By Corinne Morier and Jon Funabiki
If there’s one thing that Fukushima is famous for, it’s peaches – beautiful, pink peaches that taste sweet and juicy.
These unforgettable delicacies could have been forever endangered by Japan’s disaster.
But Shinichi Katahira is standing his ground. He has become one of many fruit and vegetable farmers in the region who are fighting the radiation that rained over the region during the meltdown of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi Nuclear Power Plant.
The orchard represents his business, his livelihood and his family legacy. Katahira wears a Honda baseball cap and a plain white T-shirt while he tells his story under the shade of his trees. Fukushima’s hot summers and cold winters are idea for raising peaches, such as the bright pink and yellow Chinese variety that are wrapped in paper to protect them from insects and bruising even as they hang from the trees. Katahira took over the orchard, which practically vibrates with the sound of summer cicadas, from his father.
The earthquake that struck on March 11, 2011 didn’t scare him, and his farm was too far from the coast to be threatened by tsunami. “For people like us, evacuating was never an option,” he said. “We made a decision to stay.”
But the power plant disaster was a jolt of another magnitude. “I thought it was all over. I viewed it as a life-changing event.”
As a fourth-generation farmer, Katahira decided he couldn’t give in.
“The reality began to sink in about the food safety,” he explained. “We had to think how to make sure our fruit was safe so we could continue to sell our product.”
Thus began the painstaking work to decontaminate the orchard. After consulting with experts, Katahira pressure-washed every tree to knock off any radioactive particles. Then, the top layer of soil and any fallen leaves, branches and other debris had to be dug up and buried 600 meters away. The radioactive-free ground is now covered with blankets of heavy-duty foil to prevent recontamination.
Testing has shown the orchard to be safe. But to persuade consumers that the peaches can be eaten, farm products are monitored for radiation before they go to market. However, overcoming consumer fears and the stigma left by the disaster may be the biggest hurdle for Fukushima farmers. To allay those fears, the government has banned farming in the most highly contaminated areas and imposed strict standards on foods headed for market or export. The prefectural government has mounted public relations campaigns to convince consumers that food products on the market are safe to eat.
Despite his own determination, Katahira isn’t sure how much longer agriculture will remain viable Fukushima. Younger generations – including his own children – aren’t interested in the life of farming.
Still, Katahira is thinking about the long term. He plans to cut down older trees and replace them with new ones. He thinks that if he keeps the trees short, it will be easier to harvest the peaches.
“This is an opportunity to rethink and redesign,” he said.