The farmers in my neighborhood belong to families that, like my Japanese in-laws, have been here for generations. They are mostly elderly now, but the group includes a few younger men who discovered a knack for growing vegetables early on and have temperaments that compel them to do it. Their farming is something deep and richâan anchor to the land, and a means of reinforcing social bonds. When Masahiro shows up unannounced clutching a bag of persimmons in his calloused hands, saying almost apologetically, "Oh, we picked a lot this year, you'd be doing us a favor by taking some," we feel like we've received a sincere gesture of regard, the fruit of the actual labor of his family.
We also know that the farmers in the neighborhood are monitoring the health of our environment, and can share an excellent perspective on the weather and other conditions that stretches back decades. And "farm time," when we procrastinate by loitering around the fringes of the plot, is an occasion for discussions that can veer productively into deeper shared concerns, political ones perhaps, or interpersonal, or even philosophical, as well as for teaching the local kids a few things about food, water, the weather, or insects. It's an activity that binds generations in a way few others do.
This particular plot is only about 10 by 20 feet, but its significance and positive impact on all of us are far larger than its dimensions suggest. And it is only one of dozens within a several block radius, each with its own story. Japanese urban conditions are nearly unique, of course, and it might seem difficult to draw lessons from their experience that will resonate with Americans. Urban farming initiatives have taken root in most American cities, but the trend towards increasingly dense urban space in the U.S. seems likely to continue, and many cities may even witness population explosions that could sharply reduce the number of available vacant lots. Yet even now, in situations where little land is available for food production, the Japanese approach can stand as an excellent model.
One of the more remarkable aspects of the farm plot in my immediate neighborhood is how it takes advantage of the peculiarities of the site to make maximum use of available sunlight. It is actually a trapezoid, hemmed in by houses to the north and east, and by a high concrete railway embankment to the southwest. The only access is a narrow, winding footpath that leads eventually to the street. The railway ensures that sunlight is blocked only when trains pass, and though this is every 10 minutes or so, for all practical purposes the sun exposure is perfect. On the other hand, the trains generate large gusts of wind, so the farmers have planted hedges, shrubs, and mulberry bushes around the plot as windbreaks. They have even erected a waist-high paling fence, marvelously ad-hoc, made of old twigs and branches, odd lengths of bamboo, broken umbrella poles, and a few lengths of steel rebar, all tied together with baling wire. They have encouraged vines to engulf itâlegumes mostly, like peas and a Japanese variety related to the fava called
. In the best Japanese fashion, this fence serves two purposes at once, providing extra windbreak and maximizing growing area by going vertical.