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Akinori Kimura’s MIRACLE APPLES – Chapter 4/24

‘When I got to the rice fields, I found that the river had overflowed, and only the tips were poking out of the water. This was exactly why I didn’t fancy the life of a famer. Remember, I was Mr Efficiency! I immediately pulled out my abacus and calculated the cost of the damage. Even if you sweated away, covered in dirt, a whole year’s income could be lost as a result of the weather. If you did your homework, you could only conclude that farming was an inefficient, outdated occupation. There was something my mum used to say though. “Being a farmer is much better than working as a cog in a machine. You might not make money, but I like this much better.

As you get older you can be sure you’ll want to get back to the soil.”

I doubt if my mother, having grown up before the war, had a proper schooling, but she did read a lot. She would suddenly come out with words of wisdom. Looking back, she said some wonderful things, but I didn’t listen at the time.’

Kimura had a stroke of luck, however, whilst helping his father and wondering if there wasn’t a way out of farming. His brother, who had joined the Self-Defence Forces, changed his mind and returned home. This meant he was freed from his obligations as heir to the house. Should he go back to the city to work, or work as a proper apprentice in the tuning shop in Shonan and become a mechanic? His had his dreams, but in the end he decided to stay with farming.

At the age of twenty two, he married Michiko Kimura (from this point Akinori Mikami becomes formally known as Akinori Kimura). Michiko was the eldest daughter of a farming household and, when he married her, Kimura had to marry into the family. Pursuing a life in farming was perhaps his destiny.

‘I worked really hard at farming. I’d married into the family, so unless I was serious about my work I’d be kicked out. Ha-ha-ha. Then I discovered what I thought was a ray of light in farming. Guess what? A tractor! It wasn’t a small, Japanese tractor. You know those huge tractors you see driving around big fields in America or wherever? I’d seen them in magazines and other places and quite fancied trying out that sort of farming.

It was called industrial farming. They ploughed large acreages with tractors, and grew wheat and corn. If I was going to farm, then I wanted to try that dynamic kind of farming. So I decided to grow corn. I thought I’d try creating corn fields similar to the ones in America. To be honest, I was completely obsessed with that tractor. Tractors are basically simple constructions assembled around an engine linked to a transmission. There are none of the frills you get with a car. It’s like an engine on wheels. If you like vehicles they’re addictive. The more I fiddled with it, the more I liked it and, in the process, fell in love as I had with motorbikes. Ha-ha-ha … . So a big reason I stuck at farming was because I wanted to fiddle with tractors.’

There’s one other product for which the Iwaki region is well-known today. Corn. Dakekimi corn, which takes its name from the well-known Dakekimi Highlands, is surprisingly sweet and delicious. In summer, before the apples start appearing, Dakekimi is the quality product from this area. Golf ranges now stand alongside Route 30, which follows the Mount Iwaki ridge, but at that time they were unkempt fields. They were fields in name only. It was really rough, overgrown ground. Renting a large area of this wasteland, Kimura took his first steps in large-scale farming.

He started out growing corn as well apples. His partner was the imported tractor he purchased at the outset.

‘It wasn’t a dowry as such, but when I got married my own parents gave me some fields and a little money they’d got together. I used it to buy the English tractor. It was made by a company called International Harvester. Studying various magazines and books I couldn’t find a Japanese tractor more powerful than 30 horsepower, but the International Harvester was 45 horsepower. Even though it was a diesel, the engine didn’t need pre-ignition to start. Diesel engines are advanced in Europe. Having decided to go ahead, I found the address and wrote a letter to England. I supposed they wouldn’t be able to read the Japanese script, so I wrote the letter using the alphabet. Well, I didn’t know English, and though I say I wrote it in English, the words were Japanese. “Torakuta no katarogu wo okutte kudasai. Akinori Kimura” … Ha-ha-ha! Still, International Harvester did reply with a catalogue! How much was it now? I’m pretty sure it was about one and a half million yen. Pretty expensive. The Crown saloon car was about one million yen at the time. Agricultural machinery’s expensive!’

It was a big tractor. The tires alone were as tall as Kimura. Kimura liked the almost enclosed engine, and uncompromisingly functional, rugged design. Needless to say there were no other farms in the neighbourhood with such large tractors that were manufactured overseas.

Thrilled with it, he would polish it almost daily. The family might get washed once a year, but he washed the tractor every day. When he got home in the evening after a day in the fields, he would jack up the tractor, wash the mud from the tires, and even wax the body.

He didn’t like leaving the tractor out in the rain and, as it wasn’t too big to fit into the shed, that’s where he kept it. Once, squeezing it in, he ended up scratching the side. Kimura would later, and with a tear in his eye, give up the tractor, but the mark on the wall of barn at the end of the garden is still there today. Whenever he sees the mark, he clearly remembers what happened more than thirty years ago as if it were yesterday.

