May 22, 2012


Making the Impossible Possible -- "Miracle Apples" and Natural Cultivation

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.116 (April 2012)

In Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture, in northern Japan "Miracle Apples" are being grown. Miracle Apples are raised through a "natural cultivation" method that employs neither pesticides nor fertilizers, not even organic matter such as compost or manure. These apples do not turn brown from oxidation after being cut. When left untouched for some time, they start fermenting without decay.

Japan is one of the largest pesticide users in the world. It is said that apples in particular cannot be produced without pesticides. In this article, we introduce Akinori Kimura who has succeeded in growing pesticide-free apples with his "natural cultivation" method.

Differences between Natural Cultivation and Organic/Natural Farming

Kimura's natural cultivation method aims to reproduce the natural environment of woodlands and forests on farmland, without using pesticides, chemical fertilizers or organic matter such as compost and manure. His theory is that this brings out the natural strength of crops and helps them grow vigorously. Since natural cultivation does not use even organic fertilizers, it is different from organic farming. On this point, natural cultivation is similar to the natural farming method established by Masanobu Fukuoka.

Japanese Farmer-Philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka: Natural Farming Greening the Deserts

Natural farming avoids tilling based on a concept of as little human intervention as possible. With Kimura's natural cultivation farmers put their greatest effort into thorough observations of nature and preparation of an environment suitable for the growth of the crop. That is one difference between natural farming and natural cultivation. The concept of natural cultivation holds that, because the natural environment of woodlands and forests was created over an extended period of time, human intervention is necessary to appropriately reproduce a natural environment on man-made farmland.

Kimura sprays apple trees with vinegar to prevent diseases. To protect the apple trees from summer heat and dry soil, he does not clear away undergrowth. He mows the weeds in fall to help the apple trees recognize the changing season. This enhances the color and taste of the apples.

While growing pesticide-free apples, Kimura also researched possibilities for natural cultivation of rice and vegetables. To improve poor soil, he plants legumes such as soybeans, which fix nitrogen compounds in the soil, enriching it. Unlike no-tillage natural farming, he tills the soil, but he does it roughly and less frequently than conventional farmers. Rough tilling brings more air into soil, allowing aerobic microorganisms to work actively.

These techniques we've described are just a few examples of natural cultivation methods. Kimura is now engaged in the creation of a comprehensive manual that can be used nationwide, with the help of people working on natural cultivation in various parts of Japan. Natural cultivation is based on establishing site-specific methods that accord with the local climate, soil characteristics, and crops. This site-specificity makes it difficult to create a manual. Establishing natural cultivation methods suitable for an individual farm requires observation, experience, knowledge and time.

It is usually said that farmers experience a large decrease in yield for about three years after shifting to natural cultivation from conventional farming, as practiced by mainstream farmers throughout Japan given an averaged frequency and volume of fertilizer application and pesticide spraying. As the farmland and crops become better adapted over time, however, yields increase up to about 70 to 80 percent of conventional farming yields. Some farmers even achieve higher yields than in conventional farming.

Continued natural cultivation improves plants' resistance to diseases and pests. Many people feel safer eating vegetables exhibiting insect damage as a sign that pesticides have not been used. However, soil under natural cultivation is similar to natural soil which has no excess nutrients, an so very little insect damage is seen in vegetables produced by natural cultivation, which are also usually beautiful and symmetrical in shape. We can think of plants raised through natural cultivation as artifacts produced through the skill of farmers as artisans who have created cultivation methods well-suited to the plants and their local land.

Pesticide Damage and Miracle Apples

How did Kimura start to work on natural cultivation?

He started to cultivate apples in the 1970s, and at this time he used pesticides and chemical fertilizers in large quantities. In those days, pesticides were sprayed by hand. When pesticides happened to splash on his hands or face, it caused skin irritation so severe that the skin stripped off. Holding back tears, he used to run to the bathroom to wash the pesticides away as soon as he finished work. Suffering pesticide damage himself, he decided he did not want to use pesticides any more.

At first, he worked to reduce the amounts of pesticide he used, which led to reductions in crop yields but achieved a profit due to reduced pesticide costs. This result encouraged him to try farming entirely without pesticides and chemical fertilizers. He then came to understand that reduced chemical farming and chemical free farming are completely different.

