On the Slope
Agriculture, looking ahead 100 years

 

Kunihiko Ono is young, bright, and motivated. His smile is charming and warm but elusive. His countenance is more often drawn into focused intensity. Barely into his thirties, he is the president and executive director of On the Slope, an ambitious agricultural education and logistics company based in Kyoto. 

The Heart

Kunihiko Ono saw a missing link in the farm to table network. He realized that the biggest challenge facing organic farmers was distribution. “The Japanese logistics system is built for industrial materials, not for organic produce,” he says. A small community of organic farmers was struggling to get their produce into the hands of consumers. Meanwhile a community of consumers wanting to purchase pesticide free vegetables was struggling to source such produce. On one side existed an interest to grow what the consumer wanted, and on the other side existed a consumer willing to purchase what the farmers grew, but there lacked a solid network to connect the two. “That’s why we are creating a new logistics system. We have, you could say, like a portfolio of farmers. Each farmer on an individual scale is small and unstable, but when you string them together into a network, the network as a whole creates and operates with stability.”

One branch of the company is focused on distribution and logistics. “We gather together the vegetables that each farmer makes and take them to market.” Half is sold at the company’s two markets, called Soil, one in Kyoto and one in Tokyo. The other half is distributed by subscription. Imagine a mail order farmers market style CSA. Subscribers from across the country sign up for weekly deliveries of organic vegetables. They choose the size of the share based on their needs, but the particular contents vary weekly depending on what’s in season and what the company receives from its network of farmers. “About 400-500 people receive our subscription boxes,” says Ono. Distribution and retail is “our main business,” he says. You could call it the heart of the company, the work that keeps the lights on and the wheels turning. 

Within Japan there are many who are interested in organic farming but in fact there are very few actively engaged in farming that way. The initial challenges can seem insurmountable. First one must buy or rent land. But the condition of available farmland is poor. Most available land is likely to be small plots that have seen years of heavily fertilized and chemically treated rice cultivation. The process to reclaim rice fields for vegetables takes considerable time and effort. For several years the harvest will not justify the investment of labor. And then there is the challenge of how to take a small and unreliable harvest to market. “Therefore, even though there are many who want to farm organically, in fact those who actually can or do are few," says Ono. "The challenges are such that they cannot sustain such a practice. This is the reality of the organic farming in Japan."

On the Slope invests in first time farmers, as long as they adhere to organic and natural farming methods, and commits to distribute their produce. ”We become their business partner. We are the only company in Japan people in that kind of situation can do business with,” Ono explains. “It’s very hard to survive as a first time farmer,” he continues. “But knowing that they have our support, they study and work very hard. With some farmers we take 100% of their harvest. With others, they want to do some direct sales so they give us just a portion of their harvest. Farmers can choose how to work with us. Creating a strong central network, we can support a diversity of distribution styles.”

The system is proving to be mutually beneficial. Though small-scale production of organic produce requires time and effort on the farmerss part, they produce an excellent product. On the Slope can then bring a great product to market. Delicious organic produce sells itself. “Without much effort, our customers bring in other customers. It’s been like that since we started the company five years ago,” Ono explains.

The Soul

Japan is facing a crisis of demographics. The population is in sharp decline. Projections concede that by 2060 the overall population will decrease by 30% while the population of those over age 65 will double. “Every year about 3.6% of farmland goes fallow. It’s the first time in history that a society has lost active farmland at this kind of pace. It’s going to change the face of Japanese society in a way that people haven’t really realized yet,” says Ono.

Within the crisis, Ono sees an opportunity to transform agriculture in Japan. “In the face of this decline, I want to feed new farmers into the system. If we could replace those 3.6% of dying farms with organic farms, as well as stalling the decline of agriculture in Japan, we could begin to convert the system over to an organic system.” Ono continues, “In order to do that, we have to come up with 10,000 new farmers each year. That is an enormous number. At On the Slope we are trying to fill 1% of that need. Our goal is to support and establish 100 people in organic agriculture each year.”

This endeavor is the soul of On the Slope. Towards this end, the company established its own model farm to serve as a training ground where new farmers can learn and practice natural farming methods. “I realized that our main business, selling produce, wasn’t sufficient,” says Ono. “There is a lot of meaning and value to the service we provide. But right now our company’s agricultural business partners are highly motivated people. They study, they learn the best ways of farming, and they find their own farmland. They are motivated and independent. Partnering with those kinds of people is easy. But in order to create the kind of numbers to make this flip, the system can’t rely only on entrepreneurial spirited people like the farmers we have partnered with so far. We have to find a simpler route for other people to make that jump to organic farming if they want to.”

On the farm, the only gasoline powered vehicles are weed whippers and cars. Otherwise everything is done by hand. The training program can accommodate four or five people at a time. Students learn about cultivation, the correct ways of natural farming with the intent to head out to work independently.

Ono would like to take it one step further. “Going forward, the population in the countryside will continue to decrease rapidly. Rather than thinking purely business, we would like to establish a cooperative system between local governments and young people who want to go into agriculture. If we can get those young people into the areas with declining populations, maybe we can fix some of those regional dilemmas.”

