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This article was published 4/6/2016 (840 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
NAGANUMA, Japan — This is the point on the farm tour Ray Epp waits for. This is the moment. This is the part where he plunges his hands into a snaking ridge of fertilizer and, with a flourish, lifts a fistful to his face and breathes deep.
"Smell this," he says, his blue eyes lit with glee.
It is a crisp Sunday in the middle of April. If it wasn't raining, it would be a day for planting, but the advancing spring is washing the Hokkaido hills clean.
Instead, Epp is showing two Canadian visitors around Menno Village, a farm that sounds fit for southern Manitoba but belongs to the northern reach of Japan.
Even with the rain chasing visitors to shelter, there is a lot to see on Menno Village's 40 acres.
Here is the mill room, sprayed with flour, where Epp and his family grind wheat to make their signature pancake mix and soba noodles. Here is the potato storage they will chill with the last of the winter's snow.
From its roof hangs bags of sunflowers Epp brought from Nebraska, thinking he might try them on this land; tiny yellow finches ate them instead.
Now, the 56-year-old farmer is reaching into fertilizer fermented through the ancient bokashi method, inhaling the bacterial steam that puffs into his hands.
"Smell this," Epp urges again, and then it happens: the tang of microscopic life dances into the sinuses, pungent but not cloying.
It smells like rice bran, and like the leaves Menno Village workers gather from the forest. It smells like soybean solids discarded by a tofu maker in the nearby town of Kuriyama and brought here to continue transforming. It smells, Epp notes with wonder, like soy sauce: umami.
"Would you think this is a fertilizer smell?" he says, turning the compost in his hands.
"One of the things I learned from Japanese farming is farms should not smell bad. If your farm stinks, that means there's something wrong on the farm.
"If something rotten is in your refrigerator and you open up the door, you know that there's something in there that ought not to be, and you throw it out.
"That's the way farms ought to be."
It's a loaded topic, the one about the way farms ought to be. It's been studied by academics, tugged over by politicians and big business, and passed down around the dinner tables of farming families. Epp first sowed the question as a boy in rural Nebraska, which explains the jaunty red University of Nebraska Cornhuskers cap perched on his head. It does not quite explain how he came to root his answers here, on these damp fields across the sea.
What does explain it: in between, Epp's mission to discover the way farms ought to be brought him to Manitoba, where he quietly left a lasting legacy.
Twenty-four years after Epp left Manitoba, Winnipeggers taste his convictions every time they bring home a bin of fresh produce from a farm CSA, a model which allows citizens to buy shares of a farmer's harvest directly. They taste it every time they buy a loaf from Tall Grass Prairie Bread Company, which he co-founded in 1990 with four other members of his small Wolseley church.
Epp loved that project from the start. Even now, separated by 8,200 kilometres and an ocean, the bakery is close to his heart.
You won't find his name on the Tall Grass ownership list. Epp had to sell his share when he left Manitoba, a rule he helped build into the business to ensure it stayed grassroots and local.
"That was... gosh, that was hard," Epp says, shaking his head. "Part of me didn't want to do that, but it was the right thing to do. Tall Grass, it's a part of me. It always will be."
The bakery taught him things, and its lessons have travelled. The Menno Village farm he leads with his wife, Akiko Aratani, has been lauded for bringing new ideas to Japanese agriculture. It was featured in an award-winning Japanese documentary.
Over time, its vision has put Epp on academic panels, in meetings with Japanese government scientists, and at the head of groups challenging Monsanto and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Mostly, he and his wife have tried to sew together threads that are coming undone from Japan to Manitoba. "For myself, I just wanted to help," Epp says. "I had this sense that I wanted to help farmers get started, and rural communities get stronger, so that young people would go back and start farming. (At Menno Village), there's this sense people are learning how to co-operate here, and that sense would be passed on."
Still, the thread of this story doesn't begin at the end. Why did a man whose efforts became part of the culture of the Canadian Prairies, lingering in one of Winnipeg's most beloved bakeries, walk away to start all over in a whole new place?
Epp takes a long breath and lets it out slow. "Do you want me to be honest with you?"
