Written by Elisabeth Darnell
My name is Elisabeth Darnell and I was fortunate enough to receive funding from the Henry Luce Foundation to study organic agriculture in Japan. I graduated from Bard College in the class of 2015 with a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental and Urban Studies. During my studies, I tended to focus mainly on topics of agriculture and food systems. I come from a farming family, but my own interest in growing food began in high school when I decided to plant a garden in the small green space in front of my family’s apartment. I found that my small garden served as a network connecting me to people, places and ideas without it I would have never come across. Neighbors I never met stopped to talk and try one of my cherry tomatoes, my father and I became closer in our shared love of gardening, I educated myself on the principles and methods of organic farming and the dangers of conventional farming, and I met farmers who inspired me. I have been consistently working on farms since my junior year of high school and I am still excited by the prospect of continuing my agricultural education.
I jumped at the chance to see Japan through an agrarian lens. When I applied for the grant money, knowing little about the country particularly excited me. I feel one can learn so much about a culture through the way they tend to their land. I was grateful to have had Dr. Mika Endo, Professor of Japanese at Bard, to guide me in the right direction in the planning stages of the trip. We had a conversation about my interests and background and she provided me with a large amount of literature on Japanese agriculture, asking me to let her know which readings most inspired me. One of the articles she provided (unfortunately I have lost the source material) discussed the recent increase of organic farms in Hokkaido, the northernmost prefecture of Japan. Dr. Endo told me that Hokkaido was vastly different from Japan’s main island, and that it had only been settled by non-indigenous peoples for a little over a century. The farmers interviewed in the article seemed to be turning to organic agriculture not only in concern for the health of the planet, but also in the spirit of rebellion against Japanese conformist culture. Naturally, as a Bard student, I admired this commitment to nonconformity and I wanted to meet these people who were moving away from a more traditional Japan and exploring a new frontier.
Together, Dr. Endo and I browsed the WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) database to find hosts in Hokkaido that would best match my interests. We chose three hosts, one for each month, but I ended up staying at the same host for two months. This host farm was Sophia Farm Community, located in Honbestu. My experience at this farm was life-changing and by far my favorite host of my trip. I left for Japan on August 25th. I spent five surreal days in Tokyo where my culture shock left me aimlessly wandering the spectacular city, mouth agape and eyes wide. The only plan I made was to visit an urban farm I had heard of on the internet, but anyone who’s been to Tokyo knows that finding a location, even with a map and address, is not something on one can count. I loved Tokyo but I felt relieved when I arrived at the Sapporo airport. I took a gorgeous bus ride to Obihiro to spend a night with a friend of my WWOOF host (the journey from Sapporo to Honbetsu was too long for one day). This friend was Tatsuo Homma, an organic noodle shop owner in Obihiro and a leading figure in the Hokkaido organic movement. Homma-san seemed to know everyone in town, and his shop had become a hub for people passionate about the Hokkaido organic culture. Each week his shop became a host location for the CSA from Sophia Farm Community. He also had a small farm of his own and managed WWOOFers for a small school’s farm. Witnessing his role in the organic revolution happening in Hokkaido was important in my understanding of the “movement”. Once a salary man in Tokyo, he retired to Hokkaido to escape the city life, live simpler and more environmentally conscious. I was lucky that my hosts introduced me to Homma-san and is just one example of the community aspect I felt was so important to understanding Hokkaido’s organic farmers.
Sophia Farm Community is located in the Tokachi Valley region of Hokkaido, probably the most famous farming region in Japan. Many food packages I saw in Tokyo had a label that read “Tokachi”. SFC is run by Ben and Konomi Campbell. Ben is from Virginia and Konomi grew up outside of Tokyo. They met while working together on a farm in Tennessee, realized they had the same dream of starting a farm of their own, got married and began one of Japan’s first biodynamic farms. Biodynamics is a farming method based on the extensive teachings of Rudolph Steiner, and Ben and Konomi are no doubt some of the most passionate people in the biodynamic movement. I was so lucky to have them as hosts. The farm consists of four large greenhouses, one large garden and a massive mountaintop vegetable field and cow pasture. They currently have ten cows, two of which were born during my stay, one of which is named after me (my crowning moment in life). Sophia Farm is a CSA farm, meaning individuals or families from the surrounding area can buy a share of the farm and each week in the growing season, those shareholders receive vegetables and other products from the farm. This model is such an important factor in the proliferation of the organic message to consumers because almost every shareholder makes contact with their farmers and the farm itself when they come to pick up their weekly produce. Over the course of the two months I was living at Sophia Farm, I built friendships with the CSA members as they came for their vegetables. Their children ran around the garden and they sometimes stayed for a meal. Sophia Farm has a great way of welcoming the community into their world, which is so important in fostering connections and allies of the biodynamic/organic movement. Everyone seemed to know each other in this circle of farmers and CSA members. Konomi also used social media, a vital tool in the Japanese organic community, to post frequent updates of life on the farm. I believe the most distinctive characteristic of Hokkaido organic farming is the strong community of farmers. It’s easy to retreat to a rural setting and forget the world outside of the agrarian bubble, but the Japanese farmers I met taught me that change will mean little without fellowship. SFC organizes lectures, holds workshops, sets up booths at every local festival. Ben and Konomi are true organizers.
They were also great hosts because of their eagerness to teach, and their trust in my abilities. I learned how to drive a tractor, make cheese, use a wood stove, skin a squirrel, make yogurt, whittle and hundreds of other skills because they had the patience to teach me. They also provided me with delicious food, a warm bed, and great conversation. They included myself and the other WWOOFers in their lives completely, which is not true of many WWOOF hosts. It was also a great place for me to begin my journey in Japan in a place where there was at least one English speaker. Ben and Konomi can’t afford to hire farmhands to work their land, meaning all the work is done with the help of volunteers, mainly WWOOFers. During my stay, I met over 10 WWOOFers from all over the world. Some had never worked on a farm before, but everyone got the hang of it very quickly. I strongly encourage future recipients of this grant to visit Sophia Farm Community.
I’ve never felt more connected to the world than I did in the most rural place I’ve ever been. Being part of that farm for two months, I met countless inspiring individuals. Although the farming methods were exceptional, the vegetables were beautiful, and the milk was heavenly, the presence of a strong ideological community was what made my farming experience in Hokkaido distinct. I now truly see the importance of creating community spaces that foster environmental stewardship. If not a physical space, a virtual space, such as the farm’s Facebook page and email newsletter, can also be important and impactful components to a movement. Japan is a place where ancient traditions and modern technology somehow coincide, and the farmers I met knew that understanding the balance between these two factors was crucial in keeping the modern world farm-conscious. My time in Hokkaido also reinforced my belief in the powers of experiential education in an agricultural setting. The Bard Farm is a prime location to both educate individuals and create community. If I were to choose one lesson from my time in Japan to bring back to Bard, it would be to increase the use of the Bard Farm as a means for community.
I would like to thank the Henry Luce Foundation and the Bard Japanese department for supporting my wonderful agrarian odyssey.
Newborn calf and mother
View of the mountaintop field and pasture
Ben and his truck
Dinner party at the home of a local shopkeeper
Ben and Konomi prepare vegetables for the weekly CSA day
A grazing pasture
Ben, Konomi and I on my final day at Sophia Farm