with vinyl sheets to prevent the shoots’ roots from growing through the drainage holes, and then put in a layer of sprouting dirt and level it off.  Once the trays are lined up, we use a small hopper that distributes the rice seed, fill in any empty areas by hand, and then use another hopper to put a layer of dirt over the top.  We give each layer a good soak, which makes the whole thing very heavy–I think we could just as easily soak them after we transfer them!

Over in the garden we use the tractor to flatten out a good area of land, then scrape it by hand with a board to make sure it’s as level as possible.  A bottom sheet of vinyl goes down, then the rice trays, a layer of black mulch which you can see on the middle row, and finally a heavy silver vinyl sheet makes a tunnel.  It was quite windy yesterday, so wrestling with all the sheets was a real chore.  We were quite proud and exhausted when we finished.  In all it was about 6 hours of work for me and 4 for my mother-in-law.

So where will this all go?  2 shou of rice seeds is enough for 10 trays, and 20 trays will plant one ‘tan’, which is almost exactly 1,000 square meters.  It’s interesting (or maybe not) that the term ‘tan’ is still in popular use, while 1/10 of a tan is called an ‘are’, (pronounced a-ru) which is the actual metric measurement that the hectare is based on.

The long tunnels each hold 30 trays and the short one has 18.  The long tunnel on the left has a variety called Milky Princess, and the middle and right have Milky Queen. They’re very similar to each other, but unique around here as most people use Koshinohikari or other more popular strains. Everyone loves the rice at the restaurant, so I guess that’s proof enough to keep doing what we’re doing.


Planting rice Japanese style–part 2

Japan’s obviously going through some hard times right now; I encourage anyone with even a little available to donate to Doctors Without Borders or any other organization working to help the Japanese.

I’m happy to report, though, that down here we seem to be just fine.  The winds generally head out to sea from the Fukushima nuclear plant, and the ocean currents flow northward.  We certainly can’t expect to be sitting pretty forever, but we’re also not booking the next flight out.  And local fish might be a real bargain for a while

We’ve completed the next three steps in planting this year’s rice.  One involved walking the fields with azumi, a fertilizer, and scattering it by hand—this was a week ago.  The second step had us attaching a hopper to the front of the tractor to scatter and then plow in “Dirt-making Boy”, another fertilizer, the next day.  Apparently these are both ‘organic’ even though they’re man-made.  I’ll translate the bags and get back to you…

Today we took the seeds from last year’s rice, measured them by volume into bags based on the fields they’ll go into, and set them soaking for a few days in water.  Into the soaking water we added a very definitely not organic, nasty-smelling chemical to prevent mold and other diseases.  This is one of the two hold-outs that my wife’s mother can’t get rid of, as problems at this stage could jeopardize much of the harvest.  In fact, our rice has never had a problem that might effect this stage of sprouting, but because of cross-pollenation we have to be careful.  Cross-pollenation affects rice enough that we order new seed rice every three to four years to make sure that our strains are what we want them to be.  It’s a fair sight better than farmers who sign a Monsanto contract and then can’t reseed their own crops on pain of a lawsuit … if you’re near a computer (I think you are) please google an anti-Monsanto action and sign, send support, call your representative, do something!  Harvesting and replanting seeds is a human right older than almost any other.

There are certainly other organic ways to inhibit mold, including a strong green tea solution.  The easiest and probably best-documented way is to use EM-1 (Effective Microorganisms), which I’ll be researching for a trial run next year on a portion of the rice seeds—I hope to be using it exclusively two years from now.

The next steps in the field we’ll contract out to neighborhood friends—levelling the dirt under water, which I’m definitely still too green on the tractor do to, and planting the rice, which is now done by a freakin sweet tractor that looks like something out of an anime, which we don’t have.  Pics of that are definitely to come.


Organic Farming in Japan

Heavy frost this morning. Apparently there was snow in some parts of the prefecture, but all we got was frozen windshields and baby lettuce frozen solid to the dirt. We’re hoping to plant spinach soon, but will either have to lay down some black plastic sheeting to warm the soil first, or just wait til the frosts stop. It’ll probably be soon. We’re still waiting for the ash to coat the cut sides of the seed potatoes as well. We could probably go buy some but it’s more fun waiting for people from our own community to help us.

Speaking of local circles and such, I spent about four hours today on the tractor, then another half hour washing it. Wow. On one hand I feel like I’ve gotten no exersize. On the other, my knees hurt, my thighs are sore (I have no idea why), and I’m pooped. Going up and down the rows at a snail’s pace, what I keep thinking about is, if I spread the fuel for this operation over the area that I’m plowing, it would be such a thin layer, but that tiny amount of fuel is doing something like 10,000 calories, or two marathons’, worth of work. To put it another way, I could put my back out many times over trying to replicate the energy expenditure of those few liters of fuel.

Still, it’s hard for me to balance in my mind the cost of the fuel, the tractor, the yearly maintenance, and all the rest with the idea of saving money by growing our own food. It’s probably something that’ll take me at least a few years to get a handle on as I do the accounting.

Everyone's happy!

Which brings me, sort of, to organic farming. To be honest, I’m not sure what it means, exactly, to practice organic farming. Which is why I’m never terribly confident when I buy something that says ‘organic’ on it. Take that down a level, and I’m not terribly confident when I buy fertilizer that says ‘organic’ on it. As you can see in the picture, the cow that made this manure was apparently a very happy cow, if we can infer a smile from its upturned nosering. But what else is in that bag? I suddenly feel like a character from Portlandia….

I can say this for sure: we definitely won’t be using any insecticide or pesticide sprays that we don’t make ourselves from natural ingredients. I’ve already had plenty of experience with aphids in Japan, and I’m excited to try garlic and tomato leaf-based sprays on them. As far as our rice goes, my wife’s mother has reduced her insecticide use to zero over the years as she’s discovered that she doesn’t actually need it, and the only man-made additive that goes on is a mold resistor that’s put in at the time of seeding to prevent some seeds from molding before they germinate. It’s possible to raise rice without it, but the loss rate is too high for an operation that doesn’t get extra income by charging extra for the organic label.

How do you say organic in Japanese? There are two ways:有機 (yuuki), and 無農薬(munouyaku). The latter literally means ‘without farming chemicals’, and is the equivalent of what ‘organic’ meant in America before the USDA stuck its dirty fingers in that pie. If your neighbors use sprays, apparently you can’t call yourself ‘munouyaku’. ‘Yuuki’ means organic, literally, in the sense of something natural that can decay, as in organic matter, but is also used to denote fruits and vegetables that are grown without man-made substances. So when my semi-fermented bark says ‘60% yuuki’, is it 60% pure, or 60% natural material? It’s quite confusing, and I suspect it’s confusing to many Japanese people too. I’ll report back when I have more than a picture of a smiling nosering cow as evidence.

One fun part of thinking about the future of our garden fields is the abundance of raw materials: we grow our own rice, so we have piles of rice hulls and rice straw, and from the restaurant come endless piles of coffee grounds and eggshells. Maybe a vermiculture bin is in our future?

Does anyone have experience with organic soil additives or homemade anti-pest sprays? Let us know in the comments!