Sunday, September 30, 2012

This Day, We Must Celebrate

The Importance of Celebration

This week is rice harvesting week. At ARI we harvest our main crops both by hand and by machine. The rice harvesting machine is like a small John Deer tractor that also threshes the grain and spits the rice straw out the back side. We use the machine for a few of the larger rice paddies that we have. Many of the other fields are harvested by hand. A community work day was planned last Wednesday for all the participants, farm workers, and volunteers to get together and head to the fields with a sickle in hand.

At the beginning of the week, some of the participants said that there should be some kind of service to celebrate the beginning of the rice harvest. Joe from Cameroon made the point that rice is a very important crop for us. The successful growth and harvest of our rice will allow us to eat three times a day for an entire year. We all took a vote and decided that the rice harvest deserved a small celebration of its own before we began harvesting.

So on that clear blue Wednesday morning, with Autumn breeze blowing across rice stalks leaning heavy with grain, we all gathered in the field ready to sing our thanks to the heavens for the gift of life we were preparing to receive. Niro, from Sri Lanka, sang a song in his native language that is traditionally sung by people when harvesting rice. It is a song voicing thanks to the earth, to the air, to the sun, and to God for the food that has been grown. Then Jill, from the Philippines, played the guitar to one of our favorite songs here at ARI, “Take My Hand.” Rev. Nishanta, of Sri Lanka led us in prayer.

We realized celebration is not just an excuse to light fireworks, bake cakes, drink beer, and do a touchdown dance. Celebration is a way that we humans give thanks for the gifts we are receiving in our life, whether the gift is six more points, a year with the one you love, or the chance to receive the gift of life for another year. The celebration marks the moment as sacred. We could celebrate more often and in many different ways: smile at the rain of a typhoon, fist-pump for another sunrise.

Wilson Returns

Something also worthy of celebration is that Wilson, of the Philippines, returned from his visit home. His wife passed on soon after his arrival earlier this month. He returned to us on Thursday. Friday morning he shared with us some pictures from the funeral and his home church that gathered about to support him and his family. He said that everyone he spoke to was supportive of his returning to ARI to finish his training. Many people there know how important his learning here is, and how it could be used to make life for his people better.

Doug's Morning Gathering

On Thursday I (Doug) was the chair person for the morning gathering. For our first sharing we are supposed to tell about who we are and where we come from. That is a long story for me as it is for anyone. So I chose to talk mainly about my grandfather, Omer Knight. He was born into a “poor” life along the Ouachita river. He grew up having to fish, hunt, and grow his food. He took a mill job to provide for his family. But things changed for his descendants. I get most of my food by swiping my debit card. I tried to point out that because of this, I am not considered “poor.” But being at ARI so far has made me realize how poor I really am in knowledge of self-sufficiency. I could not feed myself without a supermarket. My grandfather was rich with the knowledge that can allow someone to live independent of supermarkets and debit cards. I feel like part of why I am here is to recover some of that lost knowledge.

Adventures in Nikko

Friday Morning, after Wilson's presentation, Jenny and I left the ARI campus on bikes heading for the train station. We took a weekend trip to the city of Nikko to celebrate our first year of marriage together!

We discovered Nikko to be a city similar to Eureka Springs, for those of you Arkansans who're familiar with that town. Nikko is a famous tourist destination for international and Japanese people. It is a beautiful mountain town with lots of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples to visit. The town is filled with little locally owned Japanese restaurants, and just about anything else you want to eat too. Lots of Japanese style sweet shops.

The shrines cost money to visit so we gave them a pass and headed up into the mountains where we spent Saturday morning hiking and swimming in very chilly waterfalls. We then discovered that leech bites take a long time to stop bleeding.

We spent the evening relaxing, reading, and celebrating with a local Nikko brew.

Sunday morning we woke up and had a large breakfast prepared by Ken, the owner of the small lodge where we stayed. Eggs, toast, and oatmeal! Then we walked down into town and explored a neat place along the river where there are many statues of Buddha known as the Bakejizo, stone ghost statues. Apparently if you walk one way counting them and then count them as you pass by again, there will be a different number every time. We did not count them, just admired them.

We made it back to ARI just before the typhoon rains hit. Tonight we are celebrating the gift of water and another good meal at ARI. Rice from the rest of Japan just isn't as good!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Autumn and Anniversaries!