The Practice
In the  words of Satoru Yamada of Yama no Aida,the model farm produced by On the Slope

The population living in the countryside is aging. They are abandoning their fields so farmland is opening up. It’s easier to find land now than it used to be. This was an abandoned rice field until last year. This is not living soil. It has no smell.  The smell of living soil comes from different organisms and bacteria within the soil. Converting those fields to healthy fields of living soil will take time.

One theory of how to do that is to use tractors, add fertilizers and mix it all up. I don’t see that kind of soil as living soil either. Plowing hurts the soil and brings it back to zero. It destroys the existing microorganisms and root structures of the weeds. So you have to replenish them each time between crops. Instead we preserve the living organisms and microorganisms that are in the soil.

Last winter, we created these ridges by digging out between them with shovels. You want to think of these as little mountains with valleys in between. The soil is still very hard, almost like cement. Living soil is full of microorganisms and earthworms. Earthworms consume the microorganisms in the soil and redeposit castings in the soil. They create aggregated soil structure increasing the soil’s productivity.

This farmland is only a year old. You can see that there is still little variety in the weeds. There is chrysanthemum, rice, and wheat. These are typical of the weeds that come in the first year. I manage the weeds and encourage a variety of them to grow that will increase a corresponding variety of microorganisms and insects. Microorganisms and certain insects congregate around their roots and they create paths through the soil. You can think of it as an apartment complex or communal living of these organisms and microorganisms. It’s as though we are raising the weeds and the crops together. Over time, it diversifies and balance is established in the fields enabling good vegetable crops to grow.

These fields were made for standing water. But vegetables can’t grow in those conditions. So flood control, drainage control is the biggest challenge when turning rice fields over to vegetable fields. I don’t water my fields. Along each section of soil we plant seeds in two slightly troughed rows. The rainwater gathers there so that the crops receive more water than the surrounding weeds. So on the small scale we are concerned with the movement of the water towards the crops. But on the big scale we are concerned with the drainage of the water away from the crops.  We have to carefully control each of those factors.

Today even organic farming often mimics conventional farming. Instead of chemical fertilizer they use animal fertilizer, a lot of it. In reverse, with chemical fertilizer there is a limit. The Japanese Agricultural Association has strict guidelines about the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Organic farmers on the other hand have no restrictions set on them and can add as much natural fertilizer as they like. The availability of those vegetables is increasing, but I don’t take that approach. 

This kind of farming is truly unusual. It’s all done through manual labor. The only gasoline powered vehicles are weed whippers and cars. It’s incredibly  time consuming, mostly because no mechanization is implemented. There are only 5 or 6 people in all of Japan farming this way with the aim of retailing their vegetables.

We grow only heirloom varieties and save seeds every year. For example, when the eggplants have gone by and turned yellow, we let them mature further on the bush and then we harvest them for the seeds. They will become next year’s eggplants. The same can be said for the weeds and insects too. Every year I’m cultivating the next generation. Weeds, insects, and crops, I synchronize them on the same cycle regenerating each year. What we raise this year will be easier to grow the following year and so on. In that way the community members don’t change. 

The Belief

Ultimately, On the Slope is less an organic produce company and more a sustainability project. As a company it operates on the philosophy of, agriculture, looking ahead 100 years.

“In Japan, 40 years ago there was a natural farming boom,” says Ono. “At that time, vendors only talked about, the peace of mind and safety of eating organically. They never discussed the environmental benefits or issues of sustainability.” Focusing only on the short-term, immediate consumer benefit is as Ono says, “an easier concept to grasp but it misses a key point.” As a tactic, it also failed to increase a consumer base or create paths for more farmers to use organic practices. For 40 years the organic market share in Japan didn’t change much. “We thought that was a big problem,” he says.

“Although we are an organic produce company, we don’t talk about personal peace of mind or security. This is very unusual in Japan,” explains Ono. “Companies that have been selling organic products in Japan for the last few decades, with their peace of mind and safety message are mainly targeting customers in their 50s and 60s with money. From the start, purchasing organic produce in Japan has been sort a hobby of the rich. However, our clients are on average, in their 30s, many of them not particularly wealthy.” Ono wants to educate his younger audience on what he considers bigger, vastly more important issues, namely sustainability and global security in the face of climate change. His company places the personal benefits of consuming organic produce secondary to the global benefits of growing organic produce.

Ono is bringing a needed new approach to agriculture in Japan. In a country too often bogged down by staid vision and status quo policy decisions, Ono is forging a new path in the private sector. He is independent, driven, and worldly. “Since college I had been thinking about a business related to organic farming and wondering what I could do,” he says. My academic background is in anthropology. I was also a backpacker. I traveled to all sorts of different countries. My longest journey was from Shanghai to Istanbul by land. It was illuminating. I could witness and compare the way of life in so many different communities and I thought to myself, “what way of life do you want to choose?” 

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