Kenton Lobe relished the smell of that Menno Village fertilizer. In 2010, the Canadian Mennonite University instructor was invited to speak at Hokkaido University about the growing community-supported agriculture (CSA) movement in Manitoba. In a fitting twist, organizers asked Ray Epp to join the panel, discussing how he and Aratani had pioneered the CSA model in Hokkaido. They didn't know the stories sprung from the same root.
Epp picked Lobe up from the airport and gave him the Menno Village tour. The two bonded over discussions of community and compost; now, Lobe hopes to install a similar fertilizer process at CMU's community farm in Winnipeg. That's not the only thing that stuck with him, though. In his office, Lobe has a copy of Epp's master's thesis, which argues for CSA's as a form of civil disobedience, an act of resistance against systemic injustice.
"What an idea," Lobe says, over the phone last month. "He's a bit like a pollinator, you know? He takes little bits from there, then he flies over there, then he makes that rich honey. He's always picking things up wherever he goes. Or if you've ever been in the garden, there's quackgrass like crazy. Ray kind of reminds me of that, too, those rhizomatic roots. He's kind of moving sideways across disciplinary edges."
It was in Manitoba where the conditions were ripe for Epp's sense of food justice to flourish. By the late 1980s, farmers across the Prairies were drowning. A storm of political trade decisions sent grain prices plummeting; farmers were going broke, land was going up for sale, and suicide rates were rising.
By then, Epp was settled in Winnipeg. He'd moved north in 1980, partly a response to the reinstatement of military draft registration (something Epp's peacemaking Mennonite convictions could not support). In Manitoba, he took a job with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), leading an agricultural counselling service he later renamed Stewards of the Land; he joined the Grain Church of Community in Wolseley, which would soon open Tall Grass.
The bakery's founding goal was straightforward. The group's members believed if they milled their own wheat and kept the scale appropriate, they could pay farmers a better price than the majority export market. They didn't all know about business, but they fixed up a building at 859 Westminster Ave., and fiddled with the plan until it seemed ironclad enough to protect the vision.
Then, they started baking.
When Tall Grass opened in the fall of 1990, demand exploded. It wasn't without its nervous moments: on one occasion, it received a warning from the Canadian Wheat Board for buying wheat without a licence. To win the CWB over, Epp loaded his car with bread and cinnamon buns and schlepped down to its office near Portage and Main.
During the meeting, a CWB official asked Epp how grain moved through Tall Grass to the ultimate product.
"I said, 'Gosh, I don’t know what our ultimate product is,'" Epp recalls of the conversation. "'Some of our customers think our cracked wheat bread is the ultimate product. But I think our ultimate product is the cinnamon rolls.' So I gave him some of that, and we ended up eating cinnamon rolls."
Days later, a typewritten letter arrived at Tall Grass, approving of its mission to bake bread from locally bought wheat. Epp still has the original copy.
While Tall Grass was being established, the farm crisis deepened. In October 1991, more than 8,000 people marched on the Manitoba legislature to demand action, shutting down Portage Avenue as they flooded toward the seat of provincial power. At the demonstration, Epp struck up a conversation with a farmer named Dan Wiens.
"We need to do something to connect farmers and city people directly," Wiens told him, and Epp agreed.
That fateful meeting would snowball into the province's first CSA pilot program, which invited consumers to buy shares of the harvest from Dan and Wilma Wiens' organic farm on St. Mary's Road. In January 1992, the Winnipeg Free Press ran a story on the project, which was then called Shared Farmer. "We want to make sure the land will be taken care of," Epp told the newspaper. "We want an economy that does justice to the farmer."
The next day, Epp's phone was flooded with more than 175 calls from interested parties. It was as if a tide was turning.
"When I think about 1989, that was a year in which almost half the world's population experienced non-violent social change," Epp says, pointing to the fall of the Berlin Wall. "Looking back now, I just feel like the angel of non-violent social change in Canada visited through the CSA movement and Tall Grass. The bakery was about the possibility of creating a non-violent economy."
But Epp's other big endeavour was not as warmly received. For months, he drove all over Manitoba with the MCC, holding meetings with farmers and rural residents. What he heard convinced him a sustainable future for farmers would require a radical new direction, one that could stabilize farm economies and eroding rural communities.
"There seemed to be a consensus evolving," Epp says of those meetings. "People came to the same conclusions: we need access to just and fair markets. We need ways of passing land from one generation to the next, without the next generation incurring a debt they'll never be able to repay. You couldn't pay for farmland at the present prices by farming it."
