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Akinori Kimura’s MIRACLE APPLES – Chapter 10/24

‘The first pests to appear in spring are leafrollers. Then the caterpillars and spring cankerworm appear. There were many types of caterpillar, the larvae of moths. My orchard had many larvae of the Japanese buff-tip moth. There were also larvae of the white-spotted tussock moth and others. Red, green, and other bright colours pretty to look at. I was amazed at how many leaves they ate. You remember I mentioned that if apple trees lose their leaves, new leaves will shoot. They emerge from the tips of the branches. So, whilst the insects were busy consuming all the leaves, they would mass together on the tips of the branches which still had new leaves, like passengers on an overcrowded train. That was the wake-up call. Talk about the rush hour, well that’s what it was like. The weight of the insects actually weighed down the tips of the branches. There must have been thousands! Tens of thousands! Hundreds of thousands! Anyway, there were an incredible number of insects on the trees. It was a staggering, almost unbelievable sight.’

To begin with Kimura thought he’d catch the pests by hand.

The overwhelming numbers of insects alone made catching them impossible. He might not have been able to catch them, but that didn’t mean he simply left them alone. Somehow, he would at least have to eradicate the pests on the trees planted along the boundaries between orchards. He had no intention of allowing the insects to spread to his neighbours’ orchards. Day-in, day-out, Kimura and Michiko, and his father and mother-in-law, would get up at the crack of dawn and collect insects until sunset. The tools they used were plastic bags from the supermarket, slipping one handle over their left wrists and flicking the insects into the bags with their other hand. In this way they could use both hands.

They filled three bags with pests from one tree. However many they caught, though, wave after wave of insects would continue to appear. It was a job offering no sense of fulfilment whatsoever. It was like trying to fill a bucket with a hole in it with water from a pond. The pests showed no sign at all of diminishing. Needless to say not a single apple grew. However assiduously they caught insects, the harvest was zero. He wondered why they carried on with it. Kimura devoted all his time to catching insects and pondering this dilemma.

Dead apple leaves falling to the ground make a sound so faint it is hardly a sound at all. Holding a plastic bag under his arm, silently catching insects, Kimura would listen to that quiet sound. It was one day at the height of summer. Sweat poured out of him, flowing down his forehead and over his jaw. With both hands full, however, he couldn’t wipe it away.

One by one he’d pluck the caterpillars clinging to the branches, blinking his eyes to get rid of the sweat. The surrounding apple trees were smothered in dark green leaves in the dazzling sunshine. The foliage was so dense you could hardly see the other side of the orchard. Chilly autumn seemed to pervade Kimura’s orchards, and his alone.

Rustle … rustle… rustle …

The faint sound of falling leaves began to sound like the beating of a big drum. The thundering noise echoed in his ears the entire time Kimura was in the orchards. He felt he could hear the sounds, even when we got home and went to bed. It seemed as though the apples were crying out.

Brown sugar, pepper, garlic, chilli, soya sauce, miso, milk, Japanese saké, shōchu, rice starch, wheat flour, vinegar … . He continued experimenting with any foods he could lay his hands on in place of pesticides. Foods in place of pesticides. If he could only find them this battle would be over. Or so Kimura thought. It was unlikely, of course, that he’d find foods that were as effective as pesticides. He didn’t believe they would provide 100% protection against disease and insects. It would be enough if, by creating an environment on the surfaces of leaves and branches which the bacteria and pests which caused disease disliked, sufficient numbers of leaves remained for the apples to grow. What Kimura was looking for, therefore, was not antibacterial agents or pesticides, but some sort of repellent.

The capsaicin in chillies, for example, is used as a spice in cooking, but it was a substance originally produced so that the leaves and fruits of plants would not be eaten by insects. Many plants, in the course of evolution, have started to produce the substance by themselves. Salt can suppress bacterial activity. It has also been known for ages that alcohol and vinegar have antibacterial properties. It would have been worth it had just one of them worked. Or so he thought every time he tried out a new food. Not one of them, though, was sufficiently effective.

He would collect large quantities of dry grass and chicken manure, and make compost. This natural compost was then spread on the orchards. He would cut back the weeds completely every month. The whole family went out to catch insects from morning to night. They tried grating garlic, mixing it with water, and spreading it on the trees, and diluting vinegar and applying that. Each day in the apple orchard started and ended with experiments. He spent longer in his orchards than any of the neighbouring farmers, and spent more time looking after his apples than any other farmer.

