Under an azure-blue sky filled with cottony clouds, two women, Akiko Ishiguro and Michiyo Igarashi, work in a field harvesting fat, deep-orange carrots, large, cream-colored daikon and magenta-hued edible chrysanthemum blossoms. They’re members of Konohana Family, an intentional community and organic farm in Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan, where the values of a ’60s-era back-to-the-land commune, hard work and a deep respect for microbial activity and fermentation in all its forms combine to produce a vast array of top-quality produce and handmade products.
The vegetables the two women farmers are harvesting — among more than 260 different crops grown on the farm — have been treated with the farm’s own brand of organic fertilizer, the key ingredient of which is a fermented microbial brew they call Konohana-kin, or “Konohana bacterium.”
Beneficial bacteria are everywhere at Konohana, not just in its fields but in its chicken feed, its beehives and its composting toilets. In the family’s spacious dining hall, they can be found in microbially fortified water and juice, in the large array of pickled vegetables, in the “enzymatic” brown rice and in the farm-fermented soy sauce and miso that are staples of every meal. Konohana Family, it could be said, runs on fermentation.
When I discovered that the 78-member farm and community, founded in 1994 and located 90 miles southwest of Tokyo in the shadow of Mt. Fuji, accepts visitors from all over the world, I signed up online for a visit (¥5,400 a night, including lunch and dinner, or about $48). You can board a commuter bus at Tokyo Station, the scene of rushing commuters and the incessant blaring of platform announcements, and in under three hours find yourself in the sleepy village of Taiseki, a part of Fujinomiya City.
I’m met at the station by a slender, quiet man named Nakanon Yoshifumi, who I later discovered works for Konohana’s accounting and eldercare sections. Lunch is underway, so I pay my room and lodging fee, set my bags down in a serene, tatami-matted guest room and make my way to the dining hall.
A server hands me a beautifully composed plate that includes three of the 10 types of rice grown on the farm. One of the house specialties, koso genmai, is the aforementioned enzymatic brown rice. The rice, along with salt and adzuki beans, is cooked in a pressure cooker. On this day, it’s been mixed and cooked with indigenous red and black rice. The mixture is fermented for three days at a temperature of 60°C (86°F) to cultivate health-giving enzymes. “It’s easier to digest that way,” explains Michiyo Furuhashi, whose multiple titles include director of Konohana’s not-for-profit arm Green Grass and director of Konohana Family’s agricultural union.
The food is delicious and abundant — a good thing, since family members work seven days a week, and most of them (except for children and those who request breakfast), eat only twice a day, at lunch and dinner. A longer fast, says Furuhashi, is better for the digestive system. The digestive process is a particular concern of Japanese in general, and Konohana Family is no exception.
There is cabbage slaw with ginger dressing; purple, yellow and orange carrots stir-fried and seasoned with soy sauce and sweetened rice vinegar; steamed cauliflower with what seems to be a rich egg-based dressing but turns out to be made of tofu (Konohana Family has recently made the decision to turn vegan); baby bok choy; daikon leaf and sesame oil; Korean mu buckwheat with a tare sauce; seasoned konnyaku, or devil’s tongue, and a deeply rich and satisfying miso soup.
On the table are jars of a white powder, ground shimon (Caiapo), a kind of South American potato and folk remedy. Everything there, with the exception of condiments such as oils, vinegars and spices, has been grown on the farm, explains Furuhashi. Konohana water, alive with beneficial microorganisms, can be spiked with dried chili pepper to enhance appetite.
Located in a unique, temperate microclimate about 300 meters above sea level, Konohana’s land features stands of cedar, cypress, palm, loquat, kiwi, plum, peach, persimmon, chestnut and even Japanese almond trees.
“Even though snow falls on the Asagiri plateau, just 15 minutes by car from here, we mostly get gentle rain,” said Furuhashi.
Our first stop is the chicken coop, housing 200 Boris Brown chickens, selected for their disease resistance and strong egg-laying capabilities. When the collective voted to become vegan two years ago it reduced its chicken population from 900 to 200 laying hens, and only two of the farm’s eight chicken pens are now occupied.
The brood’s feed is made of rice, pounded rice bran, and okara (tofu lees), rolled oats, corn, oyster shell and crab shell meal, all mixed with Konohana-kin, the fermented elixir made using Effective Microorganisms (EM) developed by Dr. Teruo Higa.
