Showing it can be done

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Japanese environmentalist turns farmer in Vietnam, inspiring initially skeptical locals to take up organic farming

A Japanese guest (L) does farming with local children on an organic farm in Buon Ma Thuot Town, Dak Lak Province / PHOTO COURTESY OF TUOI TRE

Minoru Shiokawa walks barefoot, trouser legs rolled high, looking closely at the plants in his farm.

Sometimes, he smiles, as when he sees small bitter gourds that have appeared on a creeper. He looks a bit sad when he sees leaves destroyed by worms.

But overall, Shiokawa is a happy man, working hard on his farm that covers more than 2,500 square meters of hills in the Central Highlands town of Buon Ma Thuot, which is famous as the nation's coffee capital.

Picking a basil leaf and putting it into his mouth, Shiokawa turns to his guests, and invites them to try other vegetables grown on the farm.

In his self-taught Vietnamese, he urges the guests: "It's delicious. It's totally fine!"

With some reluctance, the guests, mainly office workers and businessmen from Ho Chi Minh City who are unused to eating raw vegetables plucked right from the garden, did as they were told.

Soon, the visitors were enjoying lunch with all kinds of vegetables they picked, including cabbages, cucumbers and pumpkins.

They also learned about the process of growing vegetables without pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and joined local farmers in doing jobs like weeding.

The guests were actually customers who had been using produce from the organic farm called Niconicoyasai (literally translated "smiley vegetables") that Shiokawa founded in 2011.

"I want to see Vietnamese people always smile when they eat clean vegetables, not cry because they fell sick after eating those grown with toxic chemicals," he said.

Shiokawa said he was inspired to establish the farm after being part of a Japanese non-profit project in Dak Lak in 2004 when he was 21.

He volunteered to teach Japanese to local youth who were chosen to study organic agriculture in Japan. He flew back and forth between Vietnam and his home country to do the voluntary job even as he was completing his studies at the university.

After five years, the Vietnamese youth returned to Vietnam, but found no place for them to apply what they learned, because local farms did not trust organic farming.

Many of them ended up working at local farms like normal employees, while the Japanese who were involved with the project returned home.

Shiokawa, who graduated from university with a major in environmental studies, chose not to leave.

"I thought that if someone can actually apply organic agriculture here, local farmers will have confidence in it and take it up later."

In 2011, he spent all his savings on leasing 1,000 square meters of land among mountains and forests in Buon Ma Thuot, and asked his Vietnamese students to join him in operating the farm.

"˜Many mothers'

 
Minoru Shiokawa founded an organic vegetable farm in Buon Ma Thuot in 2011, inspiring some local farmers to follow his suit / PHOTO COURTESY OF VNEXPRESS

Even with the knowledge the team already had, running the farm was not easy.

"Failure is the mother of success, so I have many mothers," Shiokawa said.

He'd had no direct experience in farming. He did not know how to use a hoe, sow seeds or even water the plants properly, but he went ahead and did all of it. The vegetables did not grow or were lost before they could be harvested and more than 70 percent of 1,000 chickens raised to get fertilizer for the farm ended up dying.

But, Shiokawa still believed in his project and did not give up.

A year later, after several failures and consulting Japanese documents and experts, Shiokawa and his partners managed to bring their first harvest to HCMC for selling.

But, they were rejected at every restaurant they came to introduce their produce, said Vo Mai Hao, one of his partners who accompanied him that day.

In the end, they successfully asked for permission to sell their produce at a festival of Japanese cooking and pottery club.

"That day we earned VND60,000 (US$2.8), but we were crazily happy without even remembering that the trip to HCMC had already cost us VND2 million ($93.8)," Hao said.

Thanks to that little success, they found their target customers -   Japanese expats, especially those with children. To this day, Shiokawa makes most of deliveries himself to gain the trust of their customers.

Niconicoyasai now delivers 50-100 kilograms of vegetables to families, organic shops, and Japanese supermarkets and convenience stores in HCMC every day.

They are priced VND140,000-200,000 ($6.5-9.4) per set of five different vegetables, compared to VND5,000-6,000 a bunch sold at local markets.

Pilot Bya, who is in charge of sales for Niconicoyasai in HCMC, said currently 90 percent of their customers are Japanese expats, and the number of Vietnamese customers has increased slightly now.

She said they really want to increase output to reduce costs, but cannot do that now because they have to maintain quality.

"Organic vegetables cannot achieve high outputs like vegetables grown with chemicals, but for us quality is more important than quantity and the priority is that vegetables are delicious and safe," said Shiokawa.

Every month he hosts at least five-ten customers who visit the farm, which helps increase their understanding and trust in the farm and its produce.

One of the guests, Japanese housewife Miyako said living in HCMC, she was never felt completely at ease when buying vegetables at local supermarkets because the packages were all labeled in Vietnamese, a language she does not know, and she was never sure if they had chemicals or not.

But, after seeing how the vegetables were grown at Shiokawa's farm, and eating them directly, she felt more "assured and confident."

Meanwhile, Vietnamese businessman Nguyen Van Hung said the vegetables' high prices are "understandable" given that it takes the farm four months to harvest cabbages compared to two weeks elsewhere. 

Changing

So far three farms in Buon Ma Thuot have joined Niconicoyasai's project to produce organic vegetables.

Hao said attending farmers are young, between 17-35 years old, so "they are very open-minded, willing to try new things and redo if errors happen."

Cu Chinh Huy, a 33-year-old farmer, said before meeting Shiokawa, he grew vegetables using pesticides and had terrible headaches caused by contact with chemicals.

After he and his wife switched to organic farming, they suffered failures for a year, but they discovered they loved doing it. 

His wife, My Trang, said although they have to submit to strict scrutiny, including monthly tests, the family's income has stabilized at VND8-10 million ($375-469) a month.

Shiokawa also collaborates with a local charity organization that houses more than 100 ethnic minority children from distant districts coming to study in Buon Ma Thuot. He helps the house run an organic garden.

The children are divided into groups to take care of the garden under his instructions. He teaches them everything, from fertilization to watering and keeping the garden clean of garbage.

When it is time to harvest, the kids would pick the vegetables and bring them to sell at Niconicoyasai.

Shiokawa said by getting used to growing things organically since they are young, the children will be able to run farms much better than his when they grow up.

Despite the hard work and not-so-high income, Shiokawa told online newspaper VnExpress that he feels lucky, because he is living a life without pressures and worries, unlike many of his friends in Japan.

"I feel much happier because here I smile a lot and I can live close to nature while doing my ideal jobs: protecting the environment and people's health."

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