The apple trees in Aomori bloom in May. There was no problem with the flowering. He didn’t spray so the air in the orchards was clean and fresh. Mount Iwaki rose peerlessly in the clear blue sky. The apple trees Kimura had raised by hand were blossoming pure white against the beautiful scene.
Apple and cherry blossom look alike as they are both trees belong to the genus Rosa, but the leaves of the apple appear before the blossom. The white flowers blossom amongst green leaves. They are not as vivid, so apple blossoms are not as popular for blossom-viewing as cherry trees. However, for the apple farmer, it is a sight that more than any other makes the heart sing. Once the leaves and blossom have formed, the apple fruit can begin to grow. Once pollinated, the base of the flower begins to swell. As much of the nutrients, stored inside the leaves, are sent to the tiny fruits as possible. The flourishing leaves promise autumn fruitfulness.
The late spring sunshine in the Tohoku region strengthens rapidly. The leaves get bigger and become darker green in response to the intensifying light. By June there was hardly any of the insect damage he had feared. He felt he was in a dream. Perhaps he’d stumbled on something incredible. Pesticides weren’t necessary to grow apples … . Perhaps it was good that he’d given up chemical fertilizers and used compost? If you could cultivate simply without pesticides, this farming method would spread rapidly through Japan. Apple farmers would be released from enslavement to them. Maybe he would get the glory for it! People talk about welcoming a false dawn. Well, Kimura was literally lost in those feelings as he gazed on apple trees which seemed to be the very picture of health. Things went well, but only for the first two months. Just as July started, something strange happened. The leaves on the apples started going yellow.
‘It really was just as July started. Yellowing leaves started to appear. Yellow on a green background stands out. The yellow apple leaves then fell everywhere.
A few falling leaves would have been alright. When I’d tried reducing the pesticides there’d been some disease. I just thought that, well, I could expect some disease. As I hadn’t used pesticides it was only to be expected. To begin with I didn’t worry too much about it. But it didn’t stop. All the leaves in the orchards quickly began turning yellow, and by the end of July half of them had fallen. By the middle of August, less than half of them were left. The few that were hanging on were nearly all yellow. The trees were just about bare. They’d bloomed in early spring, so apples were forming but, how shall I put it, it was like they were just stuck on a mountain of withered branches.
If leaves get diseased and fall, apples trees will do their best to put out new leaves. But the new leaves that eventually opened immediately became diseased. The disease was alternaria blotch. It’s a disease where dark brown spots appear on the leaves and the entire leaf turns yellow and falls. It had never occurred to me that this kind of damage would happen simply if pesticides weren’t used. The difference between orchards which had been sprayed with pesticides once, and orchards which had not been sprayed at all, was like heaven and hell.
To be honest, that was the only time that I thought to myself how incredible pesticides were. Simply by applying pesticides you could prevent diseases like that! It seems strange, but looking at those orchards and their mountains of withered trees, a fighting spirit arose in me. In early spring when there’d been no problems, I’d not felt so satisfied. After all, apart from not using pesticides, and making compost, I’d not really done anything. But I did know that pesticide-free apple growing was never going to be straightforward, and this fired me up. This was what I’d been waiting for.
I was determined to somehow change that mountain of barren trees back to the sort of green apple orchards they were originally.’
When summer ended and autumn came along, the apple trees in the withered orchards started flowering all at once. It was an unseasonal blooming. Most of the leaves had fallen, then the temperature dropped, and I guess it was biologically like being subjected to spring conditions for the apple trees.
The apples harvest was under way in other orchards … In Kimura’s orchards, next to the small, undeveloped fruits which were still bitter, in spite of it being autumn, there were apple blossoms. It was a chilling scene. Apple trees which bloom in autumn won’t bloom the following spring. These are next year’s buds. There was no hope for the following year’s harvest either. But to Kimura’s eyes, it seemed as though the apple trees were desperately trying to survive. When apples lose their leaves, they put out new ones. However many fall, they are replaced with new ones. However blighted they had become, they were fighting to live. Leaves are a plant’s source of life.
Several hundred chloroplasts exist in one leaf cell. Chloroplasts convert sunlight into energy, synthesize sugars from CO2 and water they absorb from the atmosphere, and metabolize fats and proteins. For a plant, losing its leaves is the same as an animal not being able to obtain food. Even when faced with acute starvation conditions, the apple trees were mistaken about the coming of spring and flowered in order to ensure survival of the next generation.
As long as you can get rid of diseases affecting the leaves, their innate vitality should revive the apple trees. The key to pesticide-free apple growing is first and foremost protecting the leaves. How far can the leaves be protected if you don’t use pesticides? If a method can be found, then pesticide-free growing of apples, deemed impossible, could be made to work. Kimura talked to no-one about this, but in his heart of hearts he believed he could do it.