Making Konohana-kin is a 10-day process and sacred ritual involving a combination of molasses and antioxidant plant matter foraged from the farm grounds (including bamboo, loquat leaves and pine needles). After three days, this mixture is diluted with water and more organic matter (stevia, organic mandarin orange peels and more antioxidant-rich locally foraged leaves) is added, along with two types of Effective Microorganisms, brown rice amino acid and bean curd lees, all maintained at a steady 60°C. The result, explains Furuhashi, is “a very concentrated” amount of the farm’s all-powerful Konohana-kin.
Small amounts of the brew are added to the farm’s chicken feed and water, and for humans, made into a juice of about a 6:1 ratio of water to Konohana-kin, which is sweetened slightly with sugar or honey. For fertilizer, 0.1 percent of the solution is added to an organic fertilizer of brown rice amino acid, rice bran and rapeseed oil lees and fermented, then spread on the fields to increase their microbial activity and enhance the life energy of the plants that are grown. Farmers also sprinkle a highly diluted Konohana-kin water (1:500-2,000) directly onto crop leaves and soil.
Konohana farmers have adopted a method of sterilizing rice seeds and killing harmful bacteria before planting by soaking them in 60°C water for 10 minutes. Tools used include simple hand weeding hoes called the Q Ho and V Ho, and for taller weeds and mowing, a Kioritz self-propelled machine. Most harvesting is done by hand.
Many of the farming techniques are similar to those of a western organic farm: Cover crops including astragalus, hairy vetch, sugar sorghum and beans are grown in summer. In winter, farmers sprinkle wild oats, rye, sorghum and crotalaria over the soil as green manure. The plants are tilled under to a depth of about 15 cm (6 inches) and then tilled again two weeks later. Konohana farmers consider grains in the Gramineae family (rice, wheat, oats and rye) to be “cleaning crops,” for their ability to rid the soil of diseases and pests, balance soil nutrition and serve as a rich source of carbon; they favor a Gramineae-beans-potato-vegetables rotation.
To see the careful organic and natural farming methods employed, and the scope and size of the enterprise today, it’s hard to believe that the community began 22 years ago with just 20 members, none of whom had any previous farming experience. Lackluster crops gradually gave way to better results, says Furuhashi, helped by the addition of members with organic farming skills and a collaboration with a natural farming international research and development center in Nagano Prefecture.
Today, since the community consumes only 10 percent of what it grows on its 18 hectares (45 acres), the rest is sold at three local farmers’ markets and products are available for purchase online including rice and added-value products the family produces (16 kinds of cookies and crackers, nine types of teas and brown-rice coffee, rice-flour pastas, supplemental powders, ginger products, honey and mochi, or glutinous rice cakes). Konohana sells nine types of flours, from wheat to soy and rye and is the largest-scale producer of organic wheat in the region. It also delivers direct to about 50 local and regional customers.
The farm prices its produce so that it is either the same or similar in price to conventional produce, adds Furuhashi, “to show people how much better organic tastes.” Not surprisingly, it has won the loyalty of the surrounding community. “Organic foods are slowly growing in popularity,” said Furuhashi. “Young mothers are particularly interested, especially if the price is reasonable.”
Perhaps that’s part of the reason why more than 95 percent of the land Konohana farms, says Furuhashi, is owned by locals, most of it lent rent-free. They view the land “as a gift from their ancestors,” she explains, “and ask us to manage their land,” hoping to see it retained as farmland even though their children are not interested in farming.
These attitudes and practices, and the fact that Konohana members’ goals are spiritual and educational more than worldly, translate into modest sales figures. Annual sales of vegetables, fruits, grains, eggs, honey, value-added food products plus Konohana’s catering business, restaurant and guest lodging income total about $550,000 says Furuhashi.
As we continue our tour, Furuhashi points out a few of the farm’s 11 greenhouses (heated without fossil fuels, solely by the energy of the soil’s microorganisms), which are used to start seedlings and grow winter greens. Two sheds with beehive “condominiums” housing 40 hives are devoted to honey production. Here too, instead of chemical miticides and antibiotics, beekeepers rely on a Konohana-kin solution and brown rice amino acids to enhance the bees’ immune systems and ward off pests through microbial biodiversity. Unlike other Japanese beekeepers, Konohana, says Furuhashi, has experienced no colony loss in recent years. Week-long trips to local organic orange groves, plus pollen and nectar from some of the 60 kinds of flowers the farm grows provide the honeybees with nectar and pollen.
