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Nuke crisis has Fukushima farmer worried over next year's crop, erosion of community

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Japanese Nuclear Meltdown

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Rice grown in Fukushima Prefecture, host to the disaster-stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, is officially safe to eat. All samples provided for testing registered radioactive cesium contamination below the government-mandated maximum, meaning the grain is cleared for shipment and will appear in supermarkets across Japan. Many farmers in the prefecture, however, have no rice to ship, as they gave up on planting a crop this year after the breakout of the nuclear crisis.

One such farmer is 61-year-old Yoko Kowaguchi, who owns a 7-hectare property with her husband in the Ohisa district of Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, about 30 kilometers south of the nuclear plant. Her husband, left disabled by a combination of illness and a car accident three years ago, can no longer help her, and she does all the farm work herself.

"I never stopped working the fields, even when I was pregnant," she tells the Mainichi of her 38 years on the farm. She also says that, if worst comes to worst, her rice paddies may lie fallow again next year, too. Still, she cannot just abandon them, and this day finds her in the fields, grass cutter in hand.

The Kowaguchi farm has never come under the indoor advisory or evacuation zones; those ominous circles around the nuclear plant that have become regular fare on news sites. However the district of Iwaki right next door, Hisanohama, was part of the indoor advisory zone. This was too close for comfort, and the Kowaguchis fled the area, bouncing among the homes of their daughters and friends in the Fukushima Prefecture cities of Koriyama and Kitakata.

On April 22, the indoor advisory for Hisanohama was lifted, and a few days later Kowaguchi received word from the local agricultural cooperative that planting could go ahead.
"But we hadn't prepared seeds for planting," says Kowaguchi. "Also, we didn't know if anyone would buy our rice if radioactive substances were found in it. The situation was just not right to go ahead with planting." She was not alone. Some 90 percent of farmers in her community did not plant crops this year.

In July, Kowaguchi and 84 other local farm families created the "Nochi o mamoru-kai," or the "farmland protection association," aimed at making sure a rice crop will be planted next spring. The association requested a radiation testing organization screen soil and unhulled rice from the area's farms. The results showed some of the rice samples were contaminated with very small amounts of cesium.

The prefectural government is now considering whether to lift restrictions on rice planting next year, and Kowaguchi has laid in a supply of seeds in preparation. Even so, she is worried.

"I understand the problem of internal radiation exposure to young people," she says. "Even if a tiny amount of radioactive materials could end up in the rice..." she adds, trailing off.

Opinions on planting differ from household to household, and the phrase "What're you going to do?" has become a set feature of any conversation among local farmers. There are apparently some families who have even decided to give up farming because of the nuclear disaster -- yet another blow to an agricultural community where the aging population was already a serious problem before March 11.

"If people keep giving up farming, soon this community will be full of nothing but the elderly," Kowaguchi worries. "That's why I was thinking of doing my best to work the land into my old age. I never thought I would agonize over something like this. It's a real pity," Kowaguchi says, before turning her attention back to weed-cutting, her expression dark.




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