On a warm October morn, we headed to the seaside Pitchfork Farm on Mukaishima island to talk with Farm Operations Manager Thomas Kloepfer about his crops, animals, and plans for the future.
I was happy to connect with Thomas via the Zero Waste Japan facebook page and even more thrilled to realise we live in the same area. My first interchange with him was when he kindly offered to take our monthly “Compost Drive” kitchen scraps collection from our monthly CleanUps.
As a sustainability-seeker I am always looking for ways to reduce my environmental impact and growing my own food has been a dream of mine since childhood. In all honesty, however, I have never had much success in growing my own food. No matter how enthusiastic I dive into gardening, I tend to yield more weeds than edibles. So, I was excited to have a chance to travel to Pitchfork farms and learn from master gardener Thomas Kloeper who manages a natural farm on beautiful Mukaishima island in Hiroshima.
Our electric drive from Hiroshima took just over an hour and we made our way to a small fishing boat harbor where Thomas came to meet us. As we followed Thomas up through the narrow pathways between houses and garden plots, I noticed the mix of old and new buildings- many of which were abandoned. We arrived to find the US post box on a wooden gate saying “Pitchfork farms” on a beautiful plot overlooking the glimmering Seto inland sea.
Describing Thomas as a good farmer is only a fragment of the full picture, every aspect of running the farm is focused on sustainability – how to maximize environmental benefit in balance with income generation and community development. Originally from the US, Thomas has a background in Agricultural studies and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at Hiroshima University. He and his wife are integrated members of the community as they have not only been running Pitchfork farms since 2011 but also help support local businesses connect to international markets as well as run a small textile business utilizing canvas made on the island with local cotton.
After the farm tour, Thomas also gave us a behind-the-scenes view of the canvas factory and his wife’s nearby “Tachibana” textile shop. We saw his goats working on the factory’s weeds outside while we perused the fashionable handbags, aprons and other materials. I have long had a passion for Japanese indigo and many of the items utilize indigo, persimmon and other natural dyes on upcycled canvas material from the adjacent factory. Wool items may also soon be available at Tachibana made from Thom’s sheep.
Although the canvas factory has a long history of making sails, the demand declined, so the company has pivoted to selling a range of different, modern fashion and household items.
As a consultant, I often offer suggestions and advice to managers about ways they could try to improve their business, but at Pitchfork farms there isn’t anything Thomas hasn’t already implemented. In addition to growing crops all year, Thomas has a passion for craft beer and is growing his own hops. Even when he imports organic barley to make beer, he says it is possible to reuse it on the farm as the animals will eat it. He has a view grapes he is also planting, so there is a chance he will also make his own wine in the future.
Crop rotation, seed creation, cover cropping and moving around the animals on the farm are just a few of the techniques in use at Pitchfork farms to maintain a balance between growing crops to sell and enriching the soil. Actively composting weeds, kitchen scraps and even uses a composting toilet are all zero-waste methods that put all resources to the utmost usage. The farm almost completely functions off-grid via solar panels and a composting toilet.
In the future, Thomas hopes to add more fruit trees for shade, diversity of plants and incorporate farm animals into the mix to work the fields and enrich the soil. The chickens, sheep, and goats eat food scraps and weeds while fertilizing the soil. The animals then also provide additional products of eggs and meat. The coordination in the management of the farm from managing the plots, to timing planting with rain, to allowing time for some plots to seed and moving animals around to work on different parts of the plot was so impressive to me. In this way, Thomas is much more than a farmer as he coordinates and manages all of the moving parts of the farm.
I often think water must be a huge expense for farmers, but Thomas has created water catchments systems and finds that farming on a slope has the benefits in water conservation, alleviating the need for regular watering. The hillside provides more moisture as it travels down from the mountain. Thomas claims he didn’t have to water much through even the hot, dry summer.
This visit to Pitchfork farms was interesting, informative and very tasty as we left with our farm-fresh goodies. I would highly recommend anyone interested in organic vegetables living in Japan to set up a regular delivery with Thomas. And if you have the chance, I would encourage you to visit the farm and the beautiful island of Mukaishima for yourself. For travelers cycling the Shimanami-kaido cycle route, Pitchfork farms on Mukaishima is an easy trip from Onomichi by ferry and bicycle. Alternatively, if you have a car, it only takes about an hour to get to the farm from Hiroshima on the expressway.