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

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