FUKUSHIMA, JAPAN — Noboru Saito says his rice is considered some of the best in Japan, but to harvest his crops safely, he’s got some extra equipment that most farmers would never keep in their tool sheds: a Geiger counter, bags of potassium, and a $22,000 radiation tester.
Saito’s farm is about 50 kilometers away from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear plant, which spewed toxic radiation into the land and water after it was destroyed in an earthquake and tsunami in 2011. The plant is still leaking radiation today.
“Some people decided to stop farming and fled to other regions with their entire families,” Saito tells VICE News. “Personally, I didn’t run away, I tried to make things work in this region and fight the radiation.”
There are still heaps of radioactive topsoil piled up just outside his land, and Saito has had to make some changes to the way his family works on the farm they’ve owned for eight generations.
“Every spring, we put potassium in our paddies. [The rice] will absorb potassium instead of [radioactive] cesium. This is known as inhibition resorption,” says Saito.
Japan has some of the world’s strictest standards when it comes to the level of radioactivity allowed in food sold in markets. After the disaster, Fukushima farmers put a tremendous amount of effort into restoring their land and making sure their produce is safe to consume. But combating the stigma associated with the region is a different battle. On the weekends, Saito sets up a grocery stand in Tokyo to engage and inform customers about his product.
“If I bring my produce directly, I can answer questions. I can talk to people directly,” he says. “Then, because they understand, they buy products from Fukushima with peace of mind.”
Before the disaster, Fukushima was famous for its produce. Now, some farmers believe the best way to shake the region’s stigma is to market their products as part of a long legacy of exceptional agriculture.
Koji Furuyama owns a peach orchard in Fukushima, and is attempting to set a record, and grow the sweetest peaches in the world. His best fruit are priced at around $20,000 each, but his more affordable varieties sell in urban supermarkets for about $100 a piece.
“Japanese agriculture is about making the highest quality produce in the world in a limited space. So even a small amount can carry a higher price.” Koji Furuyama, the owner of a luxury peach orchard told VICE News. “Otherwise we can’t make a living”
Furuyama says he’s been able to find a market for his premium peaches in the years following the nuclear disaster, but knows other farmers in his prefecture are still suffering because of the stigma associated with the region.
Japan’s government was planning to host baseball and softball games in Fukushima during the 2020 Olympics in a bid to refresh the region’s image to the international community. Although those games have been delayed because of the COVID pandemic, farmers like Furuyama are hoping that they will be a turning point for the region in 2021.
“Fukushima is stuck with this image of danger. That reputation is global. Instead of keeping that bad memory of Fukushima, please visit Fukushima yourself, and see with your own eyes, that Fukushima is not what you imagine it to be.”