Photo credit: AP | Toraaki Ogata drives a tractor to plant rice saplings in a paddy field in northeastern Japan. Last year’s crop sits in storage, deemed unsafe to eat, but Ogata is back at his rice paddies, 35 miles from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, driving his tractor trailing neat rows of saplings. (May 21, 2012)
By YURI KAGEYAMA
FUKUSHIMA, Japan – Last year’s crop sits in storage, deemed unsafe to eat, but Toraaki Ogata is back at his rice paddies, driving his tractor, trailing neat rows of seedlings.
He’s living up to his family’s proud, six-generation history of rice farming, and praying that this time his harvest will not have too much radiation to sell.
That conflict is shared by several thousand farmers in more than 17,000 acres of Fukushima, where some of last year’s harvest exceeded government safety standards because of radiation released when the March 2011 tsunami set off the world’s second-worst nuclear accident.
For their rice to be sold, it will have to be tested — every grain of it.
“All I can do is pray there will be no radiation,” Ogata, 58, said last week, wiping his sweat during a break in his 3.7-acre paddy 35 miles from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant. “It’s not our fault at all, but the land of our ancestors has been defiled.”
Rice farming is almost sacred in rural Japan, and the government protects farmers with tight restrictions on imports. Many farmers are too close to the nuclear disaster to return to the fields, but others have gotten the go-ahead, even with the risk their harvests may end up being too radiated to ship.
Hopes are high in this major agricultural northeastern state that farmers will meet the unprecedented challenge of producing safe-to-eat rice in contaminated soil.
Following orders from the government, they have sprinkled zeolite, a pebble-like material that traps radioactive cesium, and added fertilizer with potassium to help block radiation absorption. That work is part of the $1.3 billion Tokyo has allocated for decontamination efforts this year.
There had been no time for that last year. Tens of thousands of bags of rice from that harvest were too radiated to be sold. The government bought those crops, which sit in giant mounds in storage.
Rice planting has been banned in the most contaminated areas, but the government allowed it at some farms in areas that produced contaminated rice last year, including Ogata’s. After the October harvest, their rice will be run through special machines that can detect the tiniest speck of radiation.
Ogata is filled with uncertainty. Though the government recently set up a system to buy and destroy his crop from last year, he has no assurances that it will do so again if this year’s rice can’t be eaten.
Radiation is expected to decline year by year. But Ogata and other farmers acknowledge they are in for a long haul.