20110410 Japan nuclear crisis threatens farmers‘ incomes, way of life (DPA)

Iitate, Japan (dpa) – Hideo Takahashi started growing broccoli about 30 years ago on the family farm in north-eastern Japan that his ancestors tilled for at least 200 years.

   Takahashi then hoped the produce would become a major crop in Iitate. The village, located in a highland area in Fukushima prefecture, was well known for cold-weather, but not for produce.

   “We were very poor. I did not even want to say I came from Iitate. Our produce was often badly damaged by cold weather,” Takahashi said.

   But the local government‘s help and farmers‘ efforts enabled more of them to make ends meet, locals said.

   “I was the first in the village to grow broccoli,” the soft-spoken farmer said. “I repeatedly asked my parents to stop producing tobacco and start growing broccoli.”

   More villagers followed suit and Iitate became well-known for quality broccoli.

   That accomplishment and its idyllic setting made him proud of his village.

   Takahashi, who wakes up at 3 am every day, grows rice, Turkish bellflower, broccoli and some leafy vegetables instead of relying on one or two crops.

   But there will be no broccoli on his land this year. Local farmers recently decided not to grow it this season because of high levels of radioactive caesium detected in the village‘s soil.

   The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station was crippled by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which led to explosions and radiation leaks. The twin disasters killed about 13,000 people, with nearly 15,000 people listed as missing one month later.

   Prime Minister Naoto Kan told Fukushima prefecture in late March to stop selling and consuming vegetables and raw milk after officials found high levels of radiation in the produce. 

   Fukushima, a major grain-growing region, is ranked fourth in the nation‘s rice production and its 81,000 farmers produce 245 billion yen (2.9 billion dollars) worth of leafy vegetables, tomatoes, broccoli and other produce a year.

   While those who live between 20 and 30 kilometres from the plant have been advised to stay indoors or “leave voluntarily,” Iitate village is just outside the zone.

   But as the nuclear crisis drags on, the government is now asking  villagers to evacuate soon due to accumulating radiation. 

   “I never thought about leaving this land,” Takahashi said. “I came to believe we could make this place utopia. I don‘t know what will happen to us tomorrow or one year or two years from now. This is really painful.”

   Some 40 kilometres away from the stricken plant, Saichi Sato contemplates the future of a family that has been tied to the land for 400 years.

   “Our family has never experienced this kind of crisis before,” said Sato, a 17th-generation farmer.

   Sato, a local leader of organic farming, grows rice, spinach, tomatoes and other vegetables on his 14 acres of fields and greenhouses.

   “I‘m trying to calm down and continue growing,” Sato said. 

   Several farmers said they don‘t trust the government‘s pledges to compensate them for their losses.

   “They can‘t afford to pay to so many farmers and dairy farmers,” Yukio Kanno, a livestock farmer in Nihonmatsu, said.

   Even though sales of beef are not restricted, Kanno is concerned about the negative image among consumers about food from Fukushima, including meat.

   “We are so worried,” he said.

   The nuclear crisis threatens not only Fukushima‘s agriculture but also local communities themselves, Seiju Sugeno, a family farmer in Nihonmatsu, said.

   “Unlike Tokyo, where many people don‘t know who lives next door, a farming community has strong ties through agriculture. So when we stop farming, the community could collapse,” Sugeno said.