The Soka Gakkai Farming Communities Division
by Takeshi Terai
The work of farmers is essential for our survival: the life of our societies is dependent on their efforts. Yet there is a tendency to forget this and even to look down on farmers. For a society to lose sight of its close dependence on the soil and the people who cultivate it is ultimately to lose regard for life and drift toward barbarity. This perspective, expressed by SGI President Daisaku Ikeda in a number of essays and speeches, was the inspiration for the formation of the Soka Gakkai's Farming Communities Division in October 1973. "Valuing food means valuing life, valuing labor and human beings," Mr. Ikeda writes. "That is the very foundation of civilization."
It is difficult for anyone who isn't a farmer to fully appreciate the struggles involved in agricultural work, which is pitted always against the vagaries of nature, the variability of markets and the flow of young people out of rural communities and into the cities. The Farming Communities Division, like other vocational groups within the Soka Gakkai, assists its members by providing a network of spiritual support and encouragement. It is also a forum through which members are inspired to engage with the Soka Gakkai's broader vision of social contribution.
Mr. Ikeda, himself the son of seaweed farmers, has encapsulated this vision in encouragement for the division's members to become pillars of their respective communities--"great trees unshaken by the fiercest winds and firm stakes supporting your neighbors in your communities." This is in line with the Soka Gakkai's core philosophy that change in society begins with change in the life of a single individual. The annual meetings of the division, held at numerous locations around Japan, are attended by more than 200,000 people, not only those engaged directly in farming but also retailers and consumers.
Kiichi Saito, 38, first began to think about the importance of farming while working on a reforestation project for a Japanese NGO tackling desertification in Mongolia. Working with poor Mongolian communities opened his eyes to another pervasive problem, that of child malnutrition. When his job with the NGO ended, he went to the U.S.A. to study agriculture, with the hope of eventually being able to somehow contribute to "a revival of agriculture in Mongolia."
He decided a necessary step would be to get practical experience of farming in his own country, and he returned to Japan two years later with that determination. Coming from a non-farming family in the suburbs of Tokyo, without access to land, few finances and little real experience posed a number of challenges. One of the things that kept his determination alive was Mr. Ikeda's writings dedicated to the Farming Communities Division. "Farming is not a very prestigious job in Japan," Kiichi remarks, "but his encouragement made me realize that it is the noblest occupation. Every time I read it, I felt renewed and refreshed."
There were a number of unused plots of land on the outskirts of his city, which had become garbage dumping grounds. Kiichi tracked down the owners to ask about leasing them for farming. His persistence eventually won out, and one landowner agreed to let him cultivate a 0.6-hectare plot. When he began clearing the land, offers of help and other vacant land started to trickle in from people in the community impressed by his determination. These included the use of a greenhouse from which, in 2006, four years after his return to Japan, he harvested his first crop of tomatoes. These are now eagerly bought by local residents.
One of his discoveries has been that by mixing Mongolian rock salt into the soil he gets tomatoes that are particularly flavorful. He talks happily about one customer who informed him that her son will only eat tomatoes grown by him, because they are so much tastier than those from the supermarket. "When I heard that, it made all my hardships worthwhile!" he says.
After many struggles and his fair share of failures, Kiichi is now successfully cultivating eight hectares of wheat and rice as well as his green house tomatoes. "I get a lot of positive feedback from people. My greatest joy is to be able to grow food that makes people happy," he says. "My goal now is to bring youth from Mongolia here and train them in agricultural techniques. It's a drop in the ocean, but a drop that will eventually expand and contribute to friendship between our two countries."
Rice That Nurtures Life
Yoshihiko Watanabe was born into an old farming family in Japan's Fukushima Prefecture. He initially went into business after graduating from university. When he later decided to take up the family profession, he was determined to do something new. "I was inspired by Mr. Ikeda's encouragement that we should take on the most difficult challenges," he says.
He visited various rice production regions to learn about innovative growing methods. His goal was to produce rice that surpassed the Koshihikari variety, considered to be Japan's highest-quality rice. After much painstaking experimentation he achieved his goal with "Milky Queen," a variety that is now rated superior to Koshihikari and has been featured on television, eliciting huge sales through a direct mail-order business that Yoshihiko set up.
However, a conversation with an elderly woman inspired a complete change of direction. "Her husband had a kidney ailment and had to eat specially processed food. She complained that it cost several times more than normal food and tasted horrible. Her husband was really frustrated about having to eat it every day."
This inspired Yoshihiko to begin researching the production of what he calls new grain character rice varieties--hybrid rice varieties with specific properties that make them suitable for people with certain medical conditions: low allergen rice for the growing number of eczema and allergy sufferers, high amylo rice for people with diabetes, low protein rice for people with kidney ailments.
Yoshihiko has successfully cultivated a number of new varieties of rice targeted to specific medical conditions and is currently engaged in negotiations with the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to further develop this field. "I'm determined to create varieties of rice that respond to people's needs, not only varieties that sell successfully," he says.
He adds: "Rice varieties high in amylo and low in protein are better grown in poor paddy fields than in fertile ones. It's usually thought that good rice doesn't grow well in poor soil, but every paddy field has its individual characteristics and, I'm inclined to think, its own appropriate mission."
Yoshihiko is now exploring ways of sharing Japan's farming know-how and appropriate technologies with other countries, which he sees as an important potential aspect of the country's overseas development assistance program. "Japan has some of the best rice production technology and varieties," he confirms. He is also exploring the possibility of using idle farmland to grow food for a global food bank to help address food shortages. "I hope my efforts might inspire a younger generation of farmers and help them see that there is a lot that can be done."
[Courtesy, July 2009 SGI Quarterly]