The giant tractor transformed the overgrown waste land into fields at an amazing speed. The power was sensational. Neat fields of corn of the sort found in those foreign magazines appeared amongst the dense thickets. They were the Honey Bantam variety. It was probably thanks to the fertile soil that they grew so well.

However, he was troubled by the damage caused by racoon dogs. Just when they were ready to be harvested, the plump sweet corn was ravaged.

‘I placed traps in several places around the fields, but ended up trapping a young raccoon dog. The mother stayed next to it, and didn’t run away when I approached. When I tried reaching out to release the trap, the young raccoon dog bared its teeth and got really upset. It seems harsh, but I held its head down with my rubber boot as I released it from the trap. It didn’t run away though. Right in front me, the mother started licking the young one’s wounded leg. Seeing that, I felt I’d committed an awful crime.

I told them ‘Stop eating our corn!’. But then I started leaving small piles of second-rate corn around the edges of the fields. When you produce corn you end up with quite a bit of corn that looks something like my toothless mouth. They’re not good enough to sell. I left it all. The next morning when I went to the fields, they’d completely disappeared. But the raccoon dogs had caused no other damage at all. So at harvest time I decided to stop using the traps and put out the cobs with kernels missing. After that, damage by the raccoon dogs stopped almost completely. So I figured that farmers suffer this sort of damage because they take everything. That was what came to mind. After all, we’d turned what used to belong to the raccoon dogs into fields. I worried that if I actually fed them, the raccoon dogs would end up being even more bother, but that didn’t happen. Which I thought was strange. I suppose you could say that my eyes were opened to the mysteries of nature. Anyway, I realized that nature didn’t work in the way that most people thought. This was probably the turning point as far as my ideas about so-called ‘efficient’ agriculture were concerned.

There was one other reason why Kimura started growing corn, apart from his tractor. His wife Michiko was sensitive to pesticides. The meticulous application of pesticides that apple growing requires means their growth is effectively pesticide-dependent. A born worker, it was natural that Mr Efficiency would carefully spread pesticides in accordance with the spray calendar.

Although they had rice fields, the rice was basically for home consumption, so the household income depended on apples. The income of an apple farmer is determined by how many perfect, sweet, large apples he can produce. Pests and disease mean a reduction in income. They are a hated enemy that can threaten livelihoods. Farmers would apply as many pesticides as they could in order to eradicate their arch enemy.

In simple terms, a spray calendar is one used in the agricultural business to show which chemicals should be used at what time. Calendars are prepared for nearly all produce, not just apples, from fruits such as satsuma oranges and peaches, to vegetables including cabbages and garlic. Since the types of insect and disease that tend to occur vary depending on the area, the local farming cooperative basically produces them following the advice of specialists in prefectural agricultural experiment stations.

The spray calendar Kimura was using was one for apples published by Aomori Prefecture. Details including the types of agrichemical which should be applied in each season, and their concentrations, were noted on a calendar the size of an unfolded newspaper. To the uninitiated it would seem dizzyingly complicated, but for combating pests it was indispensable.

Insects, mildew, bacteria, viruses … . Apple trees are vulnerable to attack by a host of organisms. A single pesticide cannot protect against all enemies. Whether it’s disease, or pests, they each have a time of year when they proliferate. Unless they are sprayed at the appropriate time, their application will be ineffective. Moreover, disease and pests come and go, which means that applying in the same way every year does not work either. Hence the annual spray calendars take into account factors including the status of diseases and pests, and weather forecasts. Without spray calendars, even experienced farmers find the appropriate application of pesticides difficult.

These spray calendars had another use – helping keep any residual pesticides on the apples after harvesting to below the specified amounts. Many different types of agrichemical started to be manufactured after World War II. They included quite a few chemicals, such as DDT, about which safety concerns remained, or that were banned. As research into the safety of pesticides advanced, strict rules regarding their use were established. Substances which are clearly harmful to human health cannot be used, and among those whose use has been approved, there are chemicals whose density and frequency of use, as well as permitted times of use, are controlled. This is to eliminate even the slightest danger to health from harmful residues in agricultural products.

There are various theories concerning the dangers of pesticides. Putting aside these theories for a moment, and taking an unbiased view, standards relating to the density of agrichemical residues in Japan are pretty severe. In recent years in particular, there have been moves to reduce the use of pesticides as far as possible for food safety reasons. The spray calendars also have the job of providing guidelines concerning the use of pesticides so that these strict standards can be met. If you stick to what it says on the spray calendars, the residual pesticides in the apples when they are harvested should now be close to zero.

However, growing safe apples, and growing apples safely, are two separate issues. You may be able to grow safe apples if you follow the spray calendar, but there is no reference to methods for growing apples safely.

The reason the density of residual pesticides on apples became strictly controlled was the possibility of adverse side-effects. Levels of residues in apples that are shipped may now be next to nothing. The fact remains, however, that the apple farmers who have to work extra hard as a result, come into contact with the pesticides on a daily basis.

