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Crossing borders: Organic growers exchange ideas and locales

Staff writer

Harry Bennett of Marion joined nine others from Kansas who traveled to Japan for 13 days in May as participants in a program called Global Partners for Local Organic Foods. Bennett is the marketer for Kansas Organic Producers.

A team of 10 Japanese left for home July 8 after a reciprocal visit to Kansas.

Both groups were exploring ways to further interest in small-scale, organic farming and establish closer personal relationships between food producers and consumers.

The Kansas group is based in the Kansas River Valley and centered in Lawrence; the Japanese group is based in Saitama Prefecture, northwest of Tokyo.

The Kansans found the Japanese to be wonderful hosts.

“The people were gracious, bowing, and welcoming,” Bennett said.

Less than 1 percent of food production in Japan is organic, compared to 3 percent in the U.S., Bennett said.

After 50 years of emphasis on manufacturing, interest in farming is growing among young adults in Japan, Bennett said.

With just 15 percent of arable land suitable for cultivation, the Japanese need to use every acre, or hectare. They are concerned about food security. Much of their food is imported.

The Americans viewed Japanese methods of organic food production and sought to learn how to train others.

“The Japanese are masters at intensive vegetable production,” Bennett said.

He stayed with a middle-class couple who make their living by growing produce on five acres. He said they used trellises to increase limited space and used row covers to protect produce from destructive insects. They also did successive plantings to increase production.

Animal manure, compost, and legumes are used to fertilize the soil, along with a liquid byproduct from the generation of methane at a community biogas plant.

“We were observing unique ways of doing the same things,” Bennett said.

Visiting Kansas

The Japanese team arrived June 22 in Kansas City and traveled to Lawrence.

Among other things, they visited a conventional food store, gave a cooking demonstration at Lawrence Farmer’s Market, and ate at a hamburger restaurant.

They toured various co-operative garden farms in the Kansas City area. They also visited the Horticulture Department at Kansas State University and learned about the farmer-training program at Johnson County Community College.

Bennett joined them Sunday at Pioneer Bluffs, a nonprofit 14-acre farm north of Matfield Green. Herb Bartel of Hillsboro, a member of Kansas Rural Center, also attended.

The farmstead was headquarters of the Rogler Ranch, a 4,000-acre ranch that existed for three generations, from 1859 to 2006.

The guests viewed a large garden, ducks, pigs, and chickens, all raised organically.

Although some of the Japanese could speak English, others required an interpreter.

At a nearby site, the group toured a house occupied by Bill McBride, president of Pioneer Bluffs Foundation. It featured rainwater collection, a passive solar heating system, and a wind turbine that provides 90 percent of its electrical needs.

They also took a walk in a nearby Flint Hills pasture to view wildflowers. They feasted on homegrown potatoes and chicken before returning to Lawrence.

The exchange program was a project of Kansas Rural Center and International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements.

Organizers hope many joint ventures and projects will result from the exchange, to provide more information for those interested in organic food production.

“We don’t know what direction this is going, but small, rural agriculture is in its infancy,” Bennett said. “We hope we have built a conduit for information. It gives us hope for dealing with problems of larger concentrations in smaller areas.”

Last modified July 9, 2009

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