In his research, Epp thought he found an answer. It was a model of community land trusts, where agricultural space is held by the communities which depend on it. Under that model, he believed, farmland could be protected locally through generations; small towns would be invigorated by the shared investment. It wasn't a universal view: many Mennonite farmers, survivors of the Russian revolution, were leery of an idea that sounded Communist.
As pressure against the land-trust movement mounted, Epp poured his heart into trying to save it. His first marriage fell apart. His relationships with church members splintered until the MCC had enough and pulled the plug on his job. ("Ray is a bit of a prophetic voice," Lobe says. "And prophets are never liked in their hometowns.")
In the fall of 1992, an exhausted Epp packed his bags to return to his family's Nebraska farm. "I left in the midst of a lot of pain."
In the United States, Epp tried to start farming a corner of land. Aratani joined him soon after — they'd met when she'd joined Tall Grass on an international exchange — but their hopes of a future in Nebraska fizzled. They tried starting a CSA, but only a handful of members signed up; in the meantime, Aratani smashed her leg, and health-care costs mounted. With funds running low, Epp was running out of options.
That summer, Aratani's mother came to visit from Hokkaido. Her Mennonite church, a 15-member congregation based in a small apartment in Sapporo, was working on a new project: an organic farm. Church members had found five hectares for sale in Naganuma, and neighbouring farmers welcomed the concept. Maybe, church members thought, Epp and Aratani could help get it off the ground.
In October 1994, Epp took a leap of faith. He would have to learn Japanese, which doesn't often come easily to English speakers. He would have to find his way in a culture which can be difficult to penetrate for gaijin (foreigners). He had to make peace with that process and trust his wife. Above all, he would have to give up everything he had done up until that point in his life, move to a muddy patch of land on the south side of Hokkaido island, and start over.
Still, it was only going to be a temporary stay. Five years in Japan, Epp and Aratani told each other. Then, they'd go back to the United States.
Agriculture is about eating as much as it is the growing, so Epp traces his path over lunch at Kogumaza, or Little Bear, a restaurant down the road from Menno Village. Its proprietors, Miss Valentine and Osamu-san, lived in California during the flower power era and brought that spirit to Hokkaido. American folk singer Joan Baez warbles on the stereo. In the washroom, postcards of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara are pinned next to monochrome photos of women in kimono.
As Epp folds his lanky legs under the low dining table, Valentine springs into action, buzzing around the room in a denim pinafore dress. She reads tea leaves and divines horoscopes and does seem to have an intuition: taking quick stock of her guests, she correctly surmises two of them are vegetarian. With Epp acting as translator, she happily chatters about her food: no chemicals, all regional.
The meal is served okazu, a traditional collection of small dishes. There is a bowl of tiny mushrooms, another of pickled red turnip tsukemono. With the jasmine tea, there arrives a plate of crisp, buttery apples from Aomori. And the tender golden potatoes? Valentine beams as she describes them. "Ah," Epp replies and smiles. "She says the potatoes are ours. I dropped them off on the way out."
There is a phrase for it: chisan chiso, or locally produced, locally consumed. The village of Naganuma is perfectly positioned to carry this tradition, situated a gentle, 40-minute drive from gleaming Sapporo. In the summer, choku bai jo farm stands sprout along country roads. If Japan is often said to be a nation of contradictions, this is another one: a country of vast cities knotted into concrete coils, a country where knowing the origin of food is beloved.
Change is coming. When Epp first arrived in Hokkaido in the fall of 1994, he admired the sight of daikon radishes dangling and drying from eaves. But Japan is aging, urbanization is paving over the old ways of living, and globalization is kicking at the door. By 2008, 47 per cent of Japanese farmers were 70 or older; every year, fewer can do the hard work of fermenting bokashi compost from forest leaves and tofu leftovers.
There are ways of reinvigorating traditions. Four months after Epp and Aratani arrived at Menno Village, a group of neighbouring farmers knocked at their door. Speaking in English, they told Epp to follow them down the road. There, near a snow-covered apple orchard that was once voted the most picturesque farm in Hokkaido, the farmers pressed for his opinions on farming and about butsudan, the Buddhist altar at the spiritual heart of traditional Japanese homes.