It is officially Autumn which means 周年 (shūnen=anniversary) time! This time last year, we were preparing for a weekend full of celebration and a lifetime full of love and companionship. A lot has happened this past year and we've made a lot of wonderful memories (wrote theses, graduated college, adventured west, raised $20,000, and moved to Japan!), and we know the year to come will be just as memorable! Just a few days ago, an American couple arrived at ARI to volunteer for two and a half months. We quickly found out that we shared our anniversary, same day same year!!!

Speaking of anniversaries, September 24 not only marks one year of marriage for us, but also 50 days on the farm! Yes, we have officially been at ARI for 50 days. So we will take this time to tell you about the last 7.

Blueberry Farm cont'd: JAM!

After visiting the blueberry farm last weekend, we made blueberry jam! We definitely aren't experts yet but we feel confident we could make a jar or two of fig jam if we wanted to.

Isn't this jar fitting?!?

Green Beans

The green bean season is coming to a close, which means we have been taking down all the plants. Which also means we've been eating little baby beans while we work! The green beans are just one of many signs that the season is changing here on the farm. We are beginning to sow and transplant our winter crops, as well as prepare for next spring's work.

Community Event

We had our monthly community event this week. If you'll recall, we arrived at ARI just in time for August's community event when we went to the park and participated in various team-building games. The event in August was organized by the participants, and this one we just had was organized by the staff (next month, volunteers will organize the community event!). So after morning gathering on Thursday, we all piled into buses and headed up Nasu Mountain to an assisted living facility for adults with mental and physical disabilities, associated with the Catholic church. The facility is almost fully funded by the government, although residents do pay room and board. When we arrived, we ate lunch, received a tour of the main campus, and then shared fellowship with the residents and staff. This event reminded us very much of our friends and time spent at Robert R. Brown sessions at Camp Mitchell, lots of laughter and joy!

New Koinonia

ARI has been in the process of rebuilding parts of campus since the earthquake in March 2011. As of Saturday, September 22, we have a new Koinonia (dining hall, classroom, chapel). “Koinonia” is greek for “fellowship.” So we celebrated on Saturday with a special dedication service combined with a memorial service for the late Dr. Akira Niwa, former ARI director who died suddenly this past June. It was a bittersweet but overall joyful celebration of the past, present, and future of ARI.

Leo's Cottage

There are many people outside of the immediate ARI community that like to visit and volunteer on the farm. They are called “community volunteers.” A couple of weeks ago, one particular community volunteer, Leo, was working in the sunflower fields with Doug. After talking all afternoon, Leo extended an invitation for us to visit his cottage sometime before winter. So we accepted the invitation and headed off into the mountains after the dedication/memorial service on Saturday. Leo's cottage is on top of a nearby mountain, he tries to spend as much time as possible there in the summer to escape the heat and chaos of Tokyo, where he permanently lives.

For dinner, we cooked traditional Japanese skiyaki (SP?), “yaki” means “food” and “ski” means something along the lines of “how you like it.” So skiyaki is cooked in a skillet at the table, and you can cook your food however you like, lightly, well-done, etc. And you cook a little, eat, add more to the skillet, cook, eat, etc, meanwhile sharing drinks and conversation. Skiyaki is very delicious!!

After dinner, we attempted to visit a neighboring “ghost mansion” (haunted house!), but we only got as far as the steps leading from the road to the house! It was too dark and Jenny was just not going to have any of that. Although we did take a closer look in the morning when it was light.

It has been raining all day today (all week in fact) but that didn't stop us from exploring some nearby natural features. Leo took us to a couple different walking areas where we saw waterfalls, and rivers, and deep canyons. We also spent some time inside one of the visitor centers making a leaf book! After a morning full of rain and walking, we headed back to Leo's cottage for dessert/appetizers before lunch. He let us try two (2!!) traditional Japanese desserts, very oishi (delicious!).

During dinner the night before, Leo asked us what is our favorite Japanese dish, we both answered, “okonomiyaki!” We've had this twice before, once at the fireworks festival, and once a group of visiting university students cooked it for the ARI community. So Leo took us to an okonomiyaki restaurant for lunch, sagoi (SPP) (great!). “Okonomi” means something like do it yourself. So in the restaurant, everyone sits around a grill (like at Japanese steakhouses, only smaller) and you make your own dish! We will definitely go there again and plan on bringing the experience home to Arkansas!

