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Akinori Kimura’s MIRACLE APPLES – Chapter 11/24

The faintest of hopes remained the faintest of hopes.

Three years had passed since all the orchards had become pesticide-free, and there was no hint of any apple blossom at all in the fourth year either. Their savings ran out, and they had used up all the retirement money his father-in-law had from the post office. Kimura had three daughters, the eldest being in her fourth year at middle school. The family of seven, if you included his wife’s parents, had hit rock bottom and were staring poverty in the face.

He sold their pride and joy, the English tractor, of course, as well as their car, and the two ton truck they had used to transport apples. Their tax arrears remain unpaid, and on more than a couple of occasions revenue officials stuck red tags on his trees. When that happened, in desperation he scraped together a little money and somehow managed to prevent them going up for auction. He borrowed money from the bank, but that ran out, so he applied for a consumer loan, and borrowed money from his own parents and other relatives.

The telephone had been cut ages ago. This left them having to raise just enough cash to pay for vital electricity and water services. Unable to pay their health insurance, their health insurance cards had been taken away. They couldn’t even afford the PTA fees. They couldn’t stretch to buying clothes for their daughters, let alone the things they needed for school. They sewed patches on the holes in their socks, and when pencils became too short and stubby to hold, his wife would stick two together using sellotape so that they could still be used. She even cut one eraser into three and gave each child a piece. All this happened not that long ago.

At the beginning of the 1980’s, Ezra Vogel’s book Japan as Number One became a bestseller, and the Japanese economy was deemed a model. The price of apples was high and stable, and life for the folk of Iwaki-chō was good. It was not unusual for local children to go on to universities or colleges in Tokyo, and no-one was particularly surprised when children travelled abroad after they graduated. To the eyes of others, the austere, post-war type of life the Kimura family was enduring must have seemed peculiar rather than wretched.

The other reason Kimura was able to continue confronting his flowerless apple trees whilst enduring that sort of life, was that he planted rice in the fields and vegetables in the spaces between the apple orchards. They were all grown pesticide-free. Cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, aubergines, pumpkins, melons, daikon [1] radishes … . He could grow any crop without pesticides. He was even able to produce more than nine sacks of rice from one paddy field without the use of pesticides or fertilizers. This is hardly worse than ordinary fields, where pesticides and fertilizers are used, which yield about ten sacks of rice.

Pesticide-free cultivation of crops other than apples was not that difficult.

‘Then again, the first year I produced rice without using pesticides or fertilizers, I could only manage a yield per field of four sacks. This wasn’t so amazing, but I thought it was pretty good. Going pesticide-free I’d definitely produced good quality rice. It was delicious too. But you can’t make a living from that sort of yield. Unless I could make a living, my dream would be over. If the rice, as well as the apples, had failed, the world would have taken me for a fool. So I tried an experiment. With rice growing, too, you can only try something out once a year. So, you know that One Cup saké [2]? I got hold of a bunch of empty jars from the saké shop and did an experiment. I lined up about two hundred jars and put some soil from the fields in each of them. I wanted to see which ways of tilling the soil, which methods of levelling, and what sort growing conditions, are best for growing rice.’

He didn’t use rice in this ‘experiment’; he used seeds of Japanese millet, one of the true grasses. The growth of grasses is much faster than rice and if he grew Japanese millet in the cups, he could repeat the tests many times in one year.

Cultivating them all under different growing conditions, he found there were tremendous variations in the development of the millet planted in the two hundred One Cups. Common sense suggested that breaking up the soil carefully, turning the mud into a gloopy, thick soup consistency, and levelling it off, would be the ideal method. But tests showed that the Japanese millet grew best in the cups where exactly the opposite tilling methods were used. The millet grew well if he tilled the soil so that clods remained, and then levelled it off two or three times. The result was the complete opposite of what he had believed up until then. Since the initial results could have been chance, he repeated the same experiment three times. The result was the same every time.

From the following year Kimura changed the tilling method in the paddy fields, ploughing far more coarsely than normal.

‘The farmers laughed at me, wondering what I was up to. I was doing the ploughing but leaving great lumps of earth all over the fields. I’d then flood the fields and level them off. If I lightly muddled-up the surface as in the experiments, I finished really quickly. Then when I planted, I ended up with an incredible crop of rice. Immediately after planting, growth seemed to be slower than in normal fields, but in about the middle of July, the rice suddenly shot up.

Pulling up the rice, you could see how healthily the roots were growing. The number of roots, and their quality, were far superior to any rice grown in fields which had been ploughed normally. Maybe because ploughing coarsely made it easier for the roots to grow. Directly after planting, they would be putting all their energy into developing the roots, so the plant above the ground doesn’t grow much. On the other hand, once the network of healthy roots has grown underground, the leaves and grain flourish better than usual above ground. We didn’t have combines at the time, so we harvested by the sheaf, but there was so much there was no way you could lift one of those sheaves of rice by hand. The crop was slightly over seven sacks per field. This was about double the harvest of the previous year. The yield we managed the following year was about nine and a quarter bags.’

In the course of his experimentation using the One Cup jars, Kimura made another discovery. One week or so after he planted some millet seeds, about the time the shoots should have been appearing, he poked a disposable chopstick down into the cup. The millet in that cup did not send up shoots. The chopstick crushed the seeds.

With this in mind, Kimura devised a unique method for weeding. When the time was right, about a week after planting when the seedlings were settled, he walked between them dragging a tire chain. After doing this three or four times, leaving a week between them, weeds more or less stopped growing in the field. If he didn’t use weed killer, he would inevitably be faced with the laborious job of weeding the fields. This was one of the stumbling blocks farmers who aspired to going pesticide-free faced, but the simple act of walking along dragging a chain overcame that obstacle. Using this method, even elderly farmers would be able to stop using weed killer without too much inconvenience.

Everyone thinks pesticide-free farming is labour intensive, something challenging that requires sophisticated techniques. In fact, once he got started he found it wasn’t that bad. Difficulties will certainly arise immediately after you switch from using agrichemicals. Once you settle down and start observing your crops, though, you’re certain to find ways of solving the problems.

Kimura was also growing pear and plum trees in his apple orchards. He wasn’t using pesticides on any of those trees, but none of them were damaged by pests and diseases as much as the apple trees. Both pears and plums produced delicious fruit every year.

Since it was easily done with other crops, Kimura thought there was no reason why it should be impossible just for apples. They may be afflicted by pests and disease now, but he reckoned that one day he’d solve the problems and find a way for the trees to bear fruit. He was convinced. This conviction was, in one way, Kimura’s biggest handicap.[1] daikon are long, mild white radishes, normally growing to about 25 centimetres in length.

[2] One Cup Saké is a well known brand sold in small glass cups with removable lids.
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