Ayumi Farms, Cyittorattu (established by Ayumi Kinezuka in 2019) is addressing one of the most defining challenges of our time; namely, how to balance sustainable food production with a healthy relationship to the land and to each other. The small community in the mountains of Fujieda, Shizuoka prefecture, is envisioning and enacting organic, sustainable and regenerative agriculture systems, while finding unique ways to practice community supported and community supporting agriculture.
More than organic, diverse and small-scale, Ayumi Farms is one of the newest farms practicing a uniquely Japanese version of what people in the US and Western Europe may find similar to the "slow-food movement". With a theoretical framework supporting their sound, innovative and yet unassuming farming practices, they are melding modern scientific understanding and techniques with traditional systems and knowledge of elder farmers, in their particular region. Their mission to sustainably produce high-quality tea is complemented by practices that build farm and community level resiliency, in a way that goes beyond the increasingly over-applied labels of organic and sustainable. They are a prime example of how a fresh generation of farmers in the US, Europe and Japan are addressing how agriculture can be both community supported and community supporting.
Their approach to farming aims at regeneration and revitalization of relationships all the way from the soil, to how nutrients cycle within their community, to the relationships among people and between people and the land that supports them. We are very happy to talk about tea, soil, and building resilient communities with Ayumi Kinezuka (Ayumi-san) in this very special 2-part interview.
- Introduction contributed by Jimmy Burridge, tea aficionado
Inspiration to establish Ayumi Farms, Cyittorattu
Moé: From the Yunomi Site, I saw you were at your father’s farm, NaturaliTea (original Japanese name: Hito to No, Shizen wo Tsunagu Kai: 人と農、自然をつなぐ会) and therefore, I was able to see some of the videos which explained why you made a decision to become a tea farmer. Almost a decade has passed since that time and now you have established Ayumi Farms, Cyittorattu (2019). What led you to make this decision to become independent?
*Note: For this question, Ayumi-san also answered my subsequent question which was to inquire about how things on the farm and Fujieda have changed since her father’s generation.
Ayumi-san: Well, we’ve been tea farming for many years… but the first time I started to think about becoming independent was when I started to think about continuing tea farming but at the same time growing other crops. Since you are Japanese, you may be familiar with the things I am referring to… But in comparison to Europe or the United States, there is limited land in Japan because mountains make up a large proportion of our country. And so, we are limited in our access to large flatlands. To do agriculture in Japan therefore means to do it in a way that is unique to the land there. In Japan, it is not the best approach to grow one crop on a large scale like is typical in Europe/the United States. Here, it’s impossible to do that kind of farming across 100, or 1,000 hectares. Nevertheless, Japan has its own abundance, its own beauty. We have the four seasons and our terrain is quite diverse. We are blessed by both the mountains and the ocean. My farm is located in the mountainous areas of Fujieda.
Recently in Japan, there has been consolidation of farmland and so the country is encouraging large scale production. To do this kind of farming, people believe it is better to have flat farmlands where large machines are able to get in. So, mountain tea, or tea farming in the mountainous areas is unfortunately, declining. With the aging population, the majority of farmers around me are all in their 70s or 80s. In fact, farmers who are considered to be young are in their 60s, and this reflects how the younger generations as we know them to be (20s - 30s) are not into farming at all.
With this background in mind, I believe it is impossible in Japan to continue moving forward with agriculture and farming through a one crop, large scale approach. And so when I asked myself what would be an ideal approach to farming in Japan, I thought that would be the way agriculture and farming traditionally used to be generations ago. Japanese agriculture has never been adept at growing one crop in large quantities. What we have been successful at however is growing various crops in smaller scales and in smaller proportions. And to grow crops that will thrive well in a specific area and ecosystem. In that sense, where we are located in Shizuoka (Fujieda) in the mountainous areas, tea has been grown in the mountain tops. And down below in the valley is where the people will reside. And in those areas, in the limited space that there was, rice and soybeans were also grown. And other crops such as shitake or clementines and different kinds of vegetables and crops. Tea was just one out of the many crops that were grown.