We are back on the farm now, it is still raining! Our weekend assignment is tending the pigs. So here in a bit we will spend some time with our porky friends, feeding and cleaning up after them (and Jenny will gawk at the piglets, soooooo cute!!).

One last update on Wilson. His wife's funeral was held last week. We heard he will be returning to ARI to complete the program, we are all very excited about this!

We hope everyone has a lovely autumn week!

Fellow servants in Christ,

Doug and Jenny

Monday, September 17, 2012

ARI - Your Official Tour

The time has finally come! We have been gathering information since our arrival. Now we feel we can properly introduce you all. This is your official tour of the Asian Rural Institute.

Life here at ARI is all about food. It is centered around the idea we call foodlife; food is necessary for life, life is necessary for food—the two cannot be separated. So almost every aspect of ARI contributes to a sustainable food production system. This means that life here at ARI is very cyclical.

So we'll begin the introduction with what seems like the end of things, but is also the beginning.

Compost and Soil

All crops and vegetables at ARI are grown organically; we don’t use chemical fertilizers. ARI has been growing for forty years. In order to keep the soil rich and fertile for tomorrow and the tomorrow after that, we have to be very intentional about how we use our soil and what goes into it.

Every morning, someone (often it’s Doug) takes a wheelbarrow full of pig-poop and dumps it into the compost bins. Composting is a big deal. There are four separate compost bins.

We compost everything from weeds, to kitchen waste, to meal waste, to animal waste (just excrement), to food processing waste (such as rice husk, soy bean husk, left over tofu, etc.). Here is a close up of some freshly dumped goodies.

Once the compost is fully decomposed (black, soft, and delicious!) it is added to garden beds and used to make soil blocks for seedlings. In this way we return much of the nutrients that we take from the soil by farming it.

The farm soil is mildly contaminated with radiation from last year’s power plant mishap at Fukushima. We have to measure the Becquerel count of many plants before putting them in the compost. Though soil fertility is important, we cannot risk putting radioactive plant matter back into our compost and thus, back into our soil. Some food they have been checking in the past year has had too much radiation to eat, though the situation is gradually getting better. Those plants die off at the end of the year’s cycle and are taken off campus.

A close up of newest compost deposit (weeds, okara, pig waste).
One way we are trying to remove the radiation in the soil is by planting lots of sunflowers, rape seed, and soy beans. These plants absorb and store much of the radiation from the soil, but still leave their seeds respectively clean for use. Recently the farm bought a soy bean press that will allow us to press soy beans for oil. We are also planning to offer these services to local farms in our community.

Seed and Growth

Many crops are planted, managed, and harvested here on the ARI campus. To get a full list, see our Spare Lessons tab. The crops and vegetables are managed in one of two ways: Foodlife Work, and daily work.

Foodlife Work is done two hours a day. One hour before breakfast, and one hour before dinner. Eveyone, whether you are on staff, an office worker, volunteer, director, or participant, works during food life time, but the work is managed and directed by the participants themselves. This is an example of one way ARI teaches through “learning by doing.”

There are four Foodlife groups. Each has their own expansive vegetable garden, and is in charge of one of the live stock areas:  two chicken groups, one pig group, and the fish and ducks group. In these two hours we accomplish most of the basic work that ultimately provides food for everyone here at ARI.

Daily Work is done after breakfast and after lunch. The participants usually attend classes during this time, while volunteers (like us) and farm staff manage the office, the kitchen, and the rented fields off campus where we produce our larger crops like onions, soy beans, sweet potato, and rice. Mostly the work is weeding, sowing, tilling, weeding again, watering, thinning, and much more weeding. We like to joke that we use volunteers, not herbicides. Though sometimes for the big jobs, like clearing a corn field or harvesting the rice, we declare a community work day; everyone goes out into the field and works together to accomplish the task.
weeding millet in one of our big rice fields

Livestock and Feedback Systems

Having livestock on the farm is an important part of making this food system sustainable. The livestock are able to consume many of the plant waste that we get from the gardens and the kitchen. Also, the waste of the livestock contributes in many ways to the health of our soil, crops, and vegetables.
Jenny feeding the fish at John Pond

Our alarm clock...
Also to feed our live stock we seek out reusable food-waste within our local community. We receive left over rice and bread from local elementary schools. We receive lots of left over byproducts of rice and soy processing like rice bran, rice husk, rice power, and okara (a bi-product of making tofu). We use different combinations of all of these to make different kinds of feed for all our livestock.
Rice bran used to make special composts and livestock feed.
Chart for a feed called Finisher fed to animals near harvesting weight. 

