At one with the vegetables
Shumei's produce goes beyond organic with 'natural agriculture'
Each Sunday morning, the parking lot of the Mountain View train station is full, not with travelers but with locavores and produce-seekers. The weekly farmers market is a mecca of organic fruits and veggies, as well as some baked goods. But new to its collection of healthy treats this summer, under a standard white tent with an unassuming sign, is Shumei, a Santa Cruz farm that cultivates its crop in a unique way.
The farm's practice, called "natural agriculture," goes beyond organic. No pesticides. No herbicides. No fertilizers. They let nature do its thing.
"We are trying to make harmony with nature by observing nature," says Masahide Koyama, the farm's development coordinator.
Natural agriculture originated in Japan, guided by the philosophy of Mokichi Okada, who believed in cultivating spirit, beauty and nature, Koyama says.
"He found that the most important thing is to be natural, so he identified the importance of natural agriculture," Koyama says.
The farming philosophy centers around the human relationship with the earth, a relationship that requires a deep respect for nature.
"Nature can teach us everything," says Rosann Kugler, the farm's development coordinator assistant. "We're in harmony with the Earth. When you're not manipulating nature, you're connecting with it."
Kugler says spirituality is inherent in Shumei's relationship with nature, which she describes as a "oneness with the vegetables." This requires letting go of all the ways in which we try to control nature, she says.
"If you're trying to control it, you're not being spiritual with it," Kugler says. "You can't practice natural agriculture without practicing spirituality."
Shumei Santa Cruz is just one of the locations of the international organization. The 22-acre farm sits in the hills of Bonny Doon, where the soil nurtures the strawberries, zucchini, green beans, tomatoes, cucumber, eggplant, peppers, and shiso, a Japanese herb. And that's just in the summer. During other seasons, the farm grows Daikon radish, lettuce, arugula, carrots, Swiss chard, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, onions and garlic.
Both Koyama and Kugler have noticed the difference in taste that natural agriculture makes.
"The first thing everybody says is, 'Wow, this tastes great,'" Kugler says.
The strawberries are a particular favorite among Shumei's customers.
"When I compare our strawberries to ones I buy from the supermarket, they are totally different. Our strawberries taste better," Koyama says.
Since they often sell out so quickly, Shumei regulars will often make a special request.
"Sometimes customers call and ask us to keep strawberries for them," Koyama says.
Besides the Mountain View market, Shumei participates in farmers markets in Saratoga and Felton. Koyama recognizes the importance of selling the farm's produce there.
"Agriculture is one of the biggest factors in environmental degradation," he says. "If we try to sell to grocery stores we just support the current economic system. Farmers markets (are) one of the ways we can change it."
But even though farmers markets, with their organic, locally grown offerings, are a step in the right direction, Kugler says it's not enough.
"Organic is good but it's not as good as natural agriculture," Kugler says. She explains that even organic fertilizers are bad for the soil and get into the water system. With natural agriculture, the absence of all herbicide and fertilizer — even composting — forces the plants to have deeper roots to seek out the proper nutrients.
"The plants are stronger," Kugler says. "We don't even have any pests that attack the plants."
While being beyond eco-friendly, the nutrient-rich veggies are also great for your health, she says. Even Kugler's dentist noticed she had no tartar on her teeth after she had been eating Shumei's produce.
"It's more alkaline, which means a macrobiotic diet," Kugler says. "It changes the condition of your health and your teeth."
Shumei only grows what is in season, but Kugler says that's all anyone needs. Tomatoes, for example, are a summer fruit, with juices designed to hydrate on hot days.
"You don't need a tomato in the winter," she says. "That's how you go with the flow of nature."
Besides bringing natural agriculture to farmers markets, Shumei caters to the community in a variety of ways. It has a community-supported agriculture program with about 30 members. Participants in the program pay for a weekly box of produce. Shumei also provides veggies to two elementary schools as part of the Farm to School program to encourage healthy diets for kids. It sells ingredients to two local organic restaurants. It hosts "WWOOFers" or volunteer farmers from the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms program. They offer farm tours and host kids to show them where their food comes from.
"We hope that globally we will be growing food by natural agriculture in the near future," Kugler says. "We're just trying to show a more natural way that's better for your health and the health of the planet."
Shumei also wants to reshape people's relationship with food by making people more spiritually connected with it. They also hope to establish a new certification for natural agriculture to establish it as different from organic farming. But they mostly want to spread the word, through events like the annual open farm event, happening this Sunday, Sept. 5. They'll open the farm to the public for musical performances, a natural agriculture lunch, and information about the farm. Local vendors will also be at the event selling organic clothing, homemade soaps, handmade glass, and talking about alternative energy, Koyama says.
Whether farmers market customers are motivated by the healthy benefits, great taste or the natural approach of Shumei's produce, Koyama says their intention with their harvests it what makes the biggest difference.
"We give our love to the produce, so if people eat our produce they will receive our love," he says. "Love is one of the best medicines in the world."
For more information about Shumei Santa Cruz Farm, visit www.shumei-na.org or call (831) 427-2672. For more information about the Mountain View Farmers Market, visit www.cafarmersmkts.com