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Akinori Kimura’s MIRACLE APPLES – Chapter 6/24

‘I just thought it was amazing. If you could only do that with apples!

If I hadn’t read Fukuoka’s book, I wouldn’t have given it a thought. Let’s face it, there’s no-one around who’s going to do things like that is there? Using pesticides to grow apples is taken for granted; it was out of the question that anyone could grow apples without them. I reckon that every farmer today thinks the same. In one sense, it’s true. Normally, without pesticides, you’re going to fail for sure. But reading that sort of book can give you other ideas. However possible it may’ve been with other fruit trees, if you didn’t use pesticides in apple growing, and it was only apples, it was impossible. If you really think about it, though, no-one knew if it was possible or not as they hadn’t tried. Diseases and pests certainly increase in apple orchards which are no longer looked after, making them unmanageable. I used to think they go like that because pesticides weren’t used, but is that really the case?’

Fukuoka’s farm is in Ehime Prefecture. There was nothing about growing apples in the book Kimura had bought. There were, however, detailed notes about satsuma orange cultivation.

Fukuoka later left the management of the withered satsuma orange orchards to his son. It seems that he initially used chemical fertilizers and pesticides. By gradually using less of them, however, it explains how he was eventually able to only spread agents which, as in the more distant past, presented hardly any danger – mainly fertilizers like chicken manure and compost, and machine oil and lime sulphur, and produce wonderful satsuma oranges. Even Fukuoka’s satsuma orange fields, at least at that time, were neither perfectly free of pesticides, nor fertilizer-free.

Kimura did not aspire to completely pesticide-free farming either. He felt that small quantities of pesticides would be alright, so he thought he’d try reducing them.

At the time, though, nothing had been written about growing apples using fewer pesticides. So Kimura started to study by himself. He would read any book he could find to do with apples. He’d stop by the town library, which was well-stocked with books on apples, every day. He devoured books, not only on apples, but also to do with organic farming.

‘I began to think that chemical fertilizers weren’t so good, and started collecting chicken manure and making compost. One of the farmers I knew and I produced so much compost we could have sold the stuff. First you stop chemical fertilizers completely, then spread the compost you make yourself on the fields, and then reduce the quantity of pesticides you’re using. We had apple orchards in four places. Three of these had always belonged to the Kimura family. The other orchard had been given to us by my father when I’d married into the family. I tried varying the frequency of spreading of pesticides on these four plots. Up until that time I’d sprayed pesticides about thirteen times a year. On one orchard I did it six times, on another orchard three times, and then on other orchards only once. The upshot of that was that the crop from the orchard I’d sprayed six times was no worse than the crop I’d normally get. The orchard I did three times suffered insect damage but produced a passable crop. The orchards I’d only sprayed once were infested with insects. But there again, they produced a crop at least half the size of the orchards I would normally spray with pesticides. So I started doing the maths.’

Even when he reduced the quantities of pesticides, the apples did not suffer the kind of damage he’d feared. To be sure, spraying once year the crop fell by half but, at the same time, the cost of the pesticides, simply calculated, was one thirteenth!

If you calculate the outlay, the rate of return is not so bad. If you reduce pesticides further, and practice completely pesticide-free farming, then of course the cost of your pesticides is zero. One can’t be sure about how much further the crop will decrease, but it seems to make some sort of business sense.

Everyone said that completely pesticide-free farming was impossible. No-one had succeeded. Kimura’s pulse quickened at the prospect of doing something no-one else had ever done.

‘If this was the case, then completely pesticide-free farming may also be on the cards I reckoned. This is what my youthful enthusiasm led me to think anyway. So I had a chat with my father. I told him I was thinking about trying to go pesticide-free from the following spring. To be honest I thought he’d be against it. I believed I could do it, but common sense told me no one in their right mind would agree. So I thought he’d take a lot of persuading. In fact, when I said to him “I’d like to try without pesticides”, he readily agreed. “Let’s give it a go” he said. His approval came as a surprise.’

The person Kimura refers to as ‘father’ here is Michiko’s father, his father-in-law. His father-in-law had worked in the post office for a long time, and although he had apple orchards, he was not a full-time apple farmer. During the Pacific War he’d been sent to the Southern Islands where he’d had some experience of surviving on produce he’d grown. He had tilled ground in the jungle, and grown rice and potatoes.

‘My father-in-law told me all sorts of stories about the war. There was the one about a rusty helmet with holes in it they’d used in place of a bamboo basket to catch shrimps from the river to eat. Apparently they made quite a few fields. Of course they couldn’t get hold of any pesticides, but the eggplants grew as big as trees.

I suppose it was because he’d had that kind of experience that he wasn’t held back by the conventional idea that you can’t farm without pesticides. He’d tried various things after returning to Japan. Like how many rice seedlings you should plant in order to get the biggest crop. He was really passionate about studying things. I’m sure that’s why he understood what I was trying to do. Had my father-in-law been a regular apple farmer, just trying to reason with him about not using pesticides would have been hard. He laughingly told me that at the time he never thought that producing apples without pesticides would be possible. He thought I’d give it up after two or three years.’

This happened some thirty years ago, when Kimura was still in his twenties.

Kimura himself doesn’t recall exactly how old he was. From what was happening about then, he reckons that he probably started moving from reduced pesticide to completely pesticide-free farming in about 1978. In that year, he decided to stop pesticide spraying of one of the fields, the two acre field at the foot of Mount Iwaki which his own father had handed over to them when they’d got married. It is an orchard that his father had cleared when Kimura was a boy. Kimura remembers digging the slopes around Mount Iwaki with his elder brother, and helping to plant apple seedlings with him. It was in this orchard, filled with fond memories, that Kimura started pesticide-free apple growing.

Pesticide spraying normally starts in early spring before the apple buds appear. Pesticides are then sprayed when the buds appear, and a second time once they blossom. The reasons for spraying pesticides vary depending on the timing – it may be to prevent diseases or to eradicate pests – and of course the types of pesticide used are different.

A typical apple farmer in those days would apply various pesticides about thirteen times in the six months up to the harvest in the autumn. He stopped using all of them.
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