Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Why local food matters

At ARI, we talk a lot about strengthening or revitalizing local networks of food production, marketing, and consumption in order to provide a greater degree of food security to local communities in countries around the world (not just in developing countries, but in Japan and the United States as well). But why are local food networks important? As someone whose food now comes almost exclusively from my own community (i.e. the ARI farm), I find that eating locally produced food deepens my understanding of the seed-to-plate process and my appreciation for the food itself. I now know how onions are grown; I understand why organic food is sometimes more expensive than chemically-produced food (many extra man-hours of thinning and applying compost and weeding and weeding...); I know the difference between varieties of sweet potatoes; I know how long it takes for a spinach plant to mature.

But for many others, especially the participants and their home communities, having access to locally produced food can mean the difference between having enough food and going hungry. If there is no local source of food, communities must rely on imports, which are often prohibitively expensive. One of my high school friends, Jess, is currently studying and traveling in Africa under a Watson Fellowship - she wrote the following about her experiences at food markets in Liberia and Rwanda:
"This afternoon, I went to Nyabugogo market to pick up some fresh vegetables, and I suddenly understood in a very concrete way why farming matters in developing countries. Here in Rwanda – land of terraced hills and industrious yeoman farmers — I paid 350 Rwf (around 60 cents) for a kilo of tomatoes. In Liberia – land of rubber plantations and untouched forest – a pound of tomatoes costs 150 LD (about $2.15). Given the pound-kilo conversion, this means that Liberian tomatoes are roughly eight times the price of their Rwandan counterparts. In other words, tomatoes sold from wheelbarrows in the streets of Liberia — a country where 95% of the population lives on less than $2 a day – cost more than tomatoes in my local Safeway back home."
Due to the recent civil war and various other economic and political crises, Liberia has a very weak agricultural sector, which is mostly oriented towards export of a few cash crops rather than towards domestic consumption. The result: expensive tomatoes. Again, as Jess wrote:
"Everything is imported. This was sort of true in Aceh [Indonesia], but Monrovia [Liberia] takes it to a completely different level. A quick inventory of the groceries I bought yesterday: tea from Sri Lanka (with labeling in Sinhala and, inexplicably, Russian), rice from the US (labeled in Arabic), lemonade from Cyprus, juice from South Africa, lentils from someplace Spanish-speaking, spices and Cream of Wheat from Lebanon, and jam from Belgium. (The fresh bread, bananas, and ginger were presumably from here in Liberia.) Unsurprisingly, my grocery bills are painfully high."
Again and again, participants recount similar stories of one-crop, export-oriented farmers in their communities who can not afford to feed their own families because they must buy expensive, imported food. "How is it that farmers cannot even feed themselves?" So for me, eating local food is a way of reconnecting with the reality of natural food production - for much of the world, it's a means of survival.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

はなみ: Cherry-blossom viewing

One beautiful spring day in Japan, the farm staff took a quick break from the normal routine to enjoy the cherry blossoms...

よこそ: Welcome!

On Saturday, we officially welcomed the class of 2010 participants into the ARI community! This year, we have 30 participants from 17 different countries (Brazil, Cambodia, Cameroon, Congo, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, Kiribati, Liberia, Malawi, Myanmar, Nepal, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Zambia). Ages range from 21 to 50; spiritual backgrounds vary from Christian (the vast majority) to Hindu to atheist; favorite foods range from rice to cornmeal mash to spicy spicy curry to chickens' feet. But for the next few months, we'll all live together in small dorms on a small campus in a small town in rural Japan.

Participants waiting to introduce themselves during the ceremony

Ishiyama-san, Onasaki-san, and Ito-san: The three musketeers/commuting Japanese volunteers of the farm section

The class of 2010!

Sumathi (Sri Lanka), Nilushi (Sri Lanka), me (in Nepalese dress), Hniang (Myanmar), and Hgun (Myanmar)

The two Johns: John from Congo and Jon from the U.S.


Sunday, April 4, 2010

Happy Easter!

