Integrated Rice and Poultry Farming in Azumino

The Japanese farm on which we had agreed to volunteer was located in Azumino in Nagano prefecture. We had chosen this farm because we liked the description on the WWOOFing website and the bonus that the woman was a chef. Somehow, besides a bullet point that mentioned “meat processing”, the description did not actually say much about what the farm did, so there was little indication of how we were going to spend the next ten days.

The farmer, Takao-san, had said we could arrive any time on November 1st except between 1pm and 3pm. Hitoichiba station was a short train ride away from Matsumoto, so we made our way there to arrive at 10am. Takao-san had advised us to use the payphone (!) at Hitoichiba station to call him when we arrived. We found the payphone, and Eric asked Jess if she had ever used one. She had made many phone calls from a payphone as a kid, but Eric had not. We put a coin in and dialed the number, but the coin came back out the bottom and the call did not go through. It is no wonder millennials do not know how to use payphones if that is how well they work! We saw an “English” button on the display, which, when pressed, displayed a notification that this payphone did not accept cards or coins. We were not sure what payment method was left, so we used Eric’s phone to call instead.

Hisami-san, the farmer’s wife came and collected us at the station and drove us back to the house where we met Takao-san, their eight-year-old daughter Mi-chan, and Takao-san’s father who was visiting for a few days. They have a big, beautiful traditional Japanese-style home on a big plot of land in the foothills of the Japanese alps. Takao-san is primarily a poultry farmer, so he raises ducks and chickens, but he also has 13 rice fields and nine other fields scattered around the village. Takao-san showed us around his farm and let us play on his massive swing, zip-line and see-saw.

Playing on the giant swing

(Warning: this post contains detailed descriptions and photos of meat processing. You can skip that part and see what else we did on the farm by clicking here).

Class Project

That first afternoon we got our first indication of how the week was going to go when we went down to Mi-chan’s school (she’s in third grade) to help the fifth grade class with a class project. They had been growing rice all year and had raised rice paddy ducks to keep the rice paddies clean. Integrated rice-duck farming was popular hundreds of years ago as a way to manage pests and weeds but fell out of favor with the advent of artificial fertilizers and pesticides beginning in the 1970s. Now many farmers across Asia are returning to this method of rice farming. In this Japanese farming village, a lot of the rice is grown with ducks, hence the class project.

In the spring, the kids had started with ducklings which help churn the water and keep the plants healthy. Throughout the summer, the ducks eat bugs, crush snails, tear up weeds, and fertilize the rice plants. At the end of the rice growing season, the ducks are big and can no longer be used for the next season because they would damage the immature rice plants. As a result, the rice paddy ducks are slaughtered for food shortly after the rice is harvested. And, of course, learning about killing ducks and butchering them is the final step in the class project.

The kids were given the chance to opt out of this part of the project, and a few did, but most elected to participate. Takao-san and another farmer brought out six killing cones and moved the crates of ducks closer to the killing station. They carefully cut the blood vessels on the ducks’ necks and put them upside down in the cones to let the blood drain out. The kids were notably and understandably squeamish about watching this process. We were squeamish too. Eric raised chickens as a kid and has seen this before, but it was Jess’s first time, and it is hard to watch something die.

When the ducks were dead, they were put in a pot of hot, but not boiling, water to loosen the feathers. The duck houses the kids had decorated had been covered in trash bags and converted into tables. One by one, the steaming ducks were placed on the tables, and the kids were shown how to pull off the feathers. The kids were initially reluctant to pluck the feathers, so it was mostly parent helpers de-feathering the birds until the kids started to feel better about it. By the third bird, the kids were pulling handfuls of feathers off the ducks. There were wet feathers everywhere! This is a pretty slow, inefficient way to pluck a duck, and the fewer feathers there are remaining, the harder it is to remove them. When almost all of the feathers were gone, Takao-san used a blowtorch to burn away the last of them.

Plucking feathers

Now it was time to butcher the ducks to turn them into meat. Takao-san would cut off the head, make careful slits in the front and back body of the duck, and then remove the thighs and wings. Then he would remove the breast and hand the carcass to Mi-chan to cut out the “sasami” tenderloin. From inside the body, Takao-san would remove the heart, liver and gizzard. He would hand the gizzard to Mi-chan to cut open. The gizzards are full of rocks, which ducks use to grind up the food they eat, and need to be washed. Inside one of the gizzards Mi-chan opened, there was a frog!

