NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) – Akiko Aratani and Raymond Epp had decided to give five years to Menno Village. Five years to help start a Christian community in rural Hokkaido, Japan, on land purchased by nearby urban churches. Five years to use the land to start a farm rooted in the idea of community supported agriculture (CSA), a process that Akiko and Ray had both studied and worked with in Canada, where they had met before getting married.
They were told that five years wouldn't be enough.
"Nothing is going to happen if you don't stay for at least 10 years," Epp recalled a friend telling him. So, they decided to stay for 10 years. During that time, their family grew to include four boys, and the initial timeline they had set faded away.
Now, 24 years later, the family continues to live and work at Menno Village, sharing farming duties with other workers throughout the year, and inviting anyone who is interested to come and learn about their vision of farming.
Epp described a CSA as a way in which people share in the joys and risks of farming by providing capital to the farm upfront, and receiving produce directly from the farmer throughout the growing season via in-city deliveries. Instead of a farmer specializing in only one or two crops, selling those crops to a distributor, and the consumer purchasing the produce anonymously, a CSA allows consumers and farmers to build relationships with one another.
"I think of [food deliveries] as being as much pastoral visits as they are delivering food," Epp said. "Both are necessary. Visiting families, getting to know them … we can share some things about our life, and we develop some long-term relationships through food."
As their sons were growing up, Akiko and Ray didn't preach to them about the philosophies behind the work they were doing on a day-to-day basis on the farm. Instead, they made the connections on their own. When the two oldest went to a Christian agricultural school on the main island, their teachers taught about the structures of a CSA, and the restoration of relationships between farmers and consumers. "All of a sudden, [our boys] realized, 'Gosh, my family has been doing that our whole lives!'" recalled Epp.
Epps' oldest son, Kazutomo, now lives at Menno Village with his wife, Mai. Their second and third sons, Yohei and Ken, both plan to return to the farm to form partnerships with Menno Village as well. Their youngest, Toshiharu, is now in fifth grade.
Though the day-to-day farm work is not always exciting, the Epp family believes that the impact of Menno Village goes well beyond any five- or 10-year time frame. "Change takes a generation," Epp said. "Maybe I won't see the change, but that doesn't mean you don't continue to pursue the dream."