Photo Credit, because we haven't harvested ours yet!!!
Would you like to volunteer and gain experience harvesting sweet potatoes on Ajishima? If so, please connect with us and we will fill you in on the details. Dates needed are Sat. & Sun. 10.22-23, and Sat. & Sun. 10.29-30. If you would prefer to come during the week, please let us know in the contact form. Thank you.
ABEは、Agriculture Based Economy の略でもあり、農で、島の経済活性化を目指しています。生活の基本の食を支えたい、安心・安全の食で心も身体も健康に。
Apparently, it will only get you this far...in a sweet potato field on Ajishima! Our little roto tiller did the best it could and I was right behind it the whole way. This was actually a regular potato field under the previous users, and they took awful care of it. The ground was so hard and compacted it took four passes over the same swath just to get it to a workable condition. So, I could have gone four times as far on that tank of gas, if not for having to double back and then double back and then double back again!
By the end of the day, however, I was able to make some beautiful looking sweet potato beds, if I do say so myself. The tiller makes mounds of dirt, but I have to go through and work that into nice even shapes with a hoe and then a rake. It is a lot of work, but worth it because Ajishima sweet potatoes are seriously the best in the world!
We are collaborating with a recent acquaintance we met in Ishinomaki. Mr. M has a no-chemical-added fertilizer business; he actually adds all kinds of beneficial microbes to his fertilizer and lets it compost and ferment for a long time, so it is ripe and ready for the plants to access all the vital nutrients they need. I added just over 30kg of fertilizer to this field per his recommendation, and that should ensure a good harvest this year. However, I am thinking 10-20 years down the road and would like to build up the soil health naturally, without investing an inordinate amount of time and money. The good thing is that sweet potatoes can be grown year after year in the same field, without employing crop rotation. The working plan we came up with is to use cover crops during the 8 months per year that there are no potatoes growing in the field. Rye, oats, clover, hairy vetch (not a curse word!) and a few other types of plants can be sown and let to grow most of the year, then cut down, chopped up and mixed in a little bit. This will add some much needed organic matter to the heavy clay soils and break it up some.
After taking a night of rest for both man and machine, we headed off to the other side of the island to prepare another sweet potato field. A fresh tank of gas and two wheels wouldn't take me nearly half way to the other side, so I built a ramp to load the tiller into our truck.
All of the materials I collected from the garbage dump two years ago. I have used them for various purposes thus far (including a drum stage at the summer festival we held two years ago!) but this is by far the most resourceful application of trash and upcycling I have come up with yet! It is collapsible and take-apart-able, although kind of heavy. Members of my family have a tendency to overdue things a little (read: a lot!) and this ramp is definitely overbuilt, but if it can hold the tiller and ME, then it should last a long time to come.
If we had the money we could have ordered a sleek set of ramps on the internet, and if we lived on the mainland we could have taken our time and shopped around and found a good deal on some quality used ramps somewhere, but living on the island and choosing not to take the ferry to the mainland every time we have the urge/need to buy something offers us more an opportunity than a limitation as I see it. If we had everything necessary available in an instant then our choices would be limited, in my opinion, to these things, as they are easiest to get. Not having direct access to the things we need and want means we have to get creative and utilize the available resources around us, natural, man-made and man-made junk all alike, to fashion the items we need. In this way, our options seem endless, to me anyway.
All that time saved driving the tiller to the other side of the island, instead of walking it there alone, meant that I could be joined by the garden muse herself, Michie. We only have a few chances per week to work in the fields together, so even if we squabble over how to orientate the beds, how high to build them or how many breaks a certain someone takes, I cherish every opportunity we get to spend time together.
Working alone is boring and, well...lonely, and that is one of the main reasons I didn't start seriously farming in the five years since we moved to the island. Our situation thankfully changed and now I am happy to work all week long by myself, just for the chance to work with Michie on the weekends. As our farm grows so too will our chances to work together even more. That is the essence of the dream we had together. I have come to realize, that at least for us, dreams come true are not simply granted, dreams are made true by a lot of hard work, sacrifice and compromise. For this, and so much more, I am thankful.
First things first, after getting Michie off to work I packed up a bento box for lunch and headed out to the fields (we have 12 fields we are currently developing, scattered all over the island). I watered the various and sundry veggie seeds we are trying to raise at our largest field. It was then that I noticed the spinach sprouting up. I direct seeded it on May 12. (Sorry, my Japanese handwriting on the row marker is almost as atrocious as my English handwriting. I think we are all glad I could type this post instead of writing it out!!! : ) We had a day of soaking rain earlier this week followed by relative warmth and now our first greens are popping up! I seeded another section today too ahead of tonight's rain. We are doing staggered plantings so we can harvest everyday up until the hottest days of summer (spinach doesn't do so good in the heat), instead of all at once.
Also, in order to beat the rain (and the muddy unworkable mess it makes for the roto-tiller) I spent the better part of the day tilling and building beds at our tenbatayama field (that's the name of the area on the map, and it sounds better than "field 1" or "field A" don't ya think!?). We will be planting sweet potatoes here at the end of the month.
I've said it before and I will say it again: straight bed rows are incredibly boring, but highly efficient. I prefer natural curves and flowing layouts, and our personal garden incorporates all kinds of permaculture and natural farming techniques and design principles, but for the business side of things for Ajishima Kingdom, we have to be production minded as well. Straight beds are easy to weed with a hoe, and uniform beds make for simple calculations like amount of seed needed and projections of yield per bed/area. The leeks and onions in the picture we planted by a volunteer last year, and once we harvest them, I will expand our sweet potato beds into that area as well.
Our next door neighbor recently offered us use of his field that is covered with an anti-crow net. Crows are clever, determined and destructive. Many islanders cover their most vulnerable crops with nets like this. It would take a lot of time and resources, both of which we are currently lacking, for us to set up our own netted-in field, so we jumped at this opportunity. I weed whacked, tilled and built 15 short beds in the sunniest corner of the field this afternoon for a very special crop...
...I planted these cantaloupe seeds on April 19, one month ago. (I made the little paper pots out of toilet paper roll cores, and will post about that process on a rainy day in the future!) Anyway, we received these seeds, along with many other veggie, fruit and herb seeds from my Aunt Kendra last year, in memory of my mother's passing. At the time, we had no idea we would be farming this much land. We have put the seeds to good use, filling in the gaps of our main crop plan for this year with a variety of plants that are quite unique on the island. We are so grateful for the seeds, the land, the sprouts, the sudden netted-in field to protect the flourishing melon sprouts in need of protection, and most importantly for the people in our lives that support and encourage us, even from half way around the world. Thank you.
Last Monday we harvested hundreds of "nira" starts at an acquaintance's farm off-island. Nira is like a cross between garlic and chives, but with leaves shaped like blades of grass. It is super delicious and used in many dishes here in Japan. We had so many starts we needed to build some more beds on the fly after filling the entire first field we prepared earlier!!!
Nira is perennial, spreads from the roots and by seeds, can be divided and transplanted every couple years, out-competes most weeds, and grows better after it is cut/harvested. If you leave the roots in place and cut just above the soil it will produce all year long, well into the colder months, and it over-winters well without much care. So, the question is: why didn't we start this deliciously lucrative endeavor earlier!?!?
Thankfully, we had extra help the next day when we returned to the island to transplant the starts into our fields. Thank you Tsuchi and Manabu. Without you guys we might still be laboring away in the nira fields!!!