Immediately after switching to chemical-free farming, the trees dropped their leaves and looked dead even in the summer, producing no flowers in spring. No flowers means no fruit. While facing the difficulties of no crops and no income, he continued seeking a natural cultivation method. It took more than ten years before his apple trees finally produced fruit.

Apple trees are not native to Japan and are easily infected with fungus and other diseases in its warm, humid climate. In order to raise apples in Japan, varieties have been rapidly and repeatedly improved, resulting in extremely vulnerable trees. It is commonly believed that apples cannot be produced here without using pesticides. The apple produced through natural cultivation is thus very much a "miracle apple" that greatly transcends common assumptions about apple-growing in Japan.

Harmful Nitrates

Kimura conducted an interesting experiment to illustrate the safety of natural cultivation. He put rice grown by natural cultivation, rice grown by conventional farming and Japanese Agricultural Standard (JAS) certified organic rice into three bottles, poured water into the bottles and left them in a warm place for two weeks or so. The results were: natural cultivation rice fermented into vinegar, conventional farming rice became putrid, emitting a foul odor, and astonishingly enough JAS certified organic rice became putrid even sooner than conventional-farming rice

Why did the organic rice, which is believed to be safe, go rotten so fast? Kimura speculates that immature compost may have been the cause. Using immature compost is believed to result in the accumulation of nitrate nitrogen (nitrates) in plants.

Kimura recommends that compost containing cow manure be fully matured by being fermented for three to five years for organic farming. The manure can be considered fully mature if radish seeds sprout and grow when planted on it. He has reported that rice and vegetables cultivated with fully matured compost showed the same results in decomposition experiments as those grown by the natural cultivation method.

Plants absorb nitrogen, which is essential for plant growth. That is why all fertilizers, both chemical and organic, contain a large amount of nitrogen. Nitrogen breaks down into nitrate nitrogen (nitrates) in soil, and then is absorbed by plants. Though useful to plants, nitrates can be harmful to human beings: infants have died from methemoglobinemia, a blood disease that can be caused by ingesting nitrates in drinking water, due to excessive intake of nitrates. Thus, people have become concerned about the contamination of soil, water and agricultural products by nitrates in fertilizers.

The EU has safety standards for nitrates contained in vegetables of up to about 2500ppm, although this varies depending on the season or kind of vegetable. In contrast, Japan has standards for tap water, but no regulations for vegetables. Some vegetables contain over 2500ppm of nitrates. Most vegetables grown with Kimura's natural cultivation method contain less than 500ppm of nitrates. Some contain only single digit levels.

The Spirit of Natural Cultivation -- Gratitude to Nature

In his lectures or books, Kimura often talks about vegetables as if they were human, saying, "Think how we can make vegetables happy," or "The vegetables may be delighted if we do this or that."

When he stopped applying pesticides, his apple trees were weakened and even seemed dead. He walked from one tree to another asking them not to die. He felt he could not speak to the trees on the roadside for fear of attracting his neighbors' attention. Oddly enough, the trees to which he did not speak died in the end.

Kimura says that everything has a spirit. He asks us to express our appreciation to crops, which provide us with the fruits of the land. Natural cultivation is pesticide- and fertilizer-free farming, but it also involves experience, knowledge of farming and, more than anything, a spirit of gratitude towards nature.

Nature keeps a perfect balance through the diversity of many creatures, and human beings are a part of nature, which also keeps us alive. I suspect that we have ended up generating diseases like cancer and allergies because we have used pesticides to eliminate insects bothersome to us, considering them pests, and polluted the earth by using fertilizers to obtain higher crop yields. Natural cultivation, which recovers the natural balance in the process of producing food, teaches us the spirit of gratitude to nature.

Natural cultivation is not easy because it takes a long time to establish the methods suitable for a certain area of farmland or crop. Yields from natural cultivation are only 70 to 80 percent of yields from conventional farming. Continuing with natural cultivation, however, makes it possible to harvest fine, safe vegetables little damaged from diseases or insect pests, even without the use of fertilizers or pesticides, which of course, need not be purchased.

A network of farmers and marketers of natural cultivation products is spreading, albeit little by little. The practice of natural cultivation has started overseas as well, for example in Korea and Taiwan. Kimura hopes that natural cultivation, which keeps people who eat or produce crops, soil, water, air and living creatures fine and healthy, will continue spreading throughout the world.

Written by Yuriko Yoneda