gaijinfarmer

Organic farming, Japanese recipes


8 Comments

Winter fruit in Japan: drying persimmons

The first week of December has passed, and while they’re fighting snowstorms in Hokkaido, we are still harvesting tomatoes from our garden!  The fall this year has been unusually warm but the winter fruits are ripening right on schedule.  In America winter fruit meant a thinning of options in the produce section and a return to apples, oranges, and bananas—the apples from Washington state, if you’re lucky, the rest from further afield.

Here, winter fruit is mikan, or small oranges in various sizes and varieties, and persimmons.  Since mikan are a cash crop there is always an abundance, so as farmers harvest they always pass on extras to neighbors and friends.  Those neighbors and friends already got a bunch of mikan from other farmers, so they pass them along to their own neighbors and friends, who themselves are already overflowing.  It’s a big mikanfest, and by February everyone’s sick of them.  But it’s great to have free fresh fruit wherever you go.

Persimmons are slightly rarer since they’re not a cash crop, but there are many producing trees around so they’re quite easy to get, especially if you don’t mind asking.  They come in two varieties, fuyu-gaki (winter persimmons), and shibu-gaki (bitter persimmons); winter is the most popular variety because you can just peel and eat.  They start coming in November and are served crunchy, and by December you can find nice soft ones you can eat with a spoon.

Bitter persimmons are popular as dried fruit, called hoshi-gaki.  Their astringency disappears and they become very sweet as they dry.  But harvesting and drying them is becoming less common these days, and many people just buy them in packages for a new year’s treat.

There is a tree up the hill from us on a piece of land for sale that had lots of nice bitter persimmons that no one was picking.  We asked our hancho, or neighborhood leader (this is apparently where the word ‘honcho’ came from), who called the real estate company for us and got permission to pick them.  It wasn’t a very large tree but we got 32 kilograms from it!

The big ones we peeled and strung up to dry.  The ones you can see in the foreground have been drying for about a week.  The dark color is natural–any drying fruit will oxidize and change color.  If dried fruit still has a nice fresh color to it, that’s a giveaway that there is sulfur or some other preservative in there.  The fresh ones in back have been hanging for just one night.

You should massage them every day to loosen the fibers and release the sugars; if the conditions are right some sugar will form a white coating on the outside, and those are the most prized.  I’m thinking this year is too warm for that though.

We removed the stems from the smaller persimmons and piled into a pickling vat.  The microorganisms present on their skin should turn them into vinegar in a few months.

Oddly enough, most people I tell about this experiment aren’t even aware that you can do this, even though it was a traditional processed food.  We’ll see what happens.

Enhanced by Zemanta
Advertisements


6 Comments

Is there organic food in Japan?

A reader asked a very worthwhile question:

I’m a current JET in Hokkaido, and something has been bothering me about farming in Japan, or rather what I don’t see marked on the groceries. How do you know if food is organic or not? In America, as you may well know, it’s not “organic” unless the sign is screaming it at you. Sometimes literally. So does this mean that all food grown is organic, or that there is a mix and no one really seems to care one way or the other?

This is an excellent question because it has an easy answer: Unless you buy it at a health food store (and even maybe then!), your food is almost certainly not organic.

The bad news: there’s little organic food

The main reason is a relative lack of demand in Japan, although it is increasing slowly.

 

Official seal of the National Organic Program

Image via Wikipedia

 

Another reason is the same in America and Japan—the organic certification is difficult and expensive to get. It doesn’t only

depend on your own habits, but on the people around you as well. If their spray drifts over your field, you may not be able to get certified.

Another reason may be the policies of choku-uriba, or areas reserved for local farmers at stores.  Choku-uriba play a similar role as farmer’s markets in America, except that the farmers drop off their goods, which are then bought at the store’s registers.  The store takes a commission and the farmer can collect the rest of the money.  In some cases, though, farmers may not be allowed to advertise that they are organic. Why? It would give them an unfair advantage over their competition! This still seems strange to me, but it actually happened at our local store.  So in this case the risk of becoming organic would not pay off with extra dividends.

That said, the situation here is probably better than you might think.

The good news: local farmers maintain a more reliable level of quality

BRISTOL, UNITED KINGDOM - SEPTEMBER 12:  Peopl...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

We can be grateful that Japan has a much higher level of small-scale and medium-scale farming activity than America.  Individuals often have at least a kitchen garden, and quite often have land that they cultivate. Since they’ll be eating what they grow they have a very good incentive to keep it as clean as possible. Most small farmers/gardeners I talk to follow the same pattern of spraying while their plants are young and most vulnerable and not spraying either after the fruit forms, or within a few weeks of harvest, depending on the crop.

If you buy food sold at choku-uriba, that food must have a written history of chemical application submitted when the food is put up for sale. This won’t make it any more organic, but it allows the store to ensure that a chemical wasn’t put on immediately before harvest, for example.

So although most food is not organic, I think much of what’s grown locally is generally more trustworthy than what’s coming from larger farms. Additionally, it’s not difficult to find out who’s using which methods since it’s a popular topic of conversation and is documented in many cases.

Given all this, my recommendation would be to grow what you can by yourself, and get the rest from someone in your community whose methods you can live with. Offering them what the food would cost in a store would benefit both of you as it allows them to avoid paying commission to the store.

Have you just arrived in the country? If so, go say hi to someone working in their garden and inquire about what they’re working on. Even if you don’t have any language skills, you can find a way to get your point across. If you’re curious enough I bet some of whatever they’re growing will arrive at your door eventually, and if you reciprocate it’ll keep coming.

As for the rest of what you will inevitably need to buy, well, that’s up to you and it will probably be a patchwork. Some stores will be better than others. The largest supermarkets get their produce from wherever, and much of it will likely be treated with chemicals to help preserve it and make it appealing on the shelf.  Your best choice may be the stores devoted to local produce; around here the most popular one is called Yo-te-te.  In the middle are the smaller markets who source from around the country and world but also have the choku-uriba that I mentioned before.

I should also mention that you might want to be a little more stringent with your choices in the summer than the winter. In order to deal with the armies of insects that appear in the summer, farmers use more chemicals then than in the winter, when they might use none.

To wrap up, allow me to also point you to Maki Itoh’s excellent article from the Japan Times and the follow-up on her blog.
Maki Itoh’s Japan Times article
Maki Itoh’s blog followup

Do you or have you lived in Japan?  Please share your experiences finding healthy foods in the comments!

Enhanced by Zemanta


1 Comment

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.

 

 


Leave a comment

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.


2 Comments

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…

 


2 Comments

World record take no ko bamboo shoot?

We went up to the mountain today and bamboo shoots are sticking out just everywhere!  Quite a change from my last posts on recipes for preparation of bamboo shoots, from which a full harvest was a colander-ful, now we can easily gather more than we can carry off the mountain at once and still leave lots of shoots to grow into bamboo.

Like I mentioned, parts of the  mountain are quite steep but the bamboo has no trouble sending up shoots through its root structure any old where, and many of these are perched out on cliffs, leaving me scrambling for footing while digging and cutting them out.  One that I found today looked like one of those but when I started digging it made a turn underground … and kept on going … and going …

By the time I finally uncovered the roots it looked like this–keep in mind that when I saw it, only the top three or four inches were visible above the ground.  The only way I was able to dig it out was that it was on the edge of a steep section that allowed me to peel back the dirt easily.

Hiro said the final result reminded her of a wild boar.  While the two are an order of magnitude apart, I know what she means.  This was an incredible find–so unusual that we called the newspaper.  Hope they print it!  7.2 kg, or almost 16 lbs, as much as a 5-month-old baby!


2 Comments

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.