We spent two weeks volunteering on two very different Japanese farms, one in the wintry valleys of Nagano and one about ninety minutes outside of Tokyo, in the Ibaraki prefecture. We did this through WWOOF, which isn’t well-known in the U.S. but is very popular in much of the rest of the world. Essentially, you work a specified number of hours per day (usually between six and seven, depending on tasks) in exchange for room and board. This is a great way for travelers to get to know a specific area and culture a little better; we obviously hoped to learn a bit more about different ways of farming, too.
Our two farms couldn’t have been more different, and as is the rule with travel in general, sometimes things don’t go exactly as you’d expect. Our first farm was primarily an orchard, with hundreds of apple, pear, plum and persimmon trees. Obviously, in the winter the work has very little to do with fruit. We harvested carrots from underneath the snow, spread rice hulls as mulch in the orchard, and chopped a lot of firewood. Accommodations there were a bit rustic, to be charitable. We slept in an unheated packing shed with a composting toilet (that’s Latin for “hole in the ground”) with no hot water. It was never above 30 degrees there, and we were cold. Really, really cold.
A haiku: “Sunrise in winter. Today I am cold again. Where is my warm coat?”
We harvested well over a thousand pounds of carrots from underneath the snow.
One team pruned the fruit trees, while we followed with a special sealant to paint the pruning cuts so the tree didn’t get infected.
Thankfully the farm’s chainsaw was very similar to N’s at home. The farmhouse was only heated by a woodburning stove, so they needed lots of firewood. Basically, we were in Little House on the Japanese Prairie.
We filled the crates with rice husks from the pile, then spread the husks in the orchard as mulch.
Our second farm brought us back to life. We stayed in an incredible traditional Japanese wooden farmhouse, built about thirty years ago from just three trees harvested from the owner’s property.
The entrance to our second farmhouse with traditional Japanese gardens out front.
A rice field on our second farm. We were sort of in the Nebraska of Japan, which is genuinely intended as a compliment.
Perfect greenhouse-grown eggplants (aubergines, for our British readers) and cherry tomatoes are the farm’s primary cash crop, although they also grow and process a hundred tons of different rice varieties. Our first task each morning was typically to harvest that day’s eggplants (nasu in Japanese), and if you think that’s easy, try harvesting only the eggplants that weigh above 80g. Without weighing them. There was a bit of a learning curve.
One of the eggplant greenhouses. The plants are pruned aggressively to keep them producing consistently for over eight months; the technique was completely different from anything I’d seen before.
Gorgeous Japanese eggplant, or nasu. They’re harvested from the greenhouse every single day to ensure they’re the perfect size.
Our task one morning was to spray the eggplant flowers with pollination liquid, because in winter it’s too cold for the bees to go to work. The liquid is clear, so it’s colored with blue food-grade dye so you can easily see the flowers that have already been sprayed.
One of the tomato greenhouses. All of the tomatoes were indeterminate cherry varieties so they produced for months and months.
Tomatoes were harvested every day too, and we had to be extremely careful to pick only those that were perfectly ripe.
N found this little one on an eggplant branch while weeding the greenhouse. He’s only about an inch and a half or so.
We’re very glad that we got to experience a side of Japan away from the touristy commotion of the big cities, and we learned a lot – especially about how important it is to keep your farm clean, tidy and safe and how to profitably grow and maintain eggplants and tomatoes in greenhouses. And also that we don’t really want to farm in eighteen inches of snow. That knowledge will definitely come with us to Quiet Farm.