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Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Radiation zone farmer grubs his way to survival
By JUN HONGO
TAMURA, Fukushima Pref. — Masanao Usami tosses over a container the size of a wine case and carefully spreads the contents that fall out, including tree bark, dead leaves and warm soil.
He is inside a warehouse surrounded by empty tobacco farms but no one is in sight.
"This one appears ready for shipment. It will develop into an imago by the summer," he says, as he picks up what looks like a giant gnocchi.
They wriggle. But the creeping beetle grubs are one of the few selling items being shipped out of the nuclear crisis-hit region in Fukushima Prefecture.
"Sales of beetle grubs are up 300 percent this year," Usami said of the popular seasonal pets.
"Everyone has been willing to show their support, and we're very thankful."
Usami's beetle grub-filled warehouse is in the city of Tamura about 33 km away from the leaking Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. The southeast region of the city is within a 20-km radius from ground zero, making it part of the government's nuclear no-go zone.
Tamura, along with the neighboring towns of Kawamata and Iitate, were known for their rich foliage and fresh air until the March 11 disasters crippled the nuclear plant.
Now farmers are reeling from air, soil and water contamination.
"We won't be growing anything this year. In fact, we are in the process of shutting down our facilities," a Tamura tobacco farmer who asked to remain anonymous said in early May.
Fukushima's tobacco farming cooperative in April chose to pass up this year's operation due to radiation contamination worries.
Tobacco farmers kick off their annual cycle in late March to early April, but the fields are bare this year.
"Apparently the leaves are very vulnerable to radiation," the tobacco farmer said. "We give up. There is nothing we can do," she added.
Some leafy vegetables from Tamura, including spinach and "komatsuna," have been banned from shipment after they were found to be contaminated above the permissible limits for radiation.
It didn't take long until the embargo spawned a worldwide alert, which has seriously damaged other famous local produce, including Iitate's beef and Kawamata's "shamo" chicken.
Most have shut down operations for the year and are in the process of seeking compensation from Tokyo Electric Power Co.
Some farmers have opted not only to close their businesses, but also to avoid the media entirely.
"No matter what we say to the press, it all becomes a story about how devastated we are," a farmer in Tamura who refused to give both his name and trade said.
"Of course it's tough. All the cattle farmers in Iitate, who have been working for years to establish their brand, are going to lose their jobs," he added.
The farmer also acknowledged that it is impossible to confirm the safety of every single product he ships from the area.
"At this point, claiming that our produce is safe in this crisis just makes me feel empty," he said.
But the beetles are for sale and they are selling well.
According to Usami, 48, the Tokiwa area in Tamura began promoting its beetle bounty a couple of decades ago as a local speciality to attract tourists to an otherwise mundane town.
There are no beaches in the area and not enough snow in the winter for skiing, Usami said. But the wild beetles, which have attracted enthusiasts, are known to lay their eggs inside leaf mold that accumulates near tobacco farms.
Usami works for Mushimushi Land, a theme park built in the deep mountains of Tamura that includes amusement rides and insect observatories. The park has sold wild grubs via mail order every year.
"A beetle kit includes five grubs, instruction books, bedding material and other necessary items. They sell for ¥3,000 each," Usami said.
They grow into imago in the summer, with some surviving a month.
In previous years, about 100 units were shipped annually from the warehouse where Usami works, but sales reached 300 this year.
As expected, some customers expressed concern about purchasing beetles from the region.
So Mushimushi Land decided to call in a team from Fukushima University and give the grubs radiation checks.
As soon as the team walked into the warehouse on April 27 with their Geiger counters on, a loud beep went off.
"At that moment I thought we'd have to order a nationwide recall of our beetles, just like the way they do with malfunctioning cars," Usami joked.
But the scare turned out to be a false alarm and the insects were confirmed to be safe. According to radiation activity checks from that day, the beetle grubs, as well as their bedding materials, the warehouse and even the beetle droppings, did not go above 0.3 microsievert per hour. That level does not pose any harmful effect on humans, Fukushima University experts confirmed.
"We got a lot of orders from the Tokyo area this year. It is pretty amazing," Usami said.
Yet, there are serious concerns over how production will turn out next year.
With the local tobacco farmers giving up cultivation this season, Usami said there will be a shortage of tobacco leaf molds that wild beetles favor for laying their eggs.
Mushroom beds could be used as substitutes, but some Fukushima shiitake were revealed to have high levels of radiation, casting a shadow over this option.
But Usami considers himself one of the fortunate ones.
"I've heard that those in nearby Yamane district are proceeding forward with rice cultivation for this season," he said. "Unfortunately, their product will probably have a difficult time at the market. The only thing that has been selling well this year is our beetles," he said.