A frog in a gizzard

In total, twenty ducks were killed, plucked, and butchered over the course of the afternoon. It was an amazing experience to witness. We cannot imagine a class project like this occurring in the US, and yet in this farming community it was just another day in school. We also think these kids are learning an important lesson about what it takes to produce food and where it comes from, and we are glad to have shared it with them. It was definitely an intense introduction to the poultry farm though!

Expert duck butchering

Poultry Processing

If we had had any expectation that our butchering days were over after the class project, we were sorely mistaken. It turns out we had arrived during meat processing season. All the rice had been cut and was being dried, so it was time to process the ducks, and Takao-san had multiple processing appointments while we were there. We were due at the butchery at 8am the next day to help butcher Takao-san’s own rice paddy ducks. Takao-san had previously butchered ducks at home in one of his greenhouses, but he could not sell those ducks to restaurants, so together with friends he built a proper butchery seven years ago.

When we arrived at the butchery, Takao-san was in the process of killing the ducks. That part of the process was the same one we had seen in the school yesterday, but then he put the dead ducks in a round metal cage and soaked them in a pot of hot water (around 150 degrees Fahrenheit). When they had been soaked long enough to loosen the feathers, he put the bodies in a plucking machine which has a bunch of rubberized fingers to grab the feathers as the bodies are whipped around in a circle. The plucking machine can only do so much, though, so we went outside with some of Takao-san’s friends to pluck the remaining feathers with tweezers.

Tweezing the last feathers out

Jess’s first bird was very clean, so she spent a lot of time tweezing the tiniest feathers before realizing we were going to use the blowtorch again. She remarked that this was a lot like eyebrow tweezing. Not knowing what we would be doing, Eric had forgotten his glasses, so Jess took over one of Eric’s birds which had frustratingly stubborn feathers. She had only made a small amount of progress before she was called inside to help with meat packing. Takao-san did the butchering, arranged the different cuts of meat on the tray, and handed it to Jess. He showed her how he wanted the meat packed so it would look nice in the package. Jess packed one thigh, one breast, and one tenderloin in each package.

Meat packing in the butchery

Eric and Takao-san’s friends diligently tweezed feathers until all the birds were done. Eric had, in the meantime, gone back to get his glasses to make the task easier. Jess continued packing thighs and breasts. Then she packed four to five necks… then as much skin as would fit… then four to six heads. She never dreamed she would ever have to figure out how to position duck heads nicely in a package for a customer! When the packages were filled, Jess used a vacuum sealer to seal them and put them in the freezer.

Beautifully packaged duck heads

When the duck butchering was complete, we loaded the truck up with the bins of duck carcasses and feathers, climbed in the back of the truck with them, and drove back to the farmhouse. We fed the carcassas, heads, and feathers to the chickens. Takao-san had held ten ducks he needed for other purposes back in the chicken coop. We thought it seemed a bit traumatic to put the duck parts in the cage with the remaining ducks.

We processed and packed poultry two more times while we were there. Once was for a farmer who brought his ducks from Shizuoka, three hours away. He was taking the meat to a factory that makes duck ham. Takao-san kept the organs and skin. These ducks were bigger than Takao-san’s ducks, so the slaughtering process was a bit too exciting. After he cut their necks, two of the ducks managed to kick their way out of their cones. One of them stood on top of the cones squawking and flapping its wings. The other one managed to jump on the floor and proceeded to run around spraying blood everywhere. Their feathers were also harder to remove, so after they went through the magic finger machine, we had to pluck the feathers off the breast by hand before they could go through another round of hot water soaking and magic finger de-feathering. There was warm duck feather water spraying out the top of the magic finger machine, and after a few cycles of spinning, Takao-san would open the door to let some duck bodies fly out into the basin below. Jess was pretty well covered in warm duck feather water by this point and we have a new standard for “gross”. We packaged this meat neatly, separated by bone-in and boneless. Since it was going to a ham factory, it did not matter what went in the packages as long as it looked nice.

Loosening the feathers in a hot water bath

The last poultry processing we did was chickens. When we arrived at the butchery, Takao-san had already killed and de-feathered the chickens, so we only had to pack the meat. We were surprised how much more meat there is on a chicken thigh compared to a duck thigh. Takao-san was in pain on chicken processing day. He had tweaked his back the day before lifting the extra large ducks out of the hot water and now could barely stand. He did manage to get through the chicken processing, but he called Hisami-san to come help with the butchering halfway through.

