Fallen leaves compost agroforestry near Tokyo helps sustain fertility of farmlands

SAITAMA, Jan. 29 — The scratching sounds of raking fallen leaves echo in the forests under the sunlight filtering through the trees.

Raking leaves is a winter task handed down from generation to generation among pioneer farmers in the Musashino district of Saitama Prefecture neighboring Tokyo.

The whole family gets busy with the exhausting work from January to February, as fallen leaves are a precious resource for soil improvement.

To promote this recycling-oriented farming method with the participation of local residents, leaf raking events are held in various parts of the district at this time of the year.

The fallen leaves compost agroforestry in Musashino was added to the list of Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) last year by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

The Musashino district was developed during the Edo Period in the 1600s. Pioneers of the land transformed the volcanic ash soil of the district that was poor in nutrients into fertile ground by mixing in fallen leaves as fertilizers.

The farms’ grounds are divided into three strips of land — a residential compound, farmland and woodland.

In the early days, people planted broadleaf trees such as Konara oak and sawthorn oak in the woodland area, called yama, as they can be easily composted and also be used as fuel wood.

The custom of having a one-tenth-hectare woodland for every one-tenth-hectare farmland spread in the district, and such a resource circulation system of farmlands paired up with woodlands led to cultivation of the local specialty Kawagoe sweet potatoes, as well as taroes and other vegetables, making the district a source of food supply for the Tokyo metropolitan area.

A leaf raking event was recently held in the town of Miyoshi in Saitama Prefecture and some 300 residents and people from outside the town took part in it.

Miyoshi Mayor Isao Hayashi, who led the campaign to get the district designated as a GIAHS, is an eleventh-generation farmer.

Woodlands in suburban areas are a resource for farming and at the same time a place for relaxation for residents.

Meanwhile, there have been concerns over degradation of woodlands due to such cases as sales of inherited property and illegal waste dumping.

Hayashi thought that if the fallen leaves compost farming method was globally recognized and people reappreciated the value of woodlands, it would help revitalize agriculture and nurture a sense of place attachment and pride in the district.

“I have played a lot in the woodlands since my childhood,” Hayashi said. “It is rare worldwide (for woodlands) to have survived to this day in the suburbs of metropolitan areas. It is our mission to pass on this satoyama (villages that live sustainably with their nearby mountains and forests) environment to children of the future.”

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