To provide a bit of context, during the post-war period, there was a time when huge amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides were used to the point that farmers even swore that without utilizing these things it was impossible to grow crops. And so the shape and ways of agriculture and farming in Japan drastically changed. But, there was a time in Japan when we did not rely on chemical fertilizers or pesticides. So, what did the farmers do during this time? They protected and prioritized the biodiversity of the region. And the farming that was done at that time was to grow crops with resilience even without the reliance of pesticides. To give a specific example, there are pests that are harmful to the tea bushes. Those that for example, eat the tea leaves or take away the nutrients of the crop. Or those that make the tea bushes wither… There are numerous kinds of pests but there are also living beings that eat these pests. Insects such as spiders and praying mantises, lady bugs, small animals and birds that all come together in an ecosystem. And so, because of this sort of biodiversity in a specific region, there really shouldn’t be an outbreak of pests. As long as the biodiversity is protected in the region, tea will also grow successfully. I wanted to re-envision this sort of approach to farming. In addition to biodiversity, what is as important is to have crop diversity. By having a diverse range of crops on a farm, I believe a farm makes itself and its own relationships abundant.
On our farm, we are growing rice, soy beans, and my partner is also raising chickens. We finished rice harvesting at the end of October or so. But after rice harvesting, there is quite a lot of rice straw that remains. We take this rice straw and bring it to the tea fields where we put it over the soil on the tea fields. By doing this, the straw prevents the soil from becoming dry. And because many microorganisms live on the rice straw, these microorganisms return to the soil and our soil becomes abundant. This process is also beneficial for the cold winters because the straws actually act as a kind of blanket, providing warmth to the soil.
Process of applying rice straw after rice harvesting to the tea fields. It's not an easy task! But when Ayumi-san brings the straw to the tea fields, she remembers all the people that came to help harvest the rice, which warms her heart. At Ayumi Farms, rice and tea are made by borrowing the hands of many people and the power of living things such as microorganisms. The rice straw that is spread in between the tea bushes is decomposed by hundreds and millions of microorganisms that are invisible to the human eye, slowly returning nutrients to the soil. The circle of circulation continues to flow.
Ayumi-san (continued): As you can see, we really do not need to rely on purchased chemical fertilizers and pesticides. By utilizing previous knowledge, we as farmers can instigate circulation on the farm. We also grow wheat which provides us with wheat straw that we also use and the manure from the chickens we can use as compost. In this way, we take great care for the circulation on our farms. And I believe this is very important during these times. Our previous generation (i.e., across many farms) has been doing organic tea farming for almost 40 years. However, the conditions of the Earth today have changed since 40 years ago. 40 years ago, issues such as contamination due to pesticides and contamination of ground and surface water due to chemical fertilizers was a great concern. In Japan, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring became a bestseller and Sawako Ariyoshi’s The Complex Contamination (Japanese: 複合汚染 “fukugou-osen”) was well read. And this was the context in which organic farming, pesticide free farming and such became a thing.
Since that time, 40 years has passed and I believe things have become even more concerning. Issues such as global warming, plastic pollution… And in Japan, we have the problem of nuclear pollution. And little by little, without us noticing, there are many harmful influences to our day-to-day lives. With this progression, unfortunately, farming has also become a means in which the environment is harmed. That is, even with organic farming, if a farm only grows one crop, one is actually putting stress on the environment because you are contributing to the imbalance in the environment by only growing one crop (in a place that may have been balanced in terms of its biodiversity), which is quite unnatural. Moreover, to do organic tea farming in a large area requires the use of a great amount of organic fertilizers. When one looks at the ingredients of these organic fertilizers, you can see that many of the things are imported from abroad… and recently, the term “carbon footprint” is becoming widely used. I feel that “organic farming,” from a simple or outside perspective, sounds safe and unharmful to the environment. But, when you think about the sustainability of this kind of approach to organic farming in which one relies on external resources from abroad (i.e., organic fertilizers), the sustainability of this approach becomes questionable, especially when you think about the next 10, the next 100 years. Perhaps, it is causing more damage to the environment… And the larger the scale of farming, larger machines also become a necessity. In this sense, I started to question these ways of organic farming.
