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At 4:40 am on a hot July morning, I found myself walking down a gravel pathway that cut through the vast Fukushima farmland. The valley was quiet and shadowy, and as the sun rose in the distance I felt cocooned by the natural world.
Early morning has always been weeding time. As I approached the farmland, I saw my co-workers, already on their knees carefully picking out weeds with their bare hands. I joined them in silence, picking up plants one by one and tossing them to the sides with their roots facing up, a technique that helps prevent new weeds from growing.
The increasing trend in Japan of people moving into larger cities has led to many people feeling a disconnection from where their food comes from. This disconnection between the consumers and farmers has resulted in excessive use of synthetic pesticides and a lack of awareness about sustainable farming practices. However, by getting more involved in food production, people would be able to value the importance of healthy, nutritious products and sustainable farming practices, which would likely lead to a more sustainable future.
“I would say indifference is the biggest problem in the Japanese food system,” said Kota Uno, the manager at Munokai, the largest organic farm in Fukushima prefecture. “The consumers don’t think about how their food is produced, and the farmers don’t think about the consumers. …
“If you’re a farmer, you sell your produce to the retailer [and] that’s the end; you don’t need to worry about what the customer thinks, so [farmers] will spray pesticides or herbicides, … and they make money off of it, and no one cares,” Uno said.
“[The synthetic chemicals used] all destroy the quality of soil, as well as the ecosystem of the farms and the farm field and beyond, because the runoff goes into the river, [which] will drain down to the ocean in the end,” Uno continued. “The soil doesn’t really get richer; rather, [it becomes] poorer. So in the long run, you will lose soil, [the soil will] produce [lower] qualities of food in huge quantities, and you’ll have output that heavily relies on that chemical inputs,” Uno said, emphasizing that using synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers is harmful to the environment in the long term.
The use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers causes long-term environmental harm, he said. “They all destroy the quality of soil, as well as the ecosystem of the farms and the farm field and beyond, because the runoff goes into the river, [which] will drain down to the ocean in the end. The soil doesn’t really get richer; rather, [it becomes] poorer. So in the long run, you will lose soil, [the soil will] produce [lower] qualities of food in huge quantities, and you’ll have output that heavily relies on that chemical inputs.
“And the customers, they don’t care about how their food is made,” Uno added. “They don’t have exposure to this information or experience nowadays, [and] just a lack of interest or understanding of how important your food is, and the food system is.” This indifference from both sides is making it especially difficult for organic farmers to thrive.
Uno emphasized that organic farmers face challenges in terms of profitability because of this disconnection. According to Uno, despite the considerable amount of effort and care organic farmers put into producing high quality food, their salaries are not that high, not rewarding the extra efforts required.
“We aren’t involved with food. Almost nobody is involved, really, very much with growing food. Very few people are actually involved in cooking food,” said Jake Morrow, who served as director of the farm program at Northfield Mount Hermon from 2017 to 2023 and now teaches in the English department.
A study in 2021 by Michigan State University showed that 41% of consumers never or rarely seek information about where their food comes from. “I usually just go to the grocery store and buy the cheapest item at the store closest to home,” said Campbell MacDonald, NMH ’23.
“If you eat, you are involved in agriculture and farming,” Morrow said. “We tend to just participate in this very last step in the whole process, but the more you get involved in the other parts of the process, the deeper the enjoyment, and you get more nourishment.
“I think, eventually, it would lead to generally more and better farming, because people who are involved in producing their own food, especially food for their communities and neighbors, really care about the quality and the way that they’re producing the food,” Morrow said. “And, it would lead to a lot more enjoyment. People would enjoy eating — you just enjoy eating better when you’ve done a lot of the food prep yourself and the growing yourself. I do.”
In Japan, people are increasingly interested in farming, Uno said. “They may not want to be a farmer, but they are interested in farming.” Reconnecting with our food source is essential for a more sustainable future. By being involved in the production and preparation of our food, we not only gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for the food we eat but also become more conscious consumers with a heightened responsibility towards the environment.
As my co-workers and I walked back to the farmhouse, with baskets full of cucumbers, green peppers, and tomatoes that we had just harvested, I felt a deep sense of fulfillment. The fresh products reminded me of the effort, dedication, and care that we put into growing these crops. Upon returning, we cooked breakfast in the kitchen and gathered around the wooden table, sharing a deep appreciation for the efforts that were put into the food on our plates. It was a moment filled with nourishment and a connection to the environment.
Now that I sit on my own dining table, I feel a greater appreciation and fulfillment from the food I eat. The early mornings on the Fukushima farmland taught me of the effort and dedication that goes into producing the food we often take for granted. By engaging myself more in the food production process, I opened myself up to a profound sense of fulfillment that comes with eating. By reconnecting with our food source, we not only lead to a healthier environment, but also to healthier, happier, more fulfilled selves.