ICONfront interview article vol.19 features Hikari Okada who is one of the administration members of ICU Slow Vill.
We asked him how he cultivates the farm, the differences from ordinary farms, reasons why he is interested in working in the fields and the importance of being active locally as a student.
Q1. Could you tell us about your activities in Slow Vill?
I am a part of Prof. Tomiko Yamaguchi’s research project, called “ICU Slow Vill”, which grows a wide range of vegetables that its research project members are willing to grow in the field, to learn about ways to lessen damage to the environment.
Q2. Which vegetable did you grow in ICU Slow Vill’s farm this summer?
Currently, we are mainly growing summer vegetables, such as tomatoes, eggplants, okras, peanuts, and soybeans. We choose vegetables based on the members’ requests. The purpose of growing vegetables differs for each member. One is growing indigos to try indigo dyeing and another member grows cotton to make cotton fabrics. Four administration members including me organize our field and try to plant vegetables that ICU Slow Vill members are willing to grow.
We also hold monthly gathering events, exchanging seeds that we brought, planting sweet potatoes, and holding a harvest festival. Moreover, we conduct meetings with ICU professors and local farmers once a year.
ICU Slow Vill is often defined as a research project, but it is very close to a circle run by ICU students. Administration members are all students too. So far, 50 people have joined our field as ICU farmers. Exchange students, alumni and professors are also part of ICU Slow Vill and we get together in our field.
Q3. Could you tell us about the features of ICU Slow Vill’s field?
While ordinary farmers use chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to grow vegetables, we do not use these chemicals as much as possible and instead of using chemicals, we try to use natural insecticides and environmentally-friendly fertilizers. Not everyone in ICU Slow vill has professional skills and knowledge, so we rely on our smart phones and books to learn things. Everyday is trial and error.
Q4. How do you make “Eco Compost” that you are using in your field?
There is a group called “JA Tokyo Musashi Mitaka Area Youth Club ”, which is comprised of young farmers, and they are the main producers of the Eco Compost, which uses horse manure from the University of Tokyo Equestrian Team and fallen leaves from the ICU campus. Because JA Tokyo Musashi Mitaka Area Youth Club has been making the eco-compost in a corner of ICU Slow Vill’s field and we have connections with them, every spring, they give us some of the compost and we use it for our farm even though the compost was originally for local farmers.
Q5. What motivated you to join ICU Slow Vill?
Since high school, I have had an interest in the area of food and agriculture in terms of social issues and I entered ICU to study the sustainable food system.
My high school did not have general club activities such as a soccer club. Instead, we had unique club activities such as the livestock club, rice-growing club and breadmaking club. I belonged to the livestock club. I had been breeding jersey cows and pigs and chicken. I milked a cow every day. Because of the club activity, I like to work outside and be in nature.
So after entering university, I was interested in practical learning. I had heard that a senior student would begin a project called ICU Farming Project (currently ICU Slow Vill), and I immediately decided to join this project.
Q6. Is there anything that you make sure to do when you run your farm?
I care about how to organize our farm the most and at the same time, it is the biggest difference from the beginning of the activity. When we first started our farm, every member had one area to be in charge of and planted vegetables that they wanted to grow. It was good that everyone could grow whatever they wanted to grow, but it was difficult to take care of all the vegetables on our farm, especially during a long holiday like summer vacation. We often realized that some of the areas grew a lot of vegetables but we could not harvest them because it was another member’s area. We discussed how we could improve this situation, and we decided to abolish individual segmentation and change the style to share the field as a whole. By loosening the segmentations of our farm, we had more capacity to challenge growing new vegetables and I feel we increased the types of vegetables we grow compared to the past.
So, at first, you organized your farm in groups, but you changed it so that everyone took care of the whole area. You unified your farming methods.
Yes, not only are we taking care of our own crops, we are in charge of all the vegetables as a whole. Even if one of the members doesn’t have enough time to take care of their plants, we share the burden and help each other.
Q7. What is unique about ICU Slow Vill?
I feel that the way members carry different visions is one of the unique characteristics strengths of the organization. For example, there is an organization that rents part of our field called “FROSC”. They are stoic and unique because they are trying to make everything from scratch. Two years ago, they tried to make ramen from scratch. They hatched chicks from fertilized eggs to raise birds, made their own rice bowls, and went to Kanazawa to make kitchen knives.
Also, there’s an organization called “Glocal Mitaka” that promotes Japanese culture and life to ICU international students. They are renting ICU Slow Vill’s field as part of their activities, so ICU Slow Vill has a lot of opportunities to interact with international students.
