Japanese Farmers Linger In State Of Uncertainty

Apr 17, 2011

Cherry blossom season in Japan signals the start of the planting of rice and other produce. But the earthquake and subsequent radioactive leak from the nuclear plant has interrupted that rite of spring. Now farmers wait in a state of uncertainty.

At a greenhouse about 70 miles from Tokyo, rows of spinach plants have been laid to waste. Katsunobu Yatagawa, a farmer in the seaside area of Hokota in Ibaraki prefecture, says he's drying the spinach to make it lighter. Then he'll throw it out.

Normally Yatagawa will spend half the year growing spinach, but radiation concerns prompted the government to ban the sale of spinach from this prefecture. Even though the government said some areas pose little risk, Yatagawa had no choice to but destroy his crop. Now, he and his five employees don't know what to do.

"Let's say I invest. If there are no returns, maybe it just makes sense to just do nothing," he says. Right now, he has no income.

A Fertile Area, Stricken

Ibaraki's farming makes it something like Japan's California. Its melons, yams and strawberries make it the third-largest supplier of agriculture in the country.

Here, the gentle winds come off the ocean make you yearn for a hammock and a nap. The plants love the temperate air. Its geography is blessed — its lakes supply fresh water and its soil is rich. Proximity made Tokyo its largest and best customer base.

But now farmers here are stuck: radiation readings seem to change every day; the government's message seems to shift from scaring consumers away to urging them to buy; and despite promises of public or private compensation, so far there are no specifics. Radioactive material also continues to leak from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, which is 70 miles away.

Yatagawa surveys the foot-high row of dead green plants he was forced to pull and ponders the unknowns: How much compensation will I get, and when? Will customers return? Where should I trash all the dead spinach, which may or may not even be contaminated?

Then there's this pressing matter: How long can he keep his five employees on the payroll?

Asked whether he's able to sleep, he says, "Sure, with the help of extra alcohol."

Supporting The Farmers

If uprooting the spinach was tough, it's even harder to think about uprooting himself. Farming is still a family business here, and even the young farmers have no intention of leaving it behind.

Hiroshi Onizawa, says he plans to stick it out as a mushroom farmer. He says he knows no one planning to bail out of the area, or out of farming. But he says it seems consumers will avoid products from here, and how long that lasts will determine the level of Ibaraki's pain.

Meanwhile, in Tokyo there are banners and signs in every store urging consumers to buy goods from afflicted prefectures. Last week, Prime Minister Naoto Kan himself told citizens to show financial support.

That was a message Fusako Matsumoto heeded. At a farmer's market in Tokyo, she lined up along with other shoppers buying from the only stall featuring produce from Ibaraki.

"It will help Ibaraki prosper — every little bit we spend," she says.

Her contribution? About $3 for a new, popular product called an ice plant — a slightly salty, crunchy, leafy green. The challenge for farmers going forward isn't whether this new food is good, it's whether millions of people will buy the idea that it's also safe. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.