Satisfied with Epp's answers, they rewarded him with advice. The neighbouring farmers came from a family of pioneers; their fathers had been the first to grow apples in Naganuma. "If you're thinking about farming just like everybody else around here, you may as well go back to America," one of the farmers told Epp. "Do something interesting."
Months later, Epp and Aratani launched Hokkaido's first CSA. They weren't sure what vegetables would grow well on their land, so they decided to try romaine lettuce and imported varieties of tomatoes that are uncommon in Japan. Spreading the word was a challenge: Epp still struggled to communicate in Japanese, and Aratani was busy taking care of infant Kazu, the first of four sons they would raise at Menno Village.
By a stroke of luck, they connected with a chef in Sapporo who had worked in New York kitchens and was searching Japan for romaine lettuce. Word began to spread: over the next eight years, the Menno Village CSA would swell to 90 members, with another 50 signed up for regular deliveries of fresh-baked bread. Chefs from Sapporo and local restaurants such as Kogumaza began to line up for products.
It wasn't just about the growing. Driven by a sense of community, Epp and Aratani invited trainees from Hokkaido and across the world to come work the land. To guide their hands, they reached back into ancient stores of Japanese farming techniques and stretched ahead to incorporate the old ways into emerging sustainability concepts. If the pressures of the modern era threaten to sweep away small farms, they figured, Menno Village would be their stand.
What was supposed to be a five-year stay, just to get Menno Village started, stretched into one decade, then another. As it grew, the project gained some renown: in 2003, reporters came to the farm to film what an award-winning Japanese documentary, Daichi-no Sentaku (The Big Choice). It depicted the struggle between large-scale agriculture dominated by transnational corporations and small grassroots farms such as Menno Village.
In time, the plan to leave Japan faded. Epp did eventually return to Manitoba in early 2015, where he revelled in the company of old friends from Tall Grass and made amends with those with whom he had once clashed over the land-trust project. He was delighted to see Tall Grass co-owners Lyle and Kathy Barkman (who passed away in March) still had the same fridge they had owned 25 years prior. He snapped a photo of it, to remember.
Then, he flew back over the Pacific and sunk his boots back into the Hokkaido soil. "If I'm gone too much, the farm doesn't look like it ought to," Epp says. "That's a way of trying to get attention from me. Young children, they scream for a purpose. Mothers understand that, fathers learn to be attentive to it, too. Somehow, the land speaks and exactly what it's saying, you don't really know unless you have a close relationship to it. That takes time."
Every morning at Menno Village opens with a prayer, with an intention. They pray for health for their communities and strength for those who resist oppression. They pray for justice for the environment, and in economic conditions. This is not a show of piety, Epp says. It's a chance to reaffirm convictions.
In this, the lessons he learned at Tall Grass linger; they'd worked so hard to ensure it would stay true to its vision. "Structures take on a life of their own," Epp says. "You think you created the thing, but you didn't. What I've learned is that the founding spirit of it is incredibly important. Because that is something you can always call the structure back to: this is your original goal, this is your original intention."
After the morning prayer, there is a discussion. Everyone who works at the farm takes a turn both to speak and to listen. Although Menno Village is grounded in its founders' faith, its workers are not uniformly Christian: it includes people living with disabilities and mental illness, who Epp and Aratani invite to find healing in making things grow. Giving them a voice each morning is a critical part of the message.
"That's really, really important," Epp says. "The weakest person in the group has to be heard. That's something I wanted to teach my sons. Weak people don't count much in Japanese society. Here, it's not natural for gaijin and Japanese people to live together as equals. It's not natural for people with disabilities, or depressed people and supposedly regular people, that they should be together."
So far, the couple's hope of imparting these lessons to their sons seems to be succeeding. Their two youngest, 16-year-old Ken and nine-year-old Toshiharu, are still in school. Their eldest son, 21-year-old Kazu, recently returned to Menno Village after his graduation. Their second son, Yohei, is studying at a two-year agriculture program in Obihiro, and dreams of launching a small artisanal cheesemaking operation with just 10 cows.
Last winter, Epp and Aratani sat down with their sons. The couple asked them if they wanted to keep Menno Village going over the long haul; the three eldest did. They talked about those guiding principles they call forth in prayer every morning. If the project is to successfully pass through generations, Epp says, that part has to stay at its heart.