Q8. Have you noticed anything new through your activities at ICU Slow Vill?
There are many things I have noticed and learned since I started working in the fields at ICU Slow Vill. Last spring, we held a “seed exchange meeting” where each member brought in the seeds they wanted to sow. Seeds are actually quite interesting. The seeds sold at supermarkets and home depots are sterilized or coated with red medicine, so many people haven’t seen the original shape and appearance of seeds. At the seed exchange meeting, we showed each other how carrot seeds and pumpkin seeds are actually shaped. I learned a lot by touching the seeds at such events.
To speak of seeds in a little more detail, F1 is the mainstream species now, and most farmers are using it. F1 seeds, however, cannot pass on the characteristics of their crops to the next generation. There are so many other species like native and fixed species, so we also look into seed species through seed exchange meetings.
In terms of the natural environment, our field is also a place where goshawks living in ICU nest and raise their chicks. Therefore, it is very important not to cause harm or stress to goshawks. So, we work as quietly as possible and consider the surrounding environment. In addition, we have been keeping honey bees since last spring. But if the time for flowers to bloom comes all at once, the nectar and pollen that feed the honey bees cannot be supplied continuously. To prevent this, we adjust the arrangement of crops so that the flowering time of the flowers varies as much as possible.
Q9. What is the importance of students participating in field activities?
It’s very simple, but I think it is important for college students in terms of refreshing their minds. If students study a lot, they get tired mentally, so they can wind down by connecting with nature, such as by weeding.
Also, we can learn how hard it is to grow the vegetables that we usually buy at supermarkets. For example, while the number of students who are interested in the environment due to the media is increasing recently, there are also students who are also interested in organic farming. Many people learn from the media that organic farming is good. It’s amazing how local farmers, who are mainly engaged in conventional farming, grow fine crops using as little pesticide as possible. Therefore, it cannot be said that organic farming is good and conventional farming is bad. When we reach 100 percent organic farming, I wonder whether we will be able to produce enough food to feed the population and if we can develop the necessary technology. It’s not a black-and-white issue.
We’ve had experiences of losing all our crops to insects. We realized that it is not necessarily a simple world of good and bad..
Q10. What can we do as students?
Actually, supporting local agricultural products is an easy way for us to get involved as consumers. Urban agriculture actually has a lot of benefits, such as reducing transportation distance and fees, contributing to green urban planning, and acting as an evacuation shelter in an emergency. I think it is important for consumers to understand that urban agriculture is essential. In that sense, I hope urban agriculture will be recognized more widely, and they get support in terms of policy.
Also, I think Mitaka is an area with many farmers, but we often don’t have many opportunities to know where the fields are and what kind of people are growing these vegetables. Therefore, if you are a college student and have some free time, you could try contacting the farmer yourself and supporting the farm.
Q11. What would you like to tell society?
To use our five senses, put it into words, and share it with others.
Q12. Does that apply to our daily lives outside the vegetable fields?
Yes, I believe so, but what I’m talking about here is mainly within the fields. Textbook knowledge doesn’t really give us space to extend our imagination. Therefore, I believe it is important to have practical experience, such as going to the field to mow the grass, harvest vegetables, touch the seeds, and smell freshly mowed grass. I think that such experiences provide us with a strong foundation for our thoughts that can’t be gained through knowledge alone. I hope society provides these opportunities, because I learned that the act of seeing, touching, smelling, eating, and listening gave me knowledge and experiences that I’m proud of.
Q13. What do you want to challenge yourself to in the future?
Firstly, I would like to create a system within the organization where the members can work in the fields and plan events at any time they like. I also want to create opportunities to interact with local farmers, like supporting their farming and learning about food and farming from them. In addition, I want to try new things in ICU such as composting kitchen waste generated on campus, and working on our general education curriculum.
Q14. What aspects of the general education curriculum do you want to work on?
Universities in America, for example, have campus farms, which are not only for club activities but also for practical training and for growing crops for the school cafeteria. Since ICU is a liberal arts institution, we often talk about how it would be nice to have a field for practical learning outside our majors. Specifically, in general education at ICU, we want to have a course where students can learn the food production system, from cultivating fields and planting seeds to harvesting and eating them throughout the year. We’re not the only ones talking about this; we’re having ongoing discussions with teachers such as our advisor Professor Yamaguchi and environmental studies Professor Fujinuma.
[The article about ICU Slow Vill in the past]
[ ICU Slow Vill’s SNS accounts ]