People say that small scale farming is unproductive but I actually don’t agree. By growing a variety of different crops, one can harvest throughout the year. And by selling these products, you can also make a proper profit. And with smaller scale farming, one does not have to rely on organic fertilizers and such from overseas. Instead, because it is small scale, one can utilize the resources that are readily available within the community and give back to the soil of that region. I believe this type of approach is a much more sustainable. And this was the way things were done when one examines the ways in which farming and agriculture were done traditionally. Just like I mentioned previously, if they were making rice/wheat, they used the rice and wheat straws on their farms to grow other crops. If they grew soybeans, the shells of the beans were used. If they raised chickens, they used the manure. And in the winter, there are many fallen leaves. So they would collect these leaves in the mountains and use them on the farms. In this way, the way things used to be was that the farmers really valued the resources readily available to them in the community, which helped them to grow their crops. To the extent that this kind of farming was possible, the thought and feeling grew in me to try this kind of approach to utilize the resources available in the community and to proactively participate in this cycle of regeneration. And so the tea we grow on our farm is grown in this way. We utilize the rice straws to spread over the soil in between the tea bushes, we use the soybean shells and we collect leaves during the winter time. And in our community there is a sake brewery and traditional soy sauce brewery so we are able to receive sake kasu (fermented rice leftovers) as well as soy sauce kasu to fertilize the soil. Since these products are not sold, we are able to receive them and give them back to the soil. And these fermented fertilizers are wonderful as they are themselves micro-organisms. So not only are we returning them to the soil, they also make the soil more abundant. In short, this is the kind of crop making, farming I have wanted to do all along. And so that is why Cyittorattu was established and we have been growing tea as well as other crops on our farm at a small scale. I am sorry, as I have been talking for a long time, I kind of forgot what the question was… [laughter]
Moé: No worries at all! This is all very informative and valuable. I appreciate you sharing all that you have. To kind of back-track a bit though, you started Cyittorattu in 2019. But if I understand correctly, you had been growing rice prior to that? I think I saw it in one of the videos…
Ayumi-san: Yes, yes. Even at NaturaliFarms, we grew rice and soybeans. In tea farming, the busy period is between February and November. But after that, we have quite a lot of free time during the winter. So, tea farmers may find other things to do during this time such as growing other crops or working outside of the tea farm. When I was wondering what I could do during this lighter period, I started to make miso as I had always been interested in making my own miso. First, I got the raw materials - soy beans and rice koji...
The process was so intriguing that I thought I would actually like to grow my own raw materials. And so, in the Fujieda community there were rice farmers that made their own miso so I learned how to produce rice, how to make koji rice, and then finally, how to produce soybean. The fortunate aspect of my generation is that there are still generations above us who can teach these skills to us! So, we learn these skills from the older generation in our community and region. This is very important because even though Japan is a very small country, the climate, conditions and context will greatly vary from place to place. Even if you are growing the same crops, the timing of things are place-specific. The best way to learn these skills is thus to learn from the older generations of farmers who are from your area. We can still learn these skills from them because they are still alive. And so I am thankful to have learned from them and I gradually started to grow rice, soybeans, make miso, and grow clementines. And now, at Cyittorattu, yes, I am perhaps more independent but what I do really hasn’t changed. We basically grow different kinds of crops, including tea. And the crops have relationships with each other and they each make the soil rich and abundant. That is basically what we do.
Miso making process at Ayumi Farms, Cyittorattu. When Ayumi-san went to open the miso barrels after they went through a process of fermentation for one year and eight months, she also wondered if she herself was fermenting and aging well, like the miso.
Transmitting the Wisdom and Knowledge of Older Generations
Moé: Wow, I feel myself being inspired simply by listening to you talk… and I don’t really have anything to ask or say at the moment but I am simply enjoying being the listener.
