Driving along a mountain road, a little far from the central Fujishima area, we realized that we were well into the forests. Then, all of a sudden, the skyscape above us broadened before our eyes and a farm appeared in an anterior direction. The surrounding area creates an atmosphere of wild animals being poised to come out at any moment. Among a few farmers that specialize in cultivating vegetables, Mr. Koki Kano sells his produce, mainly carrots and potatoes, directly to the Agricultural Cooperative Associations, school lunch centers and local restaurants. We visited the family-run Kano Vegetable Farm that cultivates the vegetables and listened to a story from Mr. Kano in a high land field of Higashi-Horikoshi village.
On the interview day, we went to where we were supposed to meet near a huge torii (a gateway at the entrance to a Shinto shrine) and met Mr. Kano and his mother who had just gotten out of a light pickup. Shortly after exchanging greetings, we headed for the fields that are located somewhere well into the mountains such that one will surely be surprised to see that there are indeed vegetable fields.
Mr. Koki Kano, now aged 35, is solemnly engaged, on a daily basis, in producing vegetables in the fields with his parents. The Kano Vegetable Farm owns nearly 20 hectares of the fields, cultivating various kinds of vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, red turnips, asparagus, edamame and udo. The current farm structure was changed from what it used to be. The Farm was actually expanded as a vegetable farm from his old man’s generation, with which he now works, according to the young farmer.
In 1985, 78,653 leaf tobacco cultivation farms were run, but the number dwindled to 10,801 in 2011, and approximately 250 tobacco farms are currently in production in Yamagata Prefecture. With the lapse of time, the produce that is sought after each era revolves around the consumers’ preference.
Likewise, the farmers at the Kano Farm transformed the cultivated crops, from leaf tobacco to vegetables, initiating the production of potatoes. Mr. Koki Kano, soon after graduation from high school, went to a farm in Hokkaido as an apprentice. During his days in high school, it never occurred to him that he would take up farming. However, he had a hunger to do something on his own rather than to work for a company, said Mr. Kano.
Taking full advantage of farming machines and manpower
“Because our farm was not so large, I started farming at about a one-hectare cultivation site without using any machines. We still do our work with three people, but we do our work very well using machines efficiently; we can do various work with one machine and various crops can be cultivated with the same machine. We do our work inventively with a minimum number of people. Looking for help is important, but the machines don’t complain and they work as we want them to work if we use them well,” smiled Mr. Kano half-jokingly.
In the surrounding Fujishima and Haguro areas, farmers used to cultivate red turnips jointly and to purchase and use machinery in partnership, according to Mr. Kano. He has women in the village help with his work when he is too busy. The women are commonly called “The Higashi-Horikoshi Ladies.” During the red turnips harvest, the Ladies, with an average age in the 70s, help Mr. Kano with his work, chatting vivaciously. While contriving to do farm work using machines with his family as well as working with a lot of help from the steady parade of local members, the Kano farm goes on cultivating vegetables.
The Kano farm sits in the relatively mountainous area that is affected by a plateau climate. A morning mist and the temperature difference are considered to be suitable for root vegetables and these factors make the vegetables rich in flavor, according to the producer. From mid-December, since the fields are covered with snow and farm work cannot be done, Mr. Kano ships vegetables that are preserved in a storehouse to farmer’s markets, customers and the school lunch centers in Fujishima and Tsuruoka.
Currently, Mr. Kano mainly cultivates six kinds of potatoes and a few kinds of carrots. “If I cultivate carrots, as I take it for granted, I want to make the vegetables more nutritious, sweeter and better for our health. That’s what I’ve been always told by my father. I want to have the consumers eat the most trustworthy ones.”
Interesting if various visitors come to the fields
On various occasions, people come to the fields. We asked him what kind of people visits the fields. There are more people from outside of the Prefecture than locals, according to Mr. Kano, such as chefs on tour from the Kanto region (which includes the Greater Tokyo Area and encompasses seven prefectures) and grade-schoolers on vegetable-digging experiences. One time, as many as 100 visitors came to the fields. The avid farmer believes that a farmland experience is particularly important.
“Children don’t know about what their parents don’t know. The children enjoy working in the fields. Moreover, their parents become serious about it, which I think is the most important thing. If the parents devote themselves to something, so do their children. I got asked once, “Are the potatoes grown under the ground?” (Laugh) If you do what we actually do, you will quite often see what cultivating vegetables is because it deals with what you eat every day. I’m aware that there are some among the farmers who think otherwise. But I think it’s good to have various groups of people come to the fields.”
Thanks to some chefs who came on tours to his production sites, Mr. Kano cherishes a connection with some restaurants in the Tokyo metropolitan area and Kyushu region (the southwestern part of Japan) even today.
When Mr. Kano started farming, he did not feel any compulsion nor have any interest in doing an agricultural business, to tell the truth. However, in the course of vegetable cultivation, he got to sell his produce to customers who he could meet in person and he found it interesting to see his customers react directly to what they purchased. “I hope a lot of people come to events and buy my vegetables, and I also hope that I can increase customers among local people and get to know each other,” says Mr. Kano.
Cook curry, using our potatoes, carrots and onions
Mr. Kano is also putting a lot of effort into onion production now. According to him, there are few farms in the region that cultivate onions on a large scale. Onion seeds are sown during summer and they grow through winter up to a harvest in June.
“In our farm, we sow the seeds directly in the fields. We sow every year and we fail every year. But we will be able to make it this year. Farming is a year-long cycle. Even if we try for ten years, we get ten different results. Little by little, the onions grow bigger year after year. Interesting, isn’t it? Cultivating potatoes, carrots and onions, how about cooking curry using our vegetables? Don’t you think it’s interesting?” Mr. Kano smiled.
He is dreaming of cultivating vegetables that are always served at the dining table and creating local family tables that are set with local vegetables.
Vegetables, unlike rice, are vulnerable to replant failure. Even if things are done in the same manner, results vary. In terms of subsidies, farmers receive fewer compared to rice. While things do not come off well, Mr. Kano feels that it is a fun thing to create such as a challenge to come close to what he really seeks, using his ingenuity.
“In cultivating vegetables, in particular, soil-making is important. The soil is a house for vegetables. The point is how good you can make the house, which is interesting,” says Mr. Kano.
Mr. Kano has three children. Since his children have grown, they do not come to the fields so often as they used to do. His children understand that their handsome father takes pride in cultivating the vegetables. We feel that their children can feel thoughtfulness and affection from his father only through enjoying the vegetables that have been grown daily by their father.
Farmers like Mr. Kano, who closely provide us with obviously fresh produce, make this area bountiful, which reminded us that this area is blessed with rich raw resources.