gaijinfarmer

Organic farming, Japanese recipes


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Vacuuming the tomatoes

We can’t exactly say it was a whirlwind tour, but after taking off through a typhoon in early June and returning through a typhoon in mid-July we can surely say that our trip had its ups and downs.

The temperature here has also gone up, and rising with it are all the plants—rice, weeds, and crops.  Rising, or at least growing: we returned to find our new garden plot in disarray.  The broccoli was crawling down the raised bed and the cucumbers had ignored the trellis and were sprawling among the tomatoes, which had been toppled by the wind.

The bugs loved the chaos, too.  Huge drone beetles were crawling facefirst into split tomatoes for feeding orgies, eating until they couldn’t move.  Brown marmorated stink bugs had taken over the tomatoes and sweet potatoes, coating the trunks and branches, raising their young and even mating in plain view.  It was a hedonistic insect heaven.

Our little vacuum changed that pretty quick.  There were far too many of them to pick off one by one, and they seemed to think of my homebrew fermented organic insect repellant as a kind of perfume.  So out came the little hoover, and the stink bug population dropped pretty quick.  The big tomato eaters just got dropped into a garbage bag, tomatoes and all, and were disposed of.

Now we’re back under a semblance of control.  At least our thick layer of grass mulch did a good job of keeping the weeds down while we were gone!


 

 

I don’t think I’ve posted about this garden patch before.  We wanted something a little closer to our home, so we dug part of our lawn up over the spring.  The soil was collected from a mountain road our friends knew about; it’s a leaf compost, which is supposed to be pretty acidic, but our plants seem to love it.  We filled our little truck up with bags of the compost, filtered it through a large sieve, and mixed in just a little bit of additives from the store.  Hiro shoveled it into five little rows, and voila, our kitchen garden.

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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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The tools we use: heavy duty weed cutter

I’d like to occasionally introduce some of the tools we use here on the farm, in the garden, and in the restaurant.  Let’s start with the weed cutting machine.

Now with fairly warm temperatures, intense sunlight, and high humidity, the weeds around here grow like children.  As such, your dad’s string-twirling electric plug-in weed cutter isn’t going to wack it.  We need something that will cut through branches, that won’t give up in thickets of long grass, that will bounce off hidden rocks with a smile.  We need (you may have guessed already) a powerful 2-stroke gasoline engine attached to a shaft-driven naked spinning saw blade!

This awesome machine is called a 草刈機 (kusakariki), or weed cutting machine.  With such raw spinning power, there’s no need to pussyfoot around with fancy model names, so no matter which brand or model you buy, it’s called the same thing.

It’s pretty basic, with a centrifugal clutch that drives the blade at anything higher than an idle but lets go if it runs into something that it can’t get through.  If that happens, chances are you can just back off, increase the throttle, and give it another go—you’ll be cutting to Calcutta before you can say ‘Dr. Livingstone, I presume?’

Safety features include a shoulder strap that reliably keeps the blade away from your body if you fall down.  That’s it.  The rest is up to you.

Drawbacks of the machine are vibration and noise, so if you use it all day like we did today, you’ll be pretty wiped out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Typical of Japan, you’ll see many people riding around on bicycles with these, though maybe not exactly like this.

The purpose of heavy weed removal around the rice fields, by the way, is to prevent insects from getting too comfortable in close proximity to the rice.  By removing their habitat we can protect the crop.

Today we also removed the vinyl top from the rice tunnels, and replaced it with a shade-providing net.  After three days with the net we’ll remove that, too, to accustom the sprouts to full sunlight.  They get planted within the week!

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Eye-opening podcast on soil health

If you compost, garden, or are thinking about starting, this is an excellent listen! Soil doctor Doug Weatherbee gives an easy to understand introduction to the components of soil and how we can adjust some variables. Click for part 1 of soil health podcast , then follow the link on that page for part 2.

We’ve had heavy rain followed by light rain for a few days now.  The mulch that we laid down over the potatoes did its job just fine and protected the soil, whereas the rest of the exposed areas took a beating.  In retrospect, I should have saved some mulch to protect the spinach and carrot seeds.  I think they’ll be fine though.

