August 2007. Kimura was in his orchards on the lower slopes of Mount Iwaki. The faint smell of vinegar lingered in the air in the orchards. It seems he’d been spraying vinegar during the morning. Kimura was sitting on his ladder, on the other side of a thick canopy of apple leaves, intent on his work. It was the ladder he’d been perched on when he looked down and saw a chasm open up under him. For some reason I’d imagined a rickety metal ladder, but the one Kimura was sitting on was a wooden one, worn and softened by time. His wife Michiko was at the base of the ladder, engaged in light-hearted chat. I didn’t want to disturb them, but Kimura had told me there was something he wanted to show me.
‘Take a look at this leaf. There’s a round hole in it. What do you think it is?’
He had a leaf in his hand. There was a hole right in the middle of it. It looked as though it may have been eaten by an insect. When I said so, Kimura smiled, leaning d his head to the side.
‘Nope. This hole was formed by the leaf itself. I thought it was done by an insect at first. But there’re no insects which would make this kind of hole. For years it struck me as strange. Then I came across a leaf with a hole like this, and beside it a typical, brownish, alternaria blotch diseased leaf. Interesting, I thought. So I decided to watch and see what would happen to the alternaria blotch. The diseased area became parched and brittle. The leaf cut off the supply of moisture to those parts, those parts only, as though it was trying to starve them. The diseased leaf then fell, and it had holes. Not only that. Since the time these holes started appearing, the small leaves next to it gradually got bigger. The tree was making up for those leaves that were lost. I used scales to measure them, and found that the size of the holes that developed, and the amount the other leaf increased in size, were about the same. When many more holes appear, and the tree cannot make up for them, new leaves come out at the tips of the branches. When I fertilized the orchards in the past, these holes never developed, even when they were affected by disease. There are only just enough nutrients in the orchards, so I think that the trees relied on their innate, natural vitality. The more you learn about nature, the more amazing it is.
Helping nature, and sharing its bounty. That’s the essence of farming. How farming should be. Unfortunately, agriculture today has lost its way. The point is, we cannot simply carry on like we have been. In the old days, I was attracted by industrial farming methods, but areas where industrial farming methods are practised are rapidly turning into deserts. All you’ve got to do is look at what’s happening in the Corn Belt in the America and to the collective farms in the former Soviet Union. However sophisticated science becomes, human beings cannot live separately from nature.
We’re products of nature too. Being able to ‘help’ nature depends on whether we can feel it from the heart. I believe this is where the future of humanity rests. This is no exaggeration. I simply help apple trees. There’s only so much I can do. But as far as our future is concerned, it can only help. I may be overstating it a little bit, but I’ve come to believe that from the bottom of my heart.’
It is no exaggeration whatsoever. Kimura has achieved something more important than taking off in aeroplanes, or landing on the moon. The apple trees were laden with green fruit. The harvest season lay ahead. Gazing on that peaceful scene, I was reminded that this was where it all happened. These orchards were the stage where, when he was a boy, he planted apple trees with his elder brother, where the four orchards first went pesticide-free, where he saw the shining silver man, where he tied the rope after deciding to try and end it all on the mountain, where only seven blossoms grew, and where he saw the apples in full bloom after nine long years.
It was in these orchards that he and the apple trees had continued to face each other. It was where people had joked about him, made a fool of him, yet whilst suffering in poverty, he had persevered along the long and winding road.
It suddenly occurred to me I’d heard a story like this before. In a place far, far away from the sea, a man built a boat. A flood was not imminent. This is certainly what everyone said, and then didn’t they mock him?
But the man continued building the boat, firm in his belief. Every animal on earth then went in, two by two.
Without pesticides or fertilizers, why are those apple trees not devastated by insects and disease? The riddle is, in part at least, now slowly being unravelled. According to research being done by Professor Shūichi Sugiyama at the Faculty of Life Science at Hirosaki University, it seems that many more microorganisms exist in the soil and on the surface of the leaves in Kimura’s orchards than in other orchards. Conditions in the old growth forests of the Shirakami Mountains and Kimura’s apple orchards seem to be similar. Whilst the types and numbers of insects and weeds have not yet been studied, they are more than likely to prove to be the same. The tugs of war being waged amongst life in all its forms are almost certainly helping to prevent abnormal outbreaks of disease or increases in insects.
This can be looked at from another perspective: Kimura has taken aboard creatures that cannot survive in the other orchards in a boat called The Apple Orchard. In preparation for the day that will surely come …
The lands where ancient civilizations once flourished, such as Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley, are now deserts. This is a result of the forests being cut down and the land laid waste. Modern man may laugh at the short-sightedness of the ancients. The only reason we can have a giggle, however, is simply that we have the technologies to exploit fossil fuels. We get by without giving the matter a second thought, even though the forests have disappeared: but this is possibly only because we can transport timber from distant forests that have not yet been devastated. We turn a blind eye to what is happening since, even if one area becomes a desert, we can plough up land elsewhere. Even though people today say they couldn’t survive without pesticides and fertilizers, there are few people thinking seriously about what this really means. It’s the same as thinking you can’t grow fruit without the use of pesticides and fertilizers.
