Farmer Yoko Takemura hopes to incorporate aspects of her Japanese heritage as well as her academic background in environmental sustainability into her new farm business.
While farmers represent an increasingly aging demographic group, a growing number of young farmers in New England and across the country are working to change the food system. Many of these new farmers, like Yoko Takemura of Assawaga Farm in Putnam, Connecticut, do not have farming backgrounds but instead have experiences that bring different perspectives and ideas into their farming practices. Yoko, who I was introduced to through my former boss at Cloverleigh Farm, is drawing inspiration from traditional Japanese agricultural practices in her effort to make her new farm a truly sustainable operation.
Growing up around the world due to her father’s occupation, Yoko always had a passion for the environment. She never thought, however, that she would end up becoming a farmer. After graduating from a university in Tokyo, she briefly worked in investment banking so that she could save money for graduate school. She eventually quit her job and moved to New York City to study environmental sustainability in graduate school. Living in Bed-Stuy, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, she became a member of a community garden and started developing a passion for growing vegetables and the way growing food can bring people together. It wasn’t until she joined her first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group while working for a consulting firm in NYC, however, that she really started to think about starting her own farm. Yoko’s “a-ha!” moment came to her when she visited Windflower Farm in upstate New York for the annual CSA member’s potluck. “On the ride back to NYC,” she reminisces, “I couldn’t stop visualizing myself as a farmer!” She then applied for apprenticeships on vegetable farms outside of NYC and eventually found Riverbank Farm in Western Connecticut, where she worked for 3 years.
To start their own farm business, Yoko and her husband Alex bought 22 acres of land in Putnam, Connecticut in 2016. Because the land had been previously used to farm hay for decades, Yoko and Alex had to build all of their own farm infrastructure from scratch. However, this actually works to their advantage as they now have the freedom to design their infrastructure with their specific sustainability goals in mind. For example, they were able to build their greenhouse in a way that accommodates SolaWrap, a durable greenhouse cover that lasts much longer than many other plastic films used in greenhouses.
Yoko and Alex take a lot of inspiration from traditional Japanese agricultural methods in order to achieve their sustainability goals. The couple spent some time travelling around Japan and visiting many farms and learning about the various ways in which some Japanese farmers have cultivated a harmonious relationship with the natural environment. While organic agriculture can often be heavily dependent on inputs from fossil fuels, Yoko hopes to take her greenhouse off the grid by incorporating the Japanese practice of fumikomi-onsho, which involves mixing a large amount of leaves with some rice bran and chicken manure, applying water to it, and stomping on the mixture in order to generate heat. This variation of composting creates a fairly steady level of heat for weeks. This allows farmers to start their seedlings as well as have heat in the greenhouse without the use of electricity.
Building a relationship with the forest is another aspect of traditional Japanese agriculture that Yoko became enamored with when visiting farms in Japan. “The forest gave the farmers mulch, wood, bamboo, inoculant, etc. and the farmers gave back by maintaining and taking care of the forest through selective cutting, cleaning up, etc.” In comparison, Yoko explains that “the health of our forests around here” is “terrifyingly bad”. Yoko hopes to actively help better the condition of the forests that encompass her land in the coming years “because the forest is as much part of our farm as is our field.” One way Yoko and Alex want to give back to the forest is by applying “humanure” from composting toilets to the neighboring forests, after a two year composting period. For various health-related reasons, the “humanure” will not be used for their actual farming operation, but it is one way Yoko and Alex can create a more harmonious relationship with the forests that surround their land.
For Yoko, the terms organic and sustainable are not one and the same. While Assawaga Farm has applied for organic certification, there are some additional practices that Yoko and her husband want to incorporate in order to reduce as much waste associated with and inputs required for their farm as possible. In addition to some of the Japanese practices they want to try out on their farm, there are many other sustainable practices not included in the certification that Yoko and Alex hope to take on. For example, they hope to use minimal amounts of plastic by not using any one-time drip tapes or plastic mulch, often used by organic farmers to help suppress weeds. They also plan to eventually create all of their own fertilizer, compost, and potting mix using the Japanese bokashi method of inoculating fertilizer with local culture taken from the nearby forests.
Believing that “organic originates in soil”, Yoko wants to take special care of the soil on their farm by using minimal tilling and eventually transitioning into no-till agriculture. This will help them “keep the delicate web of microorganisms and mycorrhizal fungi intact,” in addition to preserving the soil structure, maintaining carbon in the soil and keeping a steady release of nutrients in the soil “rather than short bursts of it.” They plan to have at least one field in their farm dedicated to cover crops year-round which will help prevent the depletion of nutrients and accumulate biomass. The couple also hope to save their own seeds and breed seeds that are adapted to their local environment.
In addition to using Japanese farming practices, Yoko also plans to grow many Japanese varieties of vegetables on her farm. When asked why she wanted to grow Japanese varieties, she responded simply that she just wanted to grow vegetables that she craved from home and that she wanted to eat herself! In addition, growing Japanese varieties helps Yoko target a niche market within the oversaturated market for organic produce in the Boston area. She is particularly excited about growing edamame, as “it’s just not summer without edamames!”
In the next few months, Yoko and Alex will be busy getting ready for their first growing season and transitioning into the full-time farming lifestyle. They start seeding in three weeks! Look for Yoko and Alex in farmers markets in the Boston area this coming season (locations yet to be decided). They also have some CSA shares available through their website.
Update, March 2, 2018: An earlier version of this article failed to clarify that the composted humanure would be used on Assawaga’s surrounding forest land only, and not on the farm itself. This has been updated for clarity, and we apologize if our omission was misleading to our readers.
Nako Kobayashi is a first year AFE student from Japan who has experience working on a small organic farm, a biodynamic vineyard, for the agricultural sector of a Japanese municipal government, and on a food hub development project. Having a B.A. in anthropology, she loves talking directly with farmers from various backgrounds and hearing about their unique perspectives of the food system.