While poultry was processed on five out of the ten days we were there, it usually only took two to three hours, and there was a lot of other work to be done. We loved a lot of things about our experience on this farm, but in particular we liked that Takao-san had plenty to keep us busy and the work was very varied.

Rice Threshing

One day we needed to thresh the rice that was finally dry in one of Takao-san’s rice fields. This region has had a ton of rain this fall, and that has made it very hard to harvest and dry the rice. On this particular day, Takao-san had a lot of friends helping. He loaded his rice cutting machine into his truck and drove it down to the field. There were two kinds of rice: a white-haired mochi rice and a black rice. We started with the mochi rice because it is stickier. Jess and another helper ran down the line of hanging rice, placing bundles on the machine’s tray for Takao-san to feed into the machine. Eric and the other helpers spread the chaff over the rice field. The machine kept getting clogged because the part that was supposed to cut the rice stalks into chaff was not working. Grandpa kept trying to push the rice stalks in with his hands which made us fearful for his fingers. It was slowing us down so much, we gave up on the cutting part and just spread the rice stalks over the field instead.

On another day, we headed over to a friend’s rice field to help thresh the rice. Takao-san loaded the thresher into his truck and Hisami-san drove us to the field. The threshing machine we had fixed with the stronger spring (see machine fixing section) still seemed to be struggling with the cutting part of the job. We managed to convince Takao-san the machine did not like twine and started cutting the twine off before we put the rice through the machine. That seemed to help. This field had some rice that had been hung to dry as well as some large piles of rice that had not been bunched with twine. It was a bit harder to pick up armfuls of this rice and get them lined up correctly to run through the machine and we lost a few stalks on the ground. When we were finished, we helped gather the bags of rice before loading the machine back in the truck and heading home.

All the rice we bagged

Machine Fixing

After threshing his rice, Takao-san was frustrated that his rice thresher was not working properly. He asked us to help him fix it – not that we know much of anything about fixing machines! We opened up the cutting part of the machine and tried to brainstorm what might be wrong with it. We had seen the machine in action, so we knew what it did. The challenge was it did so many things, it was hard to know which part was responsible for what. We had narrowed it down to a particular section that seemed to be looser than it should be. Takao-san tried tightening screws and forcing the components closer together, but that did not seem to be working. Eventually, Takao-san said he had replaced a broken spring, but he did not think that was the problem. He did admit that it was a smaller spring than the original, and we started to wonder if the spring might be too loose to keep the cutting part together when there was a big bundle of rice pushing it apart. We replaced the smaller spring with a stronger one and tested it with some rice and it seemed to work great. We were also suspicious that the machine could handle the twine binding the rice stalks together. Takao-san said it was fine, but it seemed problematic to us. Machines do not usually like string. With the machine fixed, we cleaned it to get rid of all the old rice stalks and kernels. Then we tried to put it back together and could not remember which parts went where! After a lot of trial and error, we figured it out. We learned to take pictures of the machines before we took them apart in the future.

Removing the gear to get to the spring

The next problem was that the fuel tank was loose, so we had to take it off and empty out the fuel. When we opened the door covering the fuel tank, it was held on with random bits of wire and string which appeared to be doing basically nothing. We removed those and tried to come up with a more permanent solution. There were two metal brackets in the front that were holding it on, but nothing in the back to support it. When the machine was turned on, it shook like crazy which, in turn, shook the fuel tank. The front brackets were starting to break from all the shaking. Grandpa, who is a welder, welded two new pieces of metal on to the brackets to strengthen them. He also added a piece on the side to stabilize the tank so it would not shake so much.

Rice cutting machine with chain and plastic arms

Later in the week, Takao-san wanted us to help him fix his rice cutting machine so he could put it away for the season. The chain had broken and he wanted to fix the machine with a chain from another machine. Both chains had plastic arms attached to them at spaced intervals, but the feet on the new chain’s plastic arms were too big to fit in the machine. Even though Eric knows little about machines and Jess knows next to nothing, Takao-san wanted our thoughts on how to fix it. Eric suggested we could try to make the feet smaller, so Takao-san had Eric grind them down before lunch. 