"If the only thing they're interested in is money, then there's never going to be enough," Epp says. "That's one thing we've been talking with the boys a lot. If all three of them want to make Menno Village continue, they need to be putting structures in place: like how to deal with conflicts, and what is the vision you want to maintain. If it's just about money, then rest assured this thing is going to fail."
The phone rings at Menno Village, brightly punctuating the conversation and the patter of the rain. "Moshi moshi," Epp answers, and jots down a few notes before hanging up.
"I think I understood what she wanted," he says with a laugh; though he is fluent, Epp is still not as fluid in Japanese as he is in English. (Later that night, over sushi at a Naganuma restaurant, Toshiharu will pipe up to correct one of his father's words for fish.)
That's one of the costs of being in Japan, Epp says. There aren't many people in Naganuma who he can really speak to the same way, with the same easy passion. He's made peace with it, but the fact persists: Ray Epp is a man with roots stretched between many places. Nebraska, Manitoba, and now Hokkaido.
So, of those places where his ideas have both sprouted and been sown, which one of them is home?
"Here," Epp says, without hesitation, and recalls his own sense of place, growing up on a farm outside of Lincoln, Neb. "I want to give my sons that same feeling. They don't have to stay here, but to have that sense of security that there's some place they can come back to called home, that's important."
There is one thing, he adds: for most of the years he lived in Winnipeg, he ached to work the land. Looking back, he muses, maybe that was a waste of time. "To think, we could start Tall Grass," he says. "We could do these things. If I wouldn't have been wishing that I really wanted a farm, maybe I would have thought: 'Why don't you do something about agriculture by being a city person? You can do that. You can make a difference.'"
He laughs. "But that didn't dawn on me. So here we are."
Night comes to Hokkaido soft as blue silk, stretched between hills. Thirty kilometres east, the Susukino district of Sapporo belches neon bile into the night, a panoply of lanterns and lights promising a riot of sensation: whiskey, ramen, pachinko, women. Yet, in the farmland of Naganuma, it is velvet dark. The starless sky is illuminated only by the wing lights of a plane, pushing off from the Chitose airport 25 km south.
By now, Menno Village is at rest. Epp's wife worked a long day on the land and went to bed before the sun fully set. Their youngest son, nine-year-old Toshiharu, curls up on a couch beneath the farmhouse window, happily tapping away at a bleating smartphone game. The kitchen table is spread with aging Winnipeg Free Press clippings, one end of a thread that stitched itself across the sea. If daylight is for growing, night is the time for memories.
There's no perfect place to live, Epp says for the second time that day. That's one thing he learned along the way, from the fields of Nebraska to the elm-shaded streets of Winnipeg to the snow-veiled hills of Hokkaido. It's easy to wish you were someplace other than where you are. It's easy to imagine a different part of the earth would yield no struggles, and sprout no pain.
In truth, the work of making things grow is always the same. Not only food but communities and friendships: this work has been with humans since agriculture began. When farms are the way they ought to be, the connections root deep. It is evening in Hokkaido; in Winnipeg, it is 5 a.m. on a Monday morning, and Tall Grass will soon coax customers with the smell of fresh-baked bread. This summer, about 25 CSA farms are set to share their harvest with Manitobans.
Last month, Epp was invited to speak at an October conference in South Korea, talking about how to build strong localized farming economies. In a restaurant in Naganuma, Miss Valentine and Osamu-san are picturing the next day's okazu dishes of fresh regional food. The soil at Menno Village, once so heavy with mud it once broke Epp's farming tools, is salved by that homemade fertilizer and slowly being healed.
Another five years, Epp thinks, and the earth at the farm will be perfect. That will be just about time for his sons to take over, and find their own way of growing. He's been 22 years in Hokkaido, and somehow the work is just getting going; that's the story of his life, he says with a laugh. Always good at starting things where there was nothing. It takes a different kind of person to keep the work continuing.
"What I see myself basically doing is laying the groundwork for the next generation," Epp says. "We're preparing this rag-tag group of people to do something spectacular. When that's going to happen, I don't know. It's not going to happen in my lifetime. But the groundwork is going to get laid."