Cotton Replaces Rice in Japan’s Salt-Soaked Fields

When a wall of water from the March 11 tsunami hit Japan’s northeastern region of Tohoku, it deposited so much salt into the soil that it not only wiped out traditional rice crops, but rendered the land unfit for much future cultivation.

Fortunately for some farmers, certain crops — such as cotton — can be cultivated in land with higher salt content. That has spurred a group of manufacturers, including the Taisho (yarn) Spinning Co., sock manufacturer Tabio and plowing company Agri Services to found the Tohoku Cotton Project to not only help the farmers, but bolster cotton growing in the country.

The project provides cotton seeds to farmers whose rice paddies were flooded by the tsunami. The cotton will be harvested and purchased by participating companies, who will use it to create products such as towels and shawls. Japan Airlines, Lee Jeans, and department store chain Takashimaya are among the participants.

According to the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, more than 58,000 acres of farmland suffered nearly $4 billion in damages in the region.

“Our goal is to restore agriculture and help revive job creation in the area through the cultivation of cotton,” said Masato Hata, a spokesman for the project. “Right now we have more than 10 farmers. There are also plans for the participating companies and other volunteers to help with the growing process.”

Japan Airlines, which intends to use products from the project onboard its airplanes, sent 30 staff members to Sendai City in September to help weed fields in preparation for the harvest.

Soil salinity plays a key role in the growth of crops. Salt disrupts crops by hindering their ability to absorb water and other nutrients such as potassium — but cotton has more than double the tolerance of rice.

In addition to flooding farmland with saltwater and debris, the tsunami damaged many irrigation and drainage systems, which will further slow the removal of salt from the soil. Tabio Corp., one of the founders of the project, estimated that in some cases it could take up to three years for the soil salinity to reach pre-tsunami levels and for crops with low salt-tolerance to begin growing again.

Japan has imported much of its cotton — 80 percent — in recent years, according to the Japan Cotton Traders Association. Participating companies say they hope the project also helps spur cotton growing in the country.

Thus far, about four acres of land in Sendai and nearby areas are dedicated to the project, with harvest set to take place in November. The goal is to harvest 3,500 pounds of cotton this year, and sell “Tohoku Cotton Project” brand products in stores by spring 2012, the first anniversary of the tsunami.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Aiko Hayashi, an English teacher in the Tokyo area. “It seems like a lot of big companies have joined the project, and I think a lot of people will want to buy the products to aid in the reconstruction.”

If the project is successful and more participants get involved, the harvesting area could expand to 25 acres next year, according to their press release.

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