Sustainability for Beginners—The small-scale producer’s tale

JAPAN and the WORLD magazine’s first issue of 2015 has a Special on Agrobusiness—from large-scale commercial farming in the US, Russia, the Netherlands and Bolivia, to small-scale farming in Japan and Papua New Guinea. The connecting theme is sustainability: how can we meet ever-increasing demand for food and drink products based on a supply relying on a finite amount of land.

Not just countries and companies, but also small-scale but entrepreneurial producers around the world face these challenges. Michael Keida is a young American farmer who grows naturally produced food in Kanagawa Prefecture, to the south of Tokyo, Japan. BI sat down with the farmer to hear more about his experience on a small farm in rural Japan.

Michael Keida on his farm.
Michael Keida on his farm.

In the beginning

At first running his farm merely as a hobby, in 2013 Keida converted his pastime into a business. The farmer has grown a variety of seasonal foods including cabbage, turnips, mizuna (Brasicca juncae, or Japanese greens) and cauliflower—in winter. Keida’s farm also produces Fava beans (Vicia faba), edamame (soy beans in pods), peas, onions, and garlic (in spring) as well as zucchini, corn, and potatoes (in summer). He is also developing his interest in sansai—wild, edible plants such as mushrooms and bamboo—and expanding into nature education. As of 2015, Keida sells his products to small grocery stores and cafes around Kanagawa.

“Natural” is the watchword on the Keida farm.
“Natural” is the watchword on the Keida farm.

From novice, to experimenter, to entrepreneur

Beginning as a novice farmer, Keida, a self-taught producer, has developed into a burgeoning entrepreneur. Indeed, in the early days, he attended workshops in Japan on farming methods to improve his knowledge of the industry. Since establishing his farm as a business, Keida has experimented with a number of products and carved out a niche market of rare, locally produced natural foods. His first harvest—in the spring of 2014, many of which were based on imported seeds—was of potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers.

However, not all of Keida’s experiments with such seeds have thrived in Japan. Radicchio (Cichorium intybus, a perennial leafy plant), for instance, is a vegetable that the farmer tired to grow for years, but with mixed results—in part due to unfavorable weather in Japan. The farmer has faced similar challenges with growing certain varieties of tomato and zucchini. Despite the challenges, he is beginning to meet with success. Keida now ensures his rare (in Japan) seeds selection—grown in a greenhouse—includes those that thrive in the weather and soils of Japan.

In addition to running his farm, the American organizes English language workshops—where visitors can plant or harvest his farm’s produce and learn about farming and nature—to supplement his income. He is also planning to participate in local festivals—including the Hayama Art & Music Festival—where visitors can stop by his farm and enjoy a café and live music.

Mizuna, or Japanese greens, flourish on the Keida farm.
Mizuna, or Japanese greens, flourish on the Keida farm.

Sustainability with principles

Even as his farm has expanded, Keida has maintained a principled approach to farming. To this end, the farmer eschews chemicals and only farms in a way that is sustainable and in harmony with the environment. The farmer’s natural fertilizers, for example, include compost made of seaweed and seashells sourced from the ocean next to his farm (the seashells are harvested from the nets of local fishermen). Keida also relies on cow, chicken and pig manure (procured from local farmers) for composting.
For Keida, farming is not necessarily a question of squeezing more yields per square meter or increasing the return on investment. It is rather a way for him to be creative and to realize his philosophy of living: “I want to try new things in farming. I want to introduce art into it,” he said.

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