Bio-gas. Yum!
The waste of the livestock is essential in keeping our soil healthy and fertile. All pig manure goes straight to composting. Chicken manure is mixed and composted with rice husks and used to make a special organic fertilizer called bokashi. The liquid runoff from the pig pens goes into a system of holding tanks where it ferments and slowly transfer’s itself into a green liquid we call biogas. It is a very potent source of nutrients that makes our vegetables big and delicious. We use the left over eggshells and fish bones from the kitchen to make a concentrated calcium solution that we use for our vegetables when they are looking weak.
Here are the holding tanks for methane gas which we collect from some of the more solid pig waste. The system hasn’t been working well this summer, but when it does function, the gas is used in the kitchen to cook with!

There are lots of flies here around the feed mixing room, the pig pens, and the compost. Many spiders build their homes here to make use of the flies but we also use the flies here. Beds are made out of okara and rice for flies to lay their eggs in. Then we add the maggots to the fish food. This great source of protein is just another way we make use of the ecosystem around us instead of relying upon industrial products to run our farm.
Concentrated calcium solutions

Harvest, Storage, and Cooking
red chili peppers drying

Everything that is harvested is weighed and recorded. The kitchen receives a lot of the fresh, seasonal vegetables. Otherwise they are properly prepared for storage or processed into jams, purées, and sauces. Red chili sauce and black berry jam are our favorites!
onions from June harvest

Everyone rotates in their Foodlife Work on a complicated schedule that eventually lands them in the kitchen. So we all share in the preparation of meals. Jenny works in the kitchen every day for her Daily Work, and once a week she leads the preparation of the entire lunch time meal.


For us humans, eating seems like the great end-all of these processes. True, one reason we have gone to all of this trouble of building and maintaining a sustainable agricultural system is so that we can eat. But all of our work is much bigger than our three meals.

Even given the large amount of farm work we do, we rely upon the health of our ecosystem completely. We are aware of this dependence and so in everything we do, we do it carefully, considering the consequences. We are aware of the small part we play in this much larger ecosystem. We sacrifice our life (through labor/work/time) to make life on this farm possible, then we sacrifice that life (by eating it) so that our life may continue. So receiving the very food we need to live from this ecosystem is a very sacred moment here at ARI. At this time we give thanks to God, who has thus far allowed the health and existence of the ecosystem we work within and rely upon.

We eat three meals a day. Everyone eats together. Once the tables are set, the leader of the meal introduces everything there is to eat. We have lots of rice at all three meals and almost always there is soup. Curries are common. Vegetables can vary but always come in abundance. And our pork, chicken, and fish make frequent appearances, but are seldom central to the meal.

Once the meal is introduced, any newcomers are asked to introduce themselves so that no one feels separate from the community.
Then a person is selected at random from those present. This person chooses from ten songs of prayer posted on the wall. Everyone joins in the singing of the song, then all wait in silence as the person prays over the meal. After the Amen, everyone echo’s the traditional Japanese saying before a meal, itadakimasu which means literally, “I humbly receive.” It is meant to give thanks to the meal and acknowledge all the living organisms that are giving their energy as well as the labor used to produce the meal.

Back to the Beginning
When the meal is over, we scrape our plates into the Cooked Food Waste bucket, which is taken to the pigs or the compost. Whoever is on the dishwashing rotation for the day, gets up to clean the kitchen. The rest of us return to our work. We use the energy that we obtain from our food to do the work it takes to prepare more food. The cycle continues here at the Asian Rural Institute.
This is all a very brief overview of just a few systems at work here at ARI. Please leave us comments or questions about anything you’d like to hear about in more detail. All you agriculture buffs give us a homework assignment! The more questions you ask the more we’ll have to learn!
You can also email us questions of anything you’d like to know more about at: or