Ducks help farmers grow rice:
-An attempt at growing rice in an environment-friendly way-

If nature's way is best, then we'll see how practical it is. The reason why Takeshi Kamada, a rice farmer in Miyazaki Town, a rural farming community to the northwest of Sendai Clty, decided to use ducks to help grow rice is simple - "it sounded like fun." This year, Kamada will release two thousand ducks in ten hectares of rice fields which he plans to cultivate with other farmers who have signed up to try out this new attempt at sustainable agriculture. The farmers will see to it that the ducks will eat as many of the weeds as they wish so the farmers will not have to weed the fields themselves. Rice is by far the largest cash crop in Japan's agriculture. But due to the continuous reliance on chemicals, some observers say that the soil in many of the Japanese farmlands has lost much of its potential power to produce. Weeding in the rice paddies is an important, but a time-consuming task. The use of herbicides, therefore, is commonly practiced across the nation, aggravating the soil even more. Kamada's attempt is one that aims to unlink from the easy reliance on Chemicals and to practice sustainable agriculture while making the best use of nature's power.

According to Prof. Tsuyoshi Honda of Miyagi University of Education, ducks are released in the rice paddies about ten days after planting the rice seedlings. Fifteen to twenty ducks will be assigned to ten acres of paddy, where they will feed on all the plant growths but rice. "The stalks of rice plants are harder than those, so the ducks don't want to eat them," explained Honda. In order to prevent the ducks from flying away and to protect them from attacks by stray dogs and weasels, the fields must be covered by nets.

The ducks will feed on insects also, helping to decrease the amount of insecticides at the same time. "Costwise it's still cheaper to use herbicides" said Honda, but added that the soil power will be restored gradually and more wholesome use of land will be possible each year. "In the long run," said Honda, " it may not be so expensive depending on how they manage lt."

Because of its experimental nature, the steps involved in this method of weeding demand further improvements. For instance, the ducks will not be needed once the grains start forming and what then? "It's too much for individual farmers to raise all the ducks on their own," said Honda. One idea would be to keep the ducks together in some fallow fields. Then the farmers' group can manage the flock to bring down the cost. An optimistic Kamada said, however, that he enjoys doing this experiment and trying different possibilities. Last year, the farmers' group smoked some of the duck meat using a smoking machine that the municipal government leased the farmers for free. And this year, the group's smoked duck meat will be introduced to consumers. Among a variety of attempts to cut down the cost, duck lease, something unheard of in all of Japan, was experimented with successful results. A meat processing company up in lwate Prefecture was intrigued by what Kamada was doing and the company offered their ducklings for free in exchange for several months of raising them in the rice fields. Since the ducks will be redeemed by the company, the farmers do not need to trouble themselves about what to do with the birds after the rice harvest.

Launching this method of rice farming, just like anything else that is innovative, was not easy. When Kamada first introduced ducks in his fields three years ago, the idea was still new and only one other farmer expressed interest in all of Miyazaki Town. In the same year that he started the experiment, Kamada came down with ALS, a disease that causes the muscles to wear down gradually. The disease is currently forcing him to be in and out of the hospital, and he uses a wheelchair most of the time.

"I thought if cut down on chemicals, maybe that would help clean the city water and I could deliver healthy rice at the same time. It felt like it was up to me to initiate that kind of thing out in this small town," said Kamada. In response to Kamada's continuous calls inviting more farmers to join him, several more have shown interest, and today the size of the duck-rice paddies all combined is about to reach Kamada's targeted goal of 10 hectares, which he initially thought would take ten years.

"Kamada's experiment is especially significant since they work together in a specific area with a substantial expanse," said Takaaki Koganezawa, professor of Miyagi University of Education, referring to the group approach. "The total effect of the farming method will be more closely monitored that way, " explained Koganezawa.

The future of rice farming in general in this town, just like anywhere else in this country, is none too bright. According to Miyazaki Town government official, acreage of abandoned fields is slowly increasing attesting to the difficulty of continuing small- to mid-scale family farming. Some observers warn that the future of community life as well as the ecosystem may be at stake sometime soon.

Kamada, however, sees the situation as a good opportunity for both farmers and consumers; without something like a sense of crisis regarding food supply, it would be hard to get producers and consumers to discuss common subjects together.

The group's experiment was accepted by EPF Information Network, an NGO initiated by the Kahoku Shimpo Newspaper's Environment-People-Food project team, as one of their field-testing farms to produce environment-friendly rice. Kamada's duck-populated rice paddies, among other fans on the project, will be closely monitored for one whole year. All the details from the planting methods to production costs, will be reported by the newspaper for a full discussion on the feasibility of each production method. Farmers, consumers and specialists from related fields including retail stores, wholesalers make up the Network.

For many consumers, rice is something that they buy off the store shelf without the slightest notion into production, but for the farmers in Kamada's group' it is a matter of commitment - continuing to sustainable manner helps to protect the environment, and the community life.

The ducks will be released in the rice paddies in early June when rice seedlings have taken root. As he has done in previous years, Kamada will be inviting local elementary school kids to the annual "duck launching ceremony" again this year.

Kamada's group is gaining momentum as they prepare to host the 6th national forum on the subject of duck weeding in March, 1997. The municipal government of Miyazaki Town has expressed their full support for the national event. "It's a way of having people become aware of the fun of rice farming and the importance of sustaining the community's ecosystem," said Kamada.