The first time you take a close look at a motorbike or tractor engine, they seem very complicated. As you disassemble them, one by one the inner mechanical working of all the parts becomes clear. Once you understand these, you can rebuild the engine in the way you planned. The same is true for apples.
The organisms that cause diseases in apples are fungi and bacteria. Alternaria blotch, for example, is a type of fungus. It thrives on the surface of apple leaves and fruit, destroying biological functions. It’s similar to a human skin disease and, as such, preventing it ought not to be that difficult if one can only find and treat the bacteria or fungus with an agent it dislikes.
Kimura wondered whether, instead of pesticides, he could find a way to prevent disease using food the family normally ate. If so, as well as making it safe for people who ate apples of course, apple growing would also be safe for the farmers.
It would have less environmental impact too. With this in mind, he was able to make a list of several foods that would seem to fit the bill. There are more than a few foods which have natural anti-bacterial properties, including garlic and wasabi. Even if they weren’t powerful anti-bacterials, he could probably find foods with properties that would prevent the growth of fungus and bacteria.
But, there was a problem. It would take too long to experiment with all of these in one orchard. The reason he’d started pesticide-free farming with just one of the four orchards had to do with income. Kimura hadn’t thought they’d be successful with pesticide-free farming from the start. Even if he got no income from the orchard he did not use pesticides on, then at least it would only mean a loss of a quarter of their income. He didn’t know how long it would take, but the plan was to expand pesticide-free growing to the other orchards once they had a stable income without the use of pesticides.
Gazing at the withered orchard he realized that this was no time for such half measures. All the apple trees were malnourished. If this continued, the trees themselves would weaken. He had to discover a way to protect the leaves without delay. But you only see the products of apple growing once a year. That’s the difficult thing about agriculture. It means, for example, that if you work growing apples for thirty years, you can only produce apples thirty times. He wanted, as far as possible, to increase the number of trials so that he could find an answer quickly.
Kimura went pesticide-free in two orchards the following year. The year after that he took a risk and stopped using pesticides in all the orchards. The apple harvest was zero. They still had some rice fields, so they didn’t lose all sources of income, but the money coming into the family fell to next to nothing.
In spite of this, he believed that this was the only way to succeed. Too bad if people thought he was mad. But perhaps Kimura was losing his mind …
‘No apple crop means no income. I had done something stupid. I was on the road heading straight to hell. But I was dead set on it. The only thing I could think about was finding foods which might help control the spread of alternaria blotch.’ This is how Kimura puts it. It’s a bad habit he’s had since he was a boy. He loses sight of everything else once his heart is set on something. In the days when he played with machines and did up motorbikes, he’d work non-stop for two or three days without sleep until he finished. This was the first time he’d been in that state of mind since he got married. For Kimura, going pesticide-free was more than simply a job. In that sense one might also say that he was fortunate. Although even if he was fortunate, it was an extremely dangerous state of mind as far as the domestic finances were concerned.
‘As far as getting an income was concerned, I just couldn’t really care. The thought didn’t cross my mind. I dream up one scheme I want to try after another. I have to admit they were pretty random. You eat rice and put soya sauce on your fish. So I wondered whether soya sauce might work. When an idea comes to me I desperately need to try it out.
That’s all you think about, even when asleep and dreaming. Once I got an idea, I had to go out into the orchards, even if it meant getting up in the middle of the night. I tried making a paste from wheat flour and spreading that, and diluting shōchū and sprinkling that on. I also tried using wasabi! I mixed powdered wasabi with water, but that was unbearable as it brought tears to my eyes. If I went into the orchards a short time after spreading it, my nose would sting from the smell of wasabi. Ha-ha-ha … that story makes me laugh.’
He tried using egg whites, too. He’d read that milk worked for aphids in a gardening book about roses. If it worked for insects, he thought, it might work on diseases. So with this in mind, he diluted some milk with water and sprayed with that. Milk doesn’t mix well with water. He made an emulsion, mixing it by hand with soap, and tried applying that. Nothing happened of course. Measures for aphids clearly didn’t work on alternaria blotch. But Kimura’s was beginning to think along different lines. Milk is animal protein. He wondered whether egg white, which was after all the same sort of animal protein, might be effective.
‘So, this time, I decided trying out egg whites. All we seemed to eat around then was the yokes of eggs, day-in, day-out. Whatever I tried, nothing worked. I don’t know what on earth I thought I was doing. Still, I carried on thinking something or other might work. When something didn’t work one year, I thought I’d give something else a go next. It might seem crazy, but I went on and on doing that. The apple trees looked wretched. They got worse and worse.
Alternaria blotch was out of control, and the number of pests exploded. It was insect heaven on earth!’
 shōchū is a clear spirit normally made from potatoes, rice, or barley.
 wasabi is a pungent condiment similar to horseradish. Made from a root that grows in clear streams, the paste can be made from powdered wasabi, or freshly grated, and is often served with sushi.