Sunday, September 20, 2009

On gohan

It's been all systems go around the homestead for the past few days as a break in the wet, dreary weather has sparked a flurry of rice harvesting. Which has been a boon for me, as I've been able to see and experience first hand the joys of harvesting this important Japanese staple dish. Harvest time is quite an important part of the calendar in this part of the world, and not many conversations are complete without some mention or discussion on this year's crop and yield. I seized the opportunity to quiz Otosan and Okasan (Satomi's Dad and Mum) about the intricacies of life on the land, Japan style.

For those who aren't familiar rice fields, in Japan at least, are typically rectangular fields about 150m long and 40-50m wide and are sunken down from the surrounding land so as to provide a basin-type effect to assist with water retention. In this part of the world, the fields are omnipresent - kilometre after kilometre of this rare flat expanse of land is covered with these fields. There are even some very small fields for cultivating rice in some of the larger urban areas around here. The road system follows the rice fields, resulting a patch-work of almost dead straight roads criss-crossing this area. Between the roadways and the fields lies the complicated water system - an array of gutters and drains which constantly flow with water, fed from the nearby dams and transported using gravity. Various locks can be switched to direct the flow in different ways, with plugs being opened to flood the fields ready for planting. The level of public infrastructure is impressive in its complexity, but in comparison is probably as logistically difficult to organise as is providing power, town water and sewerage systems to the farther flung Australian farms. And it's not provided cheaply, the burden borne by the farmers themselves through various taxes and levies.

The term rice farming is probably a bit of a misnomer, as rice is just one element of the mixed bag of crops these farms tend to produce. Selling all their produce through the single desk trading association (known as JA), farmers are often given quotas to fill, and nothing above that quota will be accepted. Since there are no real free markets to sell excess rice, the farmer has little choice but to abide, and hence has to diversify to ensure income. Coupled with the fact that the fields are heavily worked (it's coming to almost 8 generations of continual cultivation just on this farm), it's pretty common to see crops such as taro and daikon radish interspersed with rice crops. Out of the Nagai's 8 fields, only 5 grew rice, with one growing taro and 2 growing sunflowers. The sunflowers, interestingly, are not for cultivation, but a grown to ensure the field is now overrun by weeds if left to its own devices for a season. Luckily, JA compensates the farmer is they are left with non-income bearing fields as a result of the quota system. That said, farming in this part of the world is barely above the levels of subsistence, with Okasan (and, on occasion, Otosan) required to take out part time jobs to keep up with the cost of living. Which is sad, but unfortunately not unique to Japanese farming communities, as far as I know.

So, on to the harvest itself. Since arriving, the weather's been a little bit shit - rainy, overcast and a bit yuck. And not all that conducive to harvesting, as the dryness of the grain is quite important (to stop spoilage, I would suggest). A break in the weather the other day, however, saw us don the gum boots and gloves and take to the field with a couple of small sickles. Luckily the manual harvesting is just for the corners of the fields, which the motorised harvesters find hard to reach. Thank Christ for that! This is quite deceptively hard work, requiring some decent techniques to ensure you don't lop off a finger or toe, as well as some hard-core lower back workout with the constant up and down motion of cutting the bunch, then bundling them for drying.

It takes about 4-5 hours for the motorised harvester to clear a field of its goodness. It's a fairly straight forward contraption, with the machine lopping the plants off at the base, shaking the grains loose from the tops, and threshing the stalks before scattering them back over the field as a natural mulch. Four rows are tackled in a run, with the majority of the time taken up by emptying the harvesting machine's fill of rice into the truck, then emptying the truck's payload into the sorting machine back in the shed at the homestead. It's a 2-person job, with 2 fields able to be tackled in a fairly long and tiresome day. The removal of the rice from the field is just one step, however, with the grains going into a huge cleaning and sorting machine which shakes the shit out of them to remove the outer husks, as well as sorting them into grading. A small batch is removed from the beginning of the harvest, is whitened at a vending machine at the local shopping centre, and then cooked up for the family as celebration of the new harvest. Apparently it's a lot nicer than 'old' rice, and while there are noticeable differences from the stale versions we buy at the supermarkets, it's not remarkably different to this uncultured pallet. (I go along with it, though, as the buggers are just so damned proud of what they do!). And with the harvest seemingly coming to an end, the Nagai household erupted with celebration last night - which in this part of Nippon means a sashimi and oden dinner, which was delicious. With just the taro just to harvest, the farms rests for a little before the winter crops get sowed and it all starts again.


Dr Yobbo said...

Fascinating mate, always wondered about how old-school farming practices integrate into a super-techo (or seemingly so) culture like the Japanese.

Jamin (AKA Blue Box) said...

Yeah, it seems less tech here than you'd expect when you get here. The farms a pretty labour intensive and it seems like it's more structured to cater to its own sense of cultural importance, rather than principles of efficiency and viability.

The Lib Dems were for a long time propped up by the rural agricultural society, so worked hard to build in lots of tariffs and surround its rice farms at least with amazing levels of protectionism. This has led rice farming sometimes seeming like a working museum piece rather than market-driven primary production sites. It'll be interesting to see what happens with the US-Japan FTA under the new government, and if any changes therein pushes farmers to update their methods to be more competitive on a global scale.

Big Bad Al said...

Good read Blue Box.

Sometimes we forget that somethings are still done the old fashioned way.

Tradition counts for a lot in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Jamin (AKA Blue Box) said...

They certainly do, Humpy. Just hope they don't miss the relevance boat in the process.

'Angelprovocateur' said...

Fascinating! Despite all the technology, the romance of rice farming and its 'heroic' status as the provider of the staple food of Japan still holds sway! Good read.

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