Next, we visit another shed, where miso, fermented in large wooden casks, is aged for two years. Konohana’s soy sauce, adds Furuhashi, is aged for more than three years. These lengthy fermentation periods turn both products a deep, dark brown and make them richer in amino acids, she adds, and therefore more nutritious. No part of this process is wasted, either; the lees are used for chicken feed or for the fields.
Next on our tour is one of the farm’s outdoor composting toilets. The toilet’s black, fluffy compost is made of forest leaves and anaerobic leaf mold mixed with sawdust, charcoal, rice bran and purchased zeolyte, all broken down naturally with Konohana-kin. It is odor-free, since EM have the beneficial effect of eliminating odors, and shoveling free, since the powerful fermented compost breaks down human waste into carbon dioxide and water.
At the Konohana shiitake forest, where the air feels rich and moist, oak logs are seeded with mushroom plugs and harvested twice a year. Nearby is a large building where rice is dried in large machines and stored in the husk to retain freshness. When an order comes in, the husk is removed and if necessary, polished to customers’ orders.
Farming and food products are not Konohana Family’s only business, though. As it has grown, it has broadened in scope. In 2001 Konohana launched the non-profit Green Grass Society, devoted to social welfare, the environment and a “care program,” which takes in guests suffering from mental disorders, addiction or physical ailments seeking to restore their health, or elderly people interested in communal living. Several members I spoke to were former care patients who have decided to become members. A nightly community meeting after dinner is a place where members discuss infrastructure or philosophical changes such as whether to go vegan or invest in solar energy panels. Often, they are engaged in some sort of farm work at the same time, like sorting beans into separate piles for sale, family consumption and green manure. The meetings are also where members can share problems and seek advice from each other.
Financially, Konohana Family operates on a “one wallet” philosophy, where each family pays its share of the cost of living, income is pooled and health insurance and pension are covered. Children attend public school.
Konohana’s spiritual beliefs, while mostly centered on Buddhist-influenced beliefs of transcending ego, becoming one with nature and other humans and striving for world peace, also wander into territory some might consider far-fetched. Visitors who opt to attend what is called the “presentation,” will be introduced to Konohana’s spiritual beliefs. To put this in perspective culturally, Konohana can be viewed in the context of the hundreds of so-called “new religions” that have sprung up in Japan over the last 200 years, often incorporating aspects of Buddhism and Shintoism and co-existing with traditional religious beliefs rather than trying to replace them.
Members and volunteers I spoke to ranged from the true believers to those with more practical-minded attitudes. One volunteer who lives in the surrounding community told me she wasn’t sure about some of the more arcane beliefs of Konohana, but she extolled its food and produce, the catering arm of the business, and Konohana’s excellent daycare services and said that was good enough for her. A young man named Shun told me he had started as a care patient because of his struggle with mental illness, and after only a month on the farm, found his true purpose on Earth. He’s now a family member.
On my second day at the farm, I volunteer for a half-day’s work in the fields. I report to the entrance to the main building at 7:30 a.m. and am outfitted with rubber boots, plastic work clothes to put on over my street clothes, cotton gloves and the ingenious, wide-brimmed bonnets that Japanese women farmers wear to shield their faces and necks from the sun. Along with several other volunteers, we are transported by a small van to a nearby field. It’s November, so many vegetables have already been harvested. We’re tasked with pulling off the strings used to tie eggplant, cucumber, beans and bitter melon to net trellises, then with tearing down the dried vines themselves.
At 10:30, just when my stomach has begun to growl, a driver in a truck pulls up bearing some Konohana juice, which tastes like a very mild form of fruit nectar, and freshly roasted mountain yam wrapped in newspaper with a separate packet of sea salt, also wrapped in newspaper. We sit and enjoy a 30-minute break before continuing our work.
After lunch, the sky still an intense blue, and feeling refreshed after my stay, I catch a ride back to the Fujinomiya train station with Furuhashi. She talks about the possibility of traveling more to spread Konohana Family’s message of living in harmony with nature. But when I contact her later to ask her to expand on these plans, she clarifies, oracle-like, “We have a direction, but we do not make plans. We simply receive our cues from the universe and live.”
For more information on Konohana Family, visit konohana-family.org/for-non-japanese-speakers.
This article appears in the May 2016 issue of Acres U.S.A.