In spite of all this, Kimura’s orchards looked in a far worse state than even the most slovenly of farmers. Virtually all the leaves were affected by disease. The few green leaves and branches that did remain were covered with pests, and underfoot was a thick carpet of fallen leaves. Kimura’s orchards were an apple farmer’s worst nightmare.

‘There was nothing in the kitchen at the time that we didn’t try out. We ended up spreading stuff over the soil in the orchards. There is a disease which affects apple trees called Japanese apple canker. It’s a disease caused by a certain fungus that lands on tree trunks and branches and proceeds to cause rotting. Mud has traditionally been used to prevent it. It could be cleared up by cutting out the infected area and covering it with mud. I think that the bacteria in the soil suppress the fungus which causes the canker. I thought I could use that. As you’re not supposed to put the soil directly onto the trees, I made slurry from earth from the orchards. This was left overnight and the mud would settle to the bottom. The clearer liquid at the top would be filtered through a cloth and then sprayed on the trees.

The muddy water was probably more effective than anything else. The condition of the leaves improved a tiny bit. But not enough for us to go pesticide-free. However carefully we tried filtering it with cloth, we couldn’t remove the finer particles which were almost invisible to naked eye. This resulted in the pump we were using to spray getting blocked and breaking. I’ve no idea how many pumps we destroyed. We were running out of money at the time, so we’d buy broken pumps from an agricultural scrap machinery dealer. One was about one hundred yen. We’d use them if we could repair them. If it was just scratched pistons, they could be used again if we carefully polished them using fine sandpaper. I’d done quite a bit of polishing of engine camshafts in the Shonan tuning shop, so I found it easy enough. There were times I would spend every night polishing cam shafts. Ha-ha-ha. I’m not sure if I’m a farmer or a mechanic.’

Spring can also be a cruel season.

The snow melts, the sun gets warmer, and hope springs in the heart which has been depressed all winter. Trees which had lost all their leaves and seemed to have withered produced new leaves at the beginning of spring. Seeing the pale green leaves, free from disease and pests, you feel that this may be the year it could happen. Let’s try for one more year. That happens one year, then the second year passes, then the third. The more time passes, the more difficult it becomes to give up. If you do give up, then all your effort will have been in vain.

‘The leaves this year look better than last year. This year things will work out.’

Kimura said the same thing every year. But nothing got better. All he was doing was comparing what he saw with the dire state the previous autumn, and saying that the new leaves seemed healthy.

Kimura laughed when he said ‘It was like I was brainwashing the family’, but he was in all likelihood brainwashing himself more than the family.

‘If you don’t use pesticides then you’re bound to get a certain number of insects. But, this wasn’t a question of ‘a certain number’. Where on earth that number of insects came from is a mystery. What was interesting, though, was how much the look of the orchards changed as the years passed. With pests increasing, and getting bigger, the changes were basically unwelcome ones.

Inchworms are usually about as thick as a matchstick. But these were as thick as my little finger. If you picked them up they’d bite you. There were a lot of slugs too. Not like the small ones you might get in the kitchen. They were enormous. One I found was about ten centimetres long! It might have been a mountain slug I suppose, but I found it clinging to the side of an apple tree the sun didn’t get to. When I went out to the orchards in the morning I found moist, whitish slug trails gleaming on the barks of the trees. What were they eating for heaven’s sake? There were such huge numbers of them I tried to remove as many as I could, because I imagined they could cause damage, but they might have been eating the larvae of pests for all I know. I just didn’t have the sense to think about things like that at the time.’

It was hardly a Pandora’s box, but amongst all those changes there was a ray of hope. The second year after he stopped using pesticides, the spider mites disappeared. Spider mites damage fruit leaves by feeding on them. Miticides are normally used to get rid of them, but there are many species, and how effective an agent is will vary depending on the species. On top of which, their resistance to these agents is high, which means that continuing to use the same miticide can result in loss of effectiveness.

Even if you’re using miticides, when you return from a day working on the apples, you’ll find your hat and the back of your clothing dotted with poppy seed-sized mites. They’re almost an integral part of apple farming. They’re extremely hard to get rid of. For some reason, every single mite disappeared.

‘I hadn’t used a single drop of miticide, so how could that happen? If mites disappear, the inchworms and leaf rollers could disappear too. I had no reason to believe they would, but hope springs eternal. Although it wasn’t to say that the apples would fruit because the mites had gone. It just became the faintest of hopes.’
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