I’m eagerly awaiting my first sprouts, and also the first fruiting of oyster mushrooms, which I’ve planted in a few media for testing! 🙂


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Prepping garden fields, planting spinach!

Yesterday the aunt and I went out to re-till the potato field to put in some fertilizer that we didn’t do the first time around. Since I had already done the lines with the tractor, and since it’s rained a bit since then I didn’t want to use the tractor again, so we did it by hand with 3-pronged hoes. I’m a bit sore, but the aunt is pretty mad at me…

Today she spent most of the day in her pajamas. so after lunch I dug in some lime and rice hulls into our garden plot with the forked hoe. Since we’ll use most of that space in March for laying out trays of germinating rice under plastic tunnels I only had one row to do, and it was pretty quick. I planted half of it with spinach; in a couple weeks I’ll seed any areas that aren’t sprouting yet and hopefully get a rotating crop going out of a small space. The other half I’ll do with lettuce and carrots in a couple weeks. I had some space on the edges that I threw some red radish seed at; whatever comes up is fine.

The lettuce I’m going to sprout separately and replant later; I put some of the rich soil in a styrofoam tray and scattered two types of lettuce seed on it. I put a thin layer of dirt over those and watered it, put a sheet of newspaper over that and then soaked the paper. By the way, you wouldn’t believe what they put in the newspaper around here…

Two days in a row with the hoe. Tomorrow I plan to dig compost into the areas where we’ll plant the trees in the narrow garden by the tracks. We’ll see if I make it out of bed!


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Clearing a new garden; Japanese property laws

Our schedule is still all over the place, but we’re getting things done. Seems like the days I go to help at the restaurant are the slow ones, and when I’m doing something else, Hiro and her mom come home exhausted after a busy day. Today happened to have good timing—I cleaned and did computer work in the morning, and went to help for what turned out to be a busy lunch. Still, busy these days is nothing like it was even a couple years ago. We have our work cut out for us.

After lunch slowed down, Hiro’s aunt and I went to clear out a garden that had grown over. It’s one of the places I didn’t know belonged to the family property—as you can see in the pictures, it’s really in a lost corner between train tracks and a house! Hiro’s grandfather grew potatoes there and then planted plum trees, but they grew too big and the JR train company asked the family to cut them back. Since then the space has been largely neglected.

The trees you see in the pictures were the least of the work—the vines holding them together were easy enough to cut, but were spiderwebbed throughout the entire space, and are tough enough that there’s a footbridge in Japan built in a traditional manner out of the same plants. Removing each tree became a chore, and even with them out of the way, we still have a lot of work to do getting the vine roots out before we plant anything.

Hiro’s planning kumquat, lemon, and lime trees for this space. This should allow us to keep the weeds at a minimum easily while raising larger plants.

The garden space really begs the question of how you end up with a little corner like that as part of your property. In Hiro’s family’s case it’s a really long story, probably not unique, and I’m not sure I have a handle on it yet.

About a century ago they were big landholders. Before the war, the country bought a right of way to put the railroad through, and that split the property in two. As the family story has it, during the war the trains stopped right in front of the family home due to bombings, and all the passengers took refuge in the mountains.

After the war the landholding laws were changed under GHQ, and landholders were forced to sell to the country agricultural areas that were leased out to people who were either renting for profit, or who may have been the equivalent of feudal vassals. The country then gave the land to the people who were renting or working it. A couple decades later the current thoroughfare was put in to replace the river road; the country bought that land too, but it took more out of the property.

There were gains too: The land where the restaurant currently stands belonged to someone in a neighboring town who requested that Hiro’s family run a rice field there. Because of GHQ requirements, the family was given that land.

During Hiro’s grandfather’s life there were various requests for land donations to the town for meeting halls, encroachments by neighbors, which, left for more than twenty years became common law holdings (it’s a much longer story than that), and even a sale of a rented property—that issue was repaid with the field that we’ll plant with potatoes. So there have been lots of changes to the property, and strange little corners surrounded by walls on one side and train tracks on another are one result.

There’s another right of way going through right now, which I’ll detail later. This one’s not only taking family property, it’s removing mountains.

Let us know in the comments: What’s the smallest rice field or garden you’ve ever seen?