This Easter season marks many new beginnings. As ARI celebrates the Resurrection and the beginning of new spiritual life, we also greet the beginning of the next growing season and the arrival of the new 2010 participants. The happy concurrence of all these events reminds me of one of my favorite Easter hymns:

"Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain,
Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green."
- Hymn 204

I celebrated this Easter in the typical way by going to church and then eating too much sugar. In Japan, I usually attend the nearby United Church of Christ church for weekly services, but today I wanted more "smells and bells" (or High Church ceremony) than the UCC church offers, so I joined the Catholics for mass. The Catholic church turned out to be a wonderful, lively mix of cultures - Japanese, Brazilian, Indian, American, and Philippino! The mass was conducted by two priests (American and Brazilian) in Japanese and Portuguese, with smatterings of English; hymns were sung in Filipino and Hindi; the Gospel was read in Japanese by an American and in English by an Indian. It was a striking example of the original sense of "catholic," which means "universal" in Greek.

After church, we came back to ARI for an American-style Easter egg hunt! The volunteers had hard boiled and decorated over 60 eggs from our ducks the day before - now the participants had to find the eggs hidden around the farm (in the pig pen, the chicken house, the green house...). None of the participants had ever heard of an Easter egg hunt before, so I enjoyed introducing them to one of my favorite Easter traditions.

Sumathi (Sri Lanka)

Reina (Japan)

Ellie (Japan) and Nami (Japan) with the post-hunt cookies (the delicious cause of my aforementioned sugar overdose...)

Happy Easter!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A day in pictures

On a typical day at ARI:

6:00 My alarm goes off...

6:22 ... I finally finish with my snooze button routine and roll out of bed.

6:30 I rush out to the courtyard for morning exercises, the rajio taiso routine broadcast over Japanese national public radio. Five minutes of waving our arms around to cheerful commands (ichi, ni, san, shi!) accompanied by graceful piano music.

6:35 Off to morning Food-Life Work. This month, I'm part of the meal service crew, so I head to the kitchen to make breakfast. Usually soup, vegetable stir-fry, and some variation on scrambled eggs à la américain.

Acivo (India) cooking up some veggies

10:00 After breakfast and morning gathering, the day's work begins. For farm volunteers, "work" means anything from sowing spinach or transplanting broccoli, packing silage for the livestock, plowing, sorting harvested soy beans, weeding, digging trenches, collecting leaves for compost, preserving sweet potato, applying compost to the fields... Last Monday, I spent the morning helping Jil weigh the pigs.

Two-week old piglets in the kotatsu (heated) box

One-month old piglets waiting to be weighed

Jil (the Philippines) weighing the piglets

12:30 Lunch! Rice and maybe curry, stir fried vegetables, soup, delicious sweet potato tempura, or homemade udon noodles...

Spring greens tempura

1:30 Farm work continues. On Monday, we sowed potatoes in several ARI fields in town. (The German farm volunteer, Felix, was extremely excited about this day - proving that some stereotypes are true).

One of our wheat fields in town

Preparing the field for May Queen potatoes

Koki (Japan) and Felix (Germany) sowing some spuds

The view from our field (if you can look through the power lines, the mountains are gorgeous!)

Taking an afternoon tea break with hot (or at least warm...) water courtesy of our solar-cooker

5:00 I finish with the daily farm work and go back to the kitchen for my evening Food-Life Work. On Monday, we had a community gambarimasho! (let's do our best!) party to celebrate the imminent arrival of the 2010 participants. We celebrated in typical Japanese fashion by making gyoza! I like to think of gyoza (dumplings that can be steamed, boiled, or fried) as the Japanese equivalent of pizza - there are countless varieties of fillings (from the more common pork with cabbage to the more unusual tofu with cheese or beef with Korean kimchi...), it's delicious but not so good for the health, and the Japanese tend to eat gyoza in large quantities with ample amounts of beer or sake. For our party, we made over 300 gyoza dumplings by hand... and they all disappeared within the first ten minutes of dinner.

Aya (Japan), Jon (America), and Benjamin (Germany) making gyoza

Satomi (Japan) and Moe (Japan) with the finished products

7:00 After dinner ends, we have free time until the buildings are locked at 9:30. I usually spend the evenings reading, talking with other volunteers around our wood stove, or doing yoga. We also have a weekly Japanese-English exchange group, where, with the help of many patient friends / teachers, I try to improve my "ARI Japanese."

And rinse and repeat! With such a busy schedule, the days seem to fly by - in some ways, it's hard to believe that I've now been in Japan for six months. I realized today, as I introduced some of the new participants to chopsticks and onigiri (rice balls), that Japanese life really feels normal. (So much so that I have to consciously restrain myself from using Japanese catchphrases when I speak to friends and family at home...) That being said, I do miss the U.S. and all my friends very much. I'm looking forward to sharing some of my new Japanese-ness with everyone in the fall!