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Back to Leopold Letter Spring 2002
By LAURA MILLER, Newsletter editor
A Japanese farmer who used to watch wild ducks float on his rice paddies had no idea that a similar system would be successful on his own small farm and adopted by thousands of other farmers throughout eastern Asia.
In fact, Takao Furuno's 15 years of work to experiment with and share his method of raising ducks, rice, fish and vegetables brought him to New York's World Economic Forum in February to be honored as a "social entrepreneur." The next day, he came to Ames to share his experiences with more than 200 people at two forums hosted by the Leopold Center.
"I'm not just raising ducks, I'm raising rice and ducks at the same time in the same field," explained Furuno with the assistance of interpreter David Yoshiba. "By combining two completely different things you can come up with wonderful results. Ducks and rice are just one example."
Furuno's method is called Aigamo, named after the small breed of duck he uses, a cross between a mallard drake and a domesticated species. Soon after rice is transplanted in flooded fields in June, two-week-old ducklings are added in fenced pens at a rate of about 100 ducklings per acre. The ducks eat weeds, weed seeds, insects, and other pests. Duck droppings provide plant nutrients, and their swimming activity increases rice growth.
"It's a very interesting phenomenon," he said, describing what he calls the "stimulation effect" of duck activity around the young plants that leads to stockier stems. "The ducks actually change the way the rice grows."
After rice is harvested, Furuno adds compost and plants wheat as a cover crop. He raises a variety of vegetables on each plot in the two succeeding years. He delivers vegetables, rice, duck meat, and other items, such as duck eggs and fish as they are available, to 100 families for about $25 a week.
Furuno's farm is only three hectares (about six acres) in size. He rotates crops so that in any given year, two hectares are planted in rice, and one hectare in assorted vegetables. His rice yields are nearly twice those of farmers using conventional production methods in his region of southern Japan.
Furuno has conducted more than 10 years of experiments to analyze what's been going on at his farm. With the help of local extension personnel, he measures yield, surveys insect populations so that the ducks can be introduced at the optimum time, and tests possible additions or changes. For example, before adding loaches, a small type of fish, to the paddies, he raised loaches in a tub to see if they would be eaten by the ducks. He found that the ducks, although they liked the fish, tended to ignore them in murky water.
"It's very important to look at your own work from an impartial standpoint," he said. "I use what I learn to determine my plan for the next year."
An estimated 10,000 farmers use his system in Japan, and it is being adopted in many rice-growing areas including China, India and the Philippines. During a 1994 trip to Vietnam, he saw a woman weeding a rice paddy by hand. "I knew then how important this technology would be for people in countries where much of the work still is done by hand."
Since then, he has traveled to a number of other countries to share his methods. He also has worked closely with Bill Mollison, founding director of the Permaculture Institute, to publish a book about his methods.
Furuno has farmed for 24 years, but is especially interested in learning from other farmers. Although he had never visited Iowa, he said he grew up learning about the state's agricultural productivity.
"Some of the things I'm doing have been done in Japan for 500 years," he said, adding that Iowans need to remember their history, too. "It's important for Iowans to look at how crops used to be grown in this state to see what worked."
"Modern agriculture looks at single answers to specific problems, a very analytical approach," he said. "But this can destroy the parts of the ecosystem that have weeds and insects, the beginning of the process of a field returning to nature. Humans see their job as stopping this process."
Furuno ended his presentation with slides of an African savannah, taken before and after the land was cultivated for commodity production. The wildlife in the area dropped significantly.
"Nature is able to live with itself. These animals can live in harmony and nature gives animals the power to interact and live with one another," he said. "That principle needs to be brought back into agriculture."
Back to Leopold Letter Spring 2002