There are, of course, precautions over the use of the various pesticides. To the extent they observe these precautions when using them, users will not suffer any damage to their health. Having said that, in practice it is extremely difficult to follow these precautions to the letter when, during the course of a year, you are spraying hundreds of apple trees with pesticides, many, many times. There may be a warning which says ‘Wash immediately in case of any contact with skin’, but if you were to wash off every drop that came into contact with your skin with water immediately during spraying, you’d never finish the job. Growing apples means accepting such risks.

Besides, the safety of pesticides was not as hotly debated then as it is today. His wife Michiko was physically so sensitive to the pesticides that she would sleep for up to a week during the spraying periods.

‘We should have won a medal from the agricultural cooperative for the quantity of pesticides we used. With pesticides in those days they didn’t think about the skin or whatever of the people using them. Apple production came first. There was a pesticide called nicotine. The smell was enough to make you feel sick, but you often heard stories about people who would collapse whilst spraying it! The one I used mainly was copper sulphate, the blue crystals.

It looks so beautiful. Pure cobalt blue, like that the stained glass in churches. It’s so pretty there are probably people who’d pick it up and eat it by mistake. We mixed lime with the copper sulphate and used it as a fungicide. It’s called Bordeaux mixture, and I guess it’s been used from about the Meiji or Taisho Periods in Japan. We used so much of it the apple leaves would go completely white. It was a heck of a job of just making up the Bordeaux mixture using copper sulphate and lime. You get a hell of a rash; it’s a strong alkaline irritant. You get blisters, just like being burned.’

Of course they used other synthetic pesticides developed after war, such as the drins and plations, as well as Bordeaux mixture. There were more than a few which are no longer produced today due to concerns over their safety. Spraying was supposed to be done up to a certain number of times in a year, so all sorts of insecticides and fungicides were mixed together and applied. They hadn’t given any thought to what damage you might do if you used those quantities of pesticides.

‘I’d always seen my parents growing apples like that. I thought it was normal. That was what growing apples involved; we thought nothing of being burned. But it seemed Michiko was very sensitive to pesticides, and would fall asleep when we sprayed. I realized I had to do something about it. That was a reason why I started in corn. Sure, I wanted to farm with a tractor, because if I could make a living from corn, I wouldn’t have to produce apples. Perhaps Michiko wouldn’t have ended up having such a hard time.’

If it hadn’t been for a twist of fate, Kimura might indeed have given up growing apples. Corn cultivation with the tractor was progressing smoothly. Regardless of the consequences as he often was when he fell for something, had growing corn really grabbed him, it’s possible that the lower slopes of Mount Iwaki today would be a sea of corn fields. If he had earned a stable income growing corn, there would have been no need to grow apples and put his wife through so much.

That this didn’t happen was due to snow. The Tsugaru Plain is buried under snow in the winter. All they can do is wear snow shoes and go around shaking the snow from the apple trees. It’s the season when farmers who don’t have to do seasonal work elsewhere can enjoy an annual break from their hard labour. This time off was the worst for Kimura. His wife Michiko says she never saw Kimura relaxing around the house or lounging in front of the television. His character is such that unless he’s busy he can’t relax.

When the orchards are buried under snow, Kimura starts studying agriculture. He’ll drop by the library in town, go to book shops, and lose himself reading books which might answer the questions which have come up in the course of farming that year. If he gets an idea, he’ll carefully jot it down in his notebook. He had a habit, when going to bed, of reading books and other literature and, like a student revising for his exams, there were always books and notes piled up around his bed.

One day Kimura was searching for a book to do with tractor farming. He went to several book shops in town, and eventually found the book he was looking for on a top shelf. It had been probably been left on the top shelf where no-one could reach it because it didn’t sell well.

Kimura was lazy. He should have looked for a step or asked an assistant, but instead he found a pole just the right size nearby.

‘I was trying to knock the tractor book down with the pole, but the book next to it came down too. Picking them up quickly I noticed that the corner of the next book was squashed. The floor was dirty from the snow and rain so there was a bit of mud on it too. I had no choice really but to buy both books. I think the other one cost about two thousand yen. Pretty expensive, though the paper looked cheap. It didn’t close well. It felt like it would tear easily. I reckoned I’d lost out. Anyway, I took it home and left it on the side for a time. Another reason why the book I wanted had been stuck on such a high shelf must have been because it didn’t sell well either. I can’t remember when I got around to reading the other book properly, but it must have been six months or a year later. I’d take it out and look at it in my free time. There was a photograph of rice on the front cover, and at the very beginning of the book were the words “Do-nothing agriculture without pesticides or fertilizer”. It dawned on me that this sort of farming actually existed. Without thinking about whether or not I’d do it, I found myself getting interested just because I was a farmer like him. I don’t remember how many times I read the book. Enough for it to end up looking tatty at least. The book, by Masanobu Fukuoka, was called ‘The One Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming’.
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