NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) — For Menno Village in rural Hokkaido, Japan, harvest is a yearlong process. Vegetables begin to be harvested in the spring; wheat in the waning days of July; and rice by the beginning of October.
Each harvest, however, begins the same way: by planting a seed.
It's these seeds that have become the focus of much thought for Raymond Epp. Epp and Akiko Aratani, his wife, founded Menno Village in 1994. The organic farm and Christian community, nestled outside the city of Sapporo, was built on land purchased by nearby urban churches.
Every year, Aratani and Epp— along with their four children, their children's spouses and seasonal workers — harvest, dry, clean, store and mill grain. Some seed is saved back for next year's planting, a ritual that farmers across the world have taken part in since time immemorial.
This practice, however, has become more complicated in recent years.
Until recently, plant breeding in Japan was done though public research facilities. However, new seed laws have privatized these practices, allowing companies to legally own seed varieties and restrict farmers from using harvested seed to plant next year's crop without permission. Some seed varieties rely on chemicals that the seed companies sell, tying the farmers into a cycle of dependance through the crop's lifecycle.
"I am disturbed by the threats seed privatization will have on human meaning, human purpose and the meaning of harvest," Epp wrote in a recent interview. "Under today's seed laws, the seed remains the property of the seed company. The harvested grain can be sold as a commodity for food processing, but it cannot be kept as seed. The seed function of grain remains under the control of the seed company."
As Epp's concern with seed restrictions grew, his mind turned to a variety of wheat that has been part of his family's story for generations: Turkey Red wheat.
Turkey Red is a heritage wheat variety, meaning it predates modern breeding. Originating in Turkey, the wheat was grown for centuries in Europe, before making its way to the central United States, carried by Russian Mennonites, who immigrated to the US in the 1870s. Among these immigrants were Epp's ancestors, who moved from what is now Ukraine.
Epp recalls his parents' stories of each family being allowed a single trunk for the journey across the Atlantic. To save space, the family members poured the wheat seed into the cracks of the wooden chests and in between layers of clothing. When these families arrived on the central plains, they carefully unpacked their valuables and clothes, leaving the trunk floor covered in the precious seed.
In the seasons that followed, Turkey Red wheat was prized all-the-more by the Mennonite farmers for both its resistance to crop disease and its hardiness to survive harsh winters across the Midwestern prairies. In addition, the grain does not require any chemicals to grow and is easy to propagate year after year, which are both properties that made it an ideal candidate to grow in Menno Village.
The first harvest of Turkey Red wheat grown in Menno Village. Photo by Raymond Epp.
Last winter, Epp spent three months researching and acquiring the proper documentation to legally import a small amount of Turkey Red wheat seeds into Japan. "Planting and harvesting this variety for the first time this year gave me great joy," said Epp. "It has reconnected me with the great heritage of Mennonite farmers throughout the centuries and also has placed me in solidarity with peasant farmers around the world who maintain ancient varieties of grain and whose livelihoods are being threatened by the changing seed laws."
Menno Village uses their harvest bounty for their literal daily bread, as well as to supply their neighbors with produce through Japan's first CSA (community supported agriculture) program. A CSA is an agreement between a farmer and their consumers, where the consumers pay a subscription, up front, for a supply of produce packages throughout the year. This agreement allows the farmer to receive immediate funds to use throughout the season, and the consumer receives the freshest possible vegetables from inside their community.
The CSA program is part of Menno Village's outreach, as an example of sustainable agriculture, as well as Christian community. Menno Village also hosts educational seminars and groups, both from Japan and internationally, including Youth Venture teams with Mennonite Mission Network.
Epp hopes that Christian farmers and congregations can model an alternative food economy, where the food producers and food consumers connect directly with one another. In doing so, stories are shared and relationships are formed, making the production of food less abstract for the people who consume it.
"Three times a day as we gather around the table, we are participating in the way the world is used," said Epp. "We are participating in the cycle of seed time and harvest. We can do this unconsciously and oblivious to the issues facing farmers and the ecological consequences of modern agriculture. Or, we can consciously join together with others working together as a sign. God will be with us as we hunger and thirst for what is just."