We cannot go on like this. Whichever comes first, the depletion of fossil fuels, or the destruction of the environment to the point of no return, the collapse of modern agriculture – with its total dependence on pesticides and fertilizers – is foreseeable. It may be one hundred years from now, it may only be thirty. But the flood will come.
‘So, these orchards are an ark?’
This came out rather abruptly, but Kimura seemed to understand immediately.
‘You could put it like that’, murmured Kimura, hands palms up, head inclined to one side, like a holy man. A gleeful laugh followed.
For many years now, Kimura has been travelling around the country, offering guidance about farming. Not only to apple farmers; he is also talking to rice, vegetable, and tea growers, as well as farmers growing olives and mangoes who come to him for advice about moving to farming methods which do not use pesticides or fertilizers. They are looking for ways to farm that are closer to nature. Farmland where Kimura’s advice has been accepted, whether it is rice fields or orchards, is discernibly more vibrant. As his reputation has grown, he has more recently received invitations to lecture and give his advice about farming abroad as well as at home.
Kimura is now devoting his energy to advising those who are getting a stable crop from pesticide and fertilizer-free farming – whether from rice or vegetables – to reduce their prices as far as they can. Even though he could sell for five times the current price, given how delicious they are and their rarity value, Kimura himself is absolutely against this. If people throughout Japan could, if at all possible, simply eat his apples, this would be enough. He believes they must at least be priced so that everyone can afford them. There are customers of course those who, however expensive they are, will buy them.
It takes a lot of work growing crops without pesticides or fertilizers, and yields are smaller than those obtained by farming with them. It’s only natural for producers to want to sell their produce at the highest price possible. If that happens, says Kimura, such produce will always be a luxury. In so far as pesticide-free produce remains a luxury for the affluent, pesticide and fertilizer-free farming will never be more than a speciality.
Even though the current situation is difficult, sooner or later it will become possible to provide produce we’ve grown using our own methods at the sort of reasonable prices that would make them competitive with produce grown using pesticides and fertilizers. This is Kimura’s dream.
Most people would almost certainly choose to buy pesticide and fertilizer-free farm produce if prices were similar. If pesticide-free apples and apples that weren’t were the same price, most people would surely buy the former.
Only when this happens will farmers in general seriously consider growing pesticide and fertilizer-free produce. This is the most important thing, and it is to this end that Kimura is going everywhere he is invited to talk. When asked, he’s prepared to give his time unstintingly to teach anyone, even though these are methods of apple growing arrived at only after immense effort. He hasn’t given a moment’s thought to the notion of trying to monopolize what he’s done. It’s quite likely that within a few years, there will be orchards like Kimura’s around the country that can produce stable apple crops which are pesticide and fertilizer-free. Whilst it is not in the least unreasonable to expect to profit in some way, having worked so hard, Kimura has no interest in doing so at all. His mouth is, as it’s always been, toothless. The paper on the sliding doors in his house has still not been renewed. This is because he knows there are other, more important things.
Civilization has advanced so quickly, and people have lost touch with their roots. However convenient the Internet, and however easy it is call anywhere in the world on our mobile phones, we must eat to live. An ecologist might say that human beings are plant parasites. Agriculture supports human life. It is where our roots are. If those roots die, we cannot survive.
We all understand this, and yet the phony faces people wear today declare that having such withered roots is normal. Kimura doesn’t say too much about this: he believes the day is coming when we will understand and, with no thought for personal gain, he quietly continues to go about what he has to do.
I was in no doubt I’d met a truly remarkable man.
The apple leaves rustled as they were lifted by the wind. For no reason at all, the words I’d heard earlier came back to me. I got goose bumps when I first heard them. Whispered quietly, with a smile, but Kimura meant it.
‘Join me on my boat.’
It was a hot summer’s day, with temperatures in Hirosaki going over thirty degrees, but there was a cool breeze in Kimura’s orchards. I complained about it being hot back in town, whereupon Kimura laughed.
‘Well,’ he suggested, ‘Better write your book here then?’
For that reason, a large part of this book was written in Kimura’s orchards.
Sitting on the grass, laptop open, the apple trees provided blissful shade. The sea of grass was alive with grasshoppers and moths, and from somewhere there was the sound of a frog. The scene was more wild countryside than orchard. I wonder what von Siebold would have made of these orchards?