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Published April 05, 2011, 10:47 AM

Japanese farmers affected by tsunami hopeful for swift soil recovery

SENDAI, Japan — The rice paddies on the outskirts of the tsunami-hit city of Sendai, Japan, are ankle-deep in a black, salty sludge. Crumpled cars and uprooted trees lie scattered across them.

By: Jay Alabaster, Associated Press

SENDAI, Japan — The rice paddies on the outskirts of the tsunami-hit city of Sendai, Japan, are ankle-deep in a black, salty sludge. Crumpled cars and uprooted trees lie scattered across them.

His house destroyed, rice farmer Shinichi Shibasaki lives on a square of blue tarp on the top floor of a farming cooperative office with others like him. He has one set of soiled clothes. But all he can think about is getting back to work.

“If we start washing the soil out now, we can start growing our rice seedlings at the end of April at a different location, and plant them here a month later,” the 59-year-old says.

That may prove overly optimistic, but agriculture experts — as well as Indonesian farmers hit by a tsunami in 2004 — say a quick recovery is possible, maybe within a year. A key factor will be how long it takes for the salt to wash out from the fields, some still flooded with seawater.

Whenever it comes, the return of bright green stalks swaying in the breeze will be a symbol of rebirth. The affected area may represent only a small part of Japan’s overall production, but rice is a spiritual touchstone in this country. The nation’s soul — despite a modern fascination with all things high-tech — remains rooted in the soil.

In the name of preserving tradition, Japan’s mostly small-scale rice farmers are heavily protected from cheaper foreign competition. The emperor plants and harvests symbolic stalks every year, and some city dwellers rent small plots to grow rice on the edge of town. The country’s mythology is filled with references to rice, and the written character for for “rice field” forms part of many surnames.

Farmland damage

In the small city of Natori, Akemi Miura only can laugh as she looks at the land around her home, which her family has worked for more than a century. But the 46-year-old says they will replant, though she thinks it will take a few years for the soil to recover.

A fishing boat washed more than a mile inland smashed into her carnation greenhouse and caught fire. Debris and a thick, sticky mud covers the fields.

“I think we’re finished with carnations, but we’ll always grow rice,” she says.

There are no official estimates yet of how much farmland was affected. The Associated Press made a rough calculation based on last year’s harvest in tsunami-hit towns. It indicates that at most 8 percent of Japan’s 4 million acres of rice farms has been hit, affecting about 4 percent of total production.

Makie Kokubun, a professor at Tohoku University in Sendai, soon will accompany government officials on a trip to take samples and analyze the soil. Japan’s coastal farmland has been damaged by salt from major typhoons in the past, and farmers have been able to flush it clean.

“Recovery may be faster than some think. The key is the water flow through the land, which varies by region,” he says. “There is also some evidence that light salt can actually help crops grow, though this is obviously in far greater amounts.”

The 2004 tsunami ravaged rice fields in Indonesia’s Aceh province, and scientists made dire predictions of years without a crop. But many recovered quickly.

“Thank God, we were able to harvest rice just one year after the tsunami decimated my rice fields,” says Sulaiman Abdullah, 55, who farms a third of an acre in the village of Beuradeuen.

“And the quality is even better than it was before, maybe because the mud, garbage and sea water brought in by the wave made the land more fertile,” he adds. “The same tsunami that first destroyed our lives, was in the end a blessing of sorts.”

Radiation concerns

Even if the soil recovers, farmers in Fukushima prefecture — known for the light and sticky “koshihikari” strain of rice preferred by many Japanese — face another problem.

Radiation from a damaged nuclear power complex has found its way into vegetables, raw milk and the water supply. Japanese consumers are notoriously fickle about food safety and may shun Fukushima products, even if health experts say the radiation is not a threat.

Up and down the tsunami-ravaged coast, a greater concern may be manpower.

Many of the tsunami victims came from coastal families that have farmed for generations. Here in Miyagi prefecture, the province that includes Sendai and Natori, farmland was converted from swamps about 400 years ago to generate funds for the local ruler.

But the younger generation increasingly doesn’t want to farm. The average age of farm workers in Miyagi topped 65 last year, according to a prefectural survey.

Now some older farmers, their homes gone and land in tatters, are saying they will call it quits.

“I’m worried that a lot of these elderly farmers are just going to leave their fields and not come back,” says Masao Takahashi, an official in the Miyagi office of the Japan Agricultural Cooperatives, a politically powerful national network of farming groups.

In Natori, 60-year-old rice farmer Kikuo Endo points to a shed full of ruined farm equipment, which he estimates was worth 10 million yen ($125,000). He doesn’t know if insurance will cover it.

“People shouldn’t give up, but I don’t think I will farm again,” he says. “It’s time to pass the baton to the next generation.”

There may not be one. His three sons, he says, have abandoned the fields and moved to the city.

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