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Japan farmer harvests hope in our soil


JAPANESE farmer Takemi Shirado still sounds grief-stricken and shell-shocked when talking about last year’s Fukushima nuclear disaster that so devastated his rural community.

Catastrophic radiation contamination of the soil means his family won’t be able to sow rice on their Iwaki rice paddies, about 60km from the crippled defunct power plant, for at least 300 years.

Other local farmers are starting to grow leafy vegetables on less-contaminated fields, but are finding consumers too scared to buy their risky produce.

But Mr Shirado is clearly not a man to moan and mope.

Instead he has come to Australia as head of a consortium of Fukushima farmers to see if north Queensland’s fertile Burdekin valley might hold the solution to his prefecture’s long-term fallout-affected food problems.

Mr Shirado’s dream now is to turn the sugarcane fields around Ayr into fertile flooded rice paddies growing Japanese rice varieties in traditional organic ways, to supply the people of his ruined home prefecture once again with their staple food.

Yesterday Mr Shirado, official representative of the Fukushima farmers co-operative, was celebrating.

More than 15 months after the tsunami and nuclear explosion destroyed his community’s quiet way of life, the proud Japanese rice grower could be found standing knee deep in green rice stalks, small Japanese sickle in hand, harvesting his first Kochi rice trial in tropical north Queensland.

“It is looking good; even though it is still early days,” said a satisfied Mr Shirado.

“So far this looks like being a very good area for growing rice; I think we can grow four crops a year here and the water is very pure too.”

With strict quarantine restrictions on importing Japanese varieties of rice into Australia, Mr Shirado’s Burdekin rice scheme has had to start from scratch.

Three months ago he had just a handful of the required kochi rice seeds — only 100g — to plant in three small test plots at the Ayr agricultural research station.

After yesterday’s hand harvest, he now has 10kg of rice grain to grow his next Ayr crop on more irrigated land. By August, Mr Shirado hopes to have turned that 10kg of rice into one tonne of seed, before expanding exponentially.

Local Queensland agricultural regional development manager Gareth Jones admits the plans of the Fukushima Farmers co-operative are ambitious; particularly their certainty of harvesting a rapid four crops of rice a year, each taking just three months to grow.

But he says the Burdekin needs diversity, and that new varieties of sushi or short-grain rice grown using flood irrigation, might fit well into fallow rotations of local canegrowers.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that when this project started, the Japanese delegation felt they were planting seeds of hope for the future,” Mr Jones says.





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