Thursday, February 25, 2010


Spring has sprung at ARI! I've been enjoying the small joys of the changing seasons: eating a sweet, sweet carrot pulled fresh from the field; feeling the sun on my arms for the first time in months; smelling that subtle spring scent in the air. As farm works starts to begin again in earnest, I realize how much I've learned from ARI. Not only am I more knowledgeable about farming and international development, I'm also much more physically confident than I was five months ago. I can milk a cow. I can drive stick (I've come a long way since this past summer, when my intrepid teacher had to grab the wheel to prevent me from backing into a fence... Now I get to tool around town in a beat-up Toyota pick-up, running farm errands among the 7-11's and karaoke bars). I can plow a field. I can deal with hungry pigs, flighty chickens, and feisty calves. I feel comfortable here, sometimes to a degree that surprises me.

I'll be away from ARI and this blog for about a week - my father is coming to Japan! He'll make an appearance at ARI as a working visitor, so maybe I'll have some good stories for my next post...

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Food for thought

At ARI, we talk a lot about food - about food production, access to food, food consumption, food culture. Underneath all the discussions of how to raise tomatoes or chickens, of how to process miso or kiwi jam, lies the Big Question: How can we achieve sustainability in food production? Will the earth be able to support the next generation?

I found an interesting article published by Science that gives an overview of the sustainability question and proposes some possible paths to future food security. One path involves closing the "yield gap," the "the difference between realized productivity and the best that can be achieved using current genetic material and available technologies and management." As the article explains,
"Low yields occur because of technical constraints that prevent local food producers from increasing productivity or for economic reasons arising from market conditions. For example, farmers may not have access to the technical knowledge and skills required to increase production, the finances required to invest in higher production (e.g., irrigation, fertilizer, machinery, crop-protection products, and soil-conservation measures), or the crop and livestock varieties that maximize yields. After harvest or slaughter, they may not be able to store the produce or have access to the infrastructure to transport the produce to consumer markets... It has been estimated that in those parts of Southeast Asia where irrigation is available, average maximum climate-adjusted rice yields are 8.5 metric tons per hectare, yet the average actually achieved yields are 60% of this figure… Substantially more food, as well as the income to purchase food, could be produced with current crops and livestock if methods were found to close the yield gaps."
ARI is trying to close the yield gap by teaching farmers about more efficient methods of rice cultivation, more effective means of fertilizer application, more lucrative ways of processing and storing harvested crops. Sustainability must start at the local level of individual farmers and individual farms. As one staff member told me, "It's not about feeding the world, it's about feeding one community at a time." I'm still unsure what I think about food security issues (particularly about the ability of organic farming to feed communities on a large scale), but I feel lucky to live in a community where I have the opportunity to reevaluate my relationship with food.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


It's been a quiet week at ARI. The winter vegetables sit half-frozen in their beds, and the staff and volunteers scurry around campus with their shoulders hunched against the cold. ARI seems to conserving energy for the work that will begin again in April, when the next class of participants arrive.

But farm work continues! Wheat and garlic are quietly growing in the fields, and we continue to harvest carrots and broccoli. Mostly, we're preparing the fields for the next growing season (digging irrigation ditches in the rice paddies, cleaning fields of plant debris, applying compost, making organic fertilizer) and processing the crops from last season (sorting red beans and black beans, drying sweet potatoes and radishes). We've also been helping out the livestock section. Last week, I helped weigh the pigs, pack silage (fermented corn feed for the animals during the winter months), and transfer chicks from the hatching house to the chicken pen. So I'm getting more familiar with the animals - this suburban girl can now catch a chicken like a pro.

Thanks to the slower pace, I've also had more time to just enjoy being in Japan. I've been to a sado (a traditional tea ceremony); I've learned how to make mochi (sticky rice cake) and miso (fermented soy bean paste); and I've been enjoying the wonder that is onsen (natural hot springs). Japan is starting to feel normal. I can now pick up individual soy beans with chopsticks, and I apparently bow to the sales clerk an average of four times when checking out at the grocery store.

Our sado hosts

Our delicious post-tea brunch - sticky rice with red beans, sweet soy beans, and pickled vegetables

And yesterday, we got to play hooky for a community cross-country ski day in neighboring Fukushima prefecture. Most of the group (which included staff from the Philippines and Myanmar) had never been skiing, so we cheerfully bungled our way down the course, poles flailing and ski tips pointing in all the wrong directions. (I turned out to be the best skiier of the bunch, so you know it was a bit of a fiasco!) It was a fun change from farm work, and the landscape was beautiful - mountains of white birch trees and gray ash, valleys of white snow and gray snow sky. A soothing sight for this wanna-be New Hampshirite far from the snowy north country.

Getting ready for skiing in front of the main building...

I hope everyone in the Washington, D.C. area is enjoying "snowmageddon!" Get some sledding in for me.