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…