Ayumi-san: [Laughter] Thank you, but really, I have deeply thought about these things. And have been thinking about how to move forward. And one of my biggest concerns is that the farmers in Japan are all aging. And the younger generations are not interested, not following their footsteps. It is both a very unfortunate and scary thing. As I mentioned earlier, this type of knowledge can only be passed down from person to person because the farmers don’t really write this down in a book or anything. So as the older generation farmers pass away, the wisdom and knowledge that they hold will also be lost. That is why I have really been concerned about how the younger generations can continue to pass this type of knowledge onwards…
One aspect of tea farming that I have been trying to continue transmitting is the process of hand-picking tea leaves. My grandma’s generation (she has passed away), they started hand-picking tea leaves from a very young age --- as young as 4 or 5 years old! You can see this today in tea farmers who are in their 70’s or 80’s. They are very good but also very fast in hand-picking tea leaves, it will really surprise you. In hand-picking tea leaves, the important thing is not just to pick the early buds but also to pick it nicely and it’s also about the amount you can pick. It’s really laborious work! So this depends on practice and repetition. Unfortunately, hand-picking tea leaves is on the brink of disappearing in Japan. Under these conditions, I have been inviting some of my friends or the people around me to experience hand-picking tea leaves around the first flush or during the period when we harvest tea leaves for making black tea. Of course, if you just experience this once, you will not really get adept at hand-picking tea leaves and the body will not remember... But some of my friends have now participated multiple times and are starting to grasp some of the technique and rhythm. And even if 30 people gather to hand-pick tea leaves, in one day we can only pick about 30kg of tea. An experienced grandma on the other hand could pick 10-15kg all by herself. Clearly, we will never get as close to the skills of our elders but by continuing to make these experiences available every year, we hope to continue to pass down these types of techniques and experiences.
Hand-picking black tea leaves from the 2nd tea harvest with the community. 20 participants from near and far came to help harvest from 8AM to evening, gathering 20kg of tea leaves to make hand-picked black tea.
Unfortunately, farmers cannot make much profit hand-picking tea leaves, unless you employ a large number of employees which would cost money… Previously, there used to be small tea factories that would take the hand-picked tea leaves and process them. But now, even these smaller tea factories are disappearing. And so the current situation with tea processing equipment geared for larger quantities of tea makes it even more challenging to produce and process hand-picked tea. Luckily, we have an acquaintance with a 80 something year old grandpa who still continues to process hand-picked tea. So that is where our hand-picked teas are processed. In this way, even though it is only a proportion of our tea, with help from the community and from people who participate in our events, we are continuing to produce hand-picked tea. We do this with a portion of our black tea, too.
An elder mechanic services antique tea processing equipment at his micro-factory. While factories deal with tea leaves in the amount of 120kg, 240kg, or more these days, this is a factory with machines on the 30kg line. Because it is a small factory, it has the advantage of being able to handle hand-picked tea and mountain tea that can only be produced in small amounts. Additionally, recent factories have been automated so that tea leaves flow from machine to machine with a single switch, but at this small factory, human hands and senses are involved in each process as is the timing of transitions to the next process.
The Meaning of Cyittorattu - Little by Little
Ayumi-san: I forgot to tell you, “Cyittorattu” (Japanese:「ちぃっとらっつ」) is a dialect from the Fujieda region (Shizuoka prefecture) which means “little by little”. So, this type of little by little tea production is possible because we are cyittorattu. And so we kind of go against the modern goals centered on maximizing efficiency and mass production. But I believe there is something that has been forgotten and lost with the modern approach and we would like to continue to find value in the traditional and little by little approach.
Moé: Yes, Cyittorattu… When I was preparing the collection page for your farm on Yunomi, Ian-san mentioned we would call your farm Ayumi Farms and that we would add Cyittorattu at the end for kicks because the word looks rather complex using the English alphabet. After reading the explanation for Cyittorattu on your site however, I felt that including the word "Cyittorattu" was essential. Additionally, I very much appreciate the different dialects in Japan so I am personally happy we will keep the Cyittorattu part!
This interview with Ayumi Kinezuka will be continued in the subsequent blog post. Please stay tuned on Yunomi to hear more from Ayumi-san about the influences of global warming as it relates to farming as well as her visions for agriculture and farming in the future. In the meantime, if you would like to read more about Ayumi Farms, Cyittorattu, please take a look at their collection page on Yunomi!
Banner image credit: Ayumi Farms, Cyittorattu.