Up the slopes the van went into the ever denser, greener woods. We were in the town of Reihoku in Amakusa, Kumamoto Prefecture, a major producer of the Satsuma mandarin, or Unshu mikan. Here, we visited Fukuda Fruit Garden, an established grower of some 50 years. Tomooki Fukuda was raised on the mikan grown by his father and has currently taken over as the garden owner. He is well known for practicing pesticide- and chemical fertilizer-free farming and producing exceptionally sweet and juicy mikan. As we stepped into his garden, the first thing that struck us was the carpet of knee-high weeds. What’s more, the trees were not planted in orderly rows but growing in random spots as they do in the wild. Mr. Fukuda says he deliberately maintains an environment as close as possible to nature:
“My father passed away 15 years ago and left me the business. The mikan growing at the time didn’t taste as fantastic as the mikan I remember eating as a child. The scent released from peeling the orange wasn’t as good as it used to be either. I did some research and found that after years of using pesticides and chemical fertilizers, the garden’s soil was becoming depleted. I switched to organic fertilizer and aimed to re-create the soil.”
Having learned that to re-create the soil, he needs to nurture the fungi naturally present in the field, Mr. Fukuda stopped using fungicides and eventually also insecticides. Without insecticides, an astonishing number of insects reappeared. But Mr. Fukuda kept his faith in nature and persevered with organic farming.
“I’ve had a mikan crop infested with shield bugs, and at worst, seen 80 percent of a crop fall from the trees, leaving me with nothing to ship. Still, I had done my research, and the knowledge I gained told me to hang in there for three years. In time, spiders and centipedes appeared and got rid of pests, and this alone helped improve the overall balance. Since we never used herbicide to begin with, we always had weeds. But ever since we stopped using fertilizer, the weeds diversified. As the soil regained its natural balance, microbes and fungi began doing their job and regenerating the soil. Right now I grow the mikan using only enzymes derived from fermented soybeans, yogurt, and brown sugar, and I think it’s bringing back the scent I remember from my childhood.”
Mr. Fukuda is committed to eschewing insecticides and herbicides from his farming. He took a chance on the natural bounties of the sun and the soil. Consumers waiting for delicious mikan give him encouragement against the remaining risk of disasters such as floods and earthquakes. Saying goodbye to old ways and starting over from scratch to revive the delicious scent from his childhood—the secret story of Mr. Fukuda’s challenge has made our mikan taste even sweeter.