Grinding plastic feet

Later that afternoon we were back working on the machine again. Eric was still grinding the plastic to make it small enough to fit in the track. The chain was too long, so Takao-san wanted to cut two links out, but his chain breaker was broken. He was using a hammer and a nail to get the pin out and was resting it on a single bolt so the pin would have a channel to go into, but the bolt was not deep enough. Jess suggested stacking a second bolt on top to make the channel deeper. Once the chain was the right length and the feet were smaller, we put the cover on and turned on the machine. Something still was not working; one of the feet kept getting stuck, so we took the cover off again and sanded it some more. We put the cover on three more times, but it still was not working.

Shortening the new chain

The sun was going down and it was getting very, very cold out. Despite wearing all of her warm clothes, Jess’s teeth were chattering, and it was getting harder to screw the bolts in. Finally, the foot that was getting stuck broke, so we removed it, and the machine seemed to run smoothly. We put the cover on one final time and moved the machine into the storage greenhouse. Finally we could go inside and warm up next to the kerosene heater. We have made a note to ask Takao-san next harvest season whether the machine works.

Seed Sorting

One of the tasks Takao-san gave us when he was busy with other things was seed sorting. These tiny weed seeds get mixed in with the wheat seeds, so Takao-san likes to sort them out before planting. We have no idea how he does this when he does not have WWOOFers because it took us many hours to sort through the whole bag. We would take small bowls of seeds, pour a handful on a white plate, and pick through them to find any hidden weed seeds or bad-looking wheat seeds. Then we would dump the bad seeds in one bowl and the good seeds in another bowl and start over with the next batch. We made it through the bag of wheat seeds over the course of three multi-hour seed-sorting sessions.

With the wheat sorted, we moved on to sorting beans. Many of them had been eaten by bugs. Some were just bad beans. There was a lot more chaff in with the beans, which made them hard to sort. Jess thought she was doing such a good job of sorting the beans until she decided to look back through the “good” beans pile and discovered many of them had holes and other problems. We know we did not make the bean bag worse, but Jess is not convinced we made it better.

Wheat, Rapeseed, and Barley Grow

Takao-san wanted to get his fields sown, so one afternoon he took us to one of the fields where he had started sowing wheat. He has a little machine that deposits wheat seeds in the ground at certain intervals as you push it. He showed us how far apart to make the rows, told us to make straight lines, and then watched as we tried our first rows. We were pretty bad at pushing it straight, and one of Eric’s first lines was so squiggly he looked like he was drunk. Takao-san had to do a few rows to straighten it out, and it was clear he was not sure about the prospect of trusting us with his fields. He watched us do another few rows before leaving us there so he could do other things. We managed to sow one third of the field in two hours – we were getting better, but we were definitely slow.

A few afternoons later, Takao-san asked if we thought we could finish the final third of the wheat field in an hour. We suggested 90 minutes was more reasonable, so he said, “ok, ok.” He said this often. We were way more efficient this time and also better about going in a straight line and managed to finish in just over an hour. We moved on to a different field to sow barley while Takao-san used his modified weed whacking saw to cut the grass. The rows in this field were longer, and the soil was a lot softer, so it was easier to push the sower. The softer dirt meant the machine got caked in mud after a few rows and did not spin any more though, which made sowing more challenging. We did not manage to finish the whole field before it was time to go in for the day.

The next afternoon, Takao-san thought it would be better if we could sow the field while it was still sunny because the soil would be drier. Even though we rushed over to the field after lunch, half of it was already shaded. We finished sowing barley and sowed a few rows of rapeseed. We subsequently discovered the rapeseed had some weed seeds in it (we had not been asked to sort rapeseed), so we may have planted some of those too.

On our very last afternoon, Takao-san had to go to the brewery he works at over the winter, and while he was gone, he wanted us to sow wheat in a field we had cleared of egoma (perilla) branches a few days earlier. Hisami-san dropped us off at the field at 1:30pm and said she would be back at 3:30pm to pick us up.

In the other fields where the soil quality was poorer, we had trampled all over the fields covering dirt over the seeds that did not get properly planted. However, here we had explicit instructions not to step on the rows we had planted. The soil was very soft, so the seeds went directly into the soil and got covered over with dirt by the rear wheel as they were supposed to. This field was very long, so sometimes the sower ran out of seeds before the second row was finished and one of us would have to run over and replenish the seeds. The soft dirt also clogged the sower. Jess did one row where she got stuck on something in the soil and the sower deposited a huge batch of seeds in one spot. She continued on and only discovered at the end of the row that dirt had plugged up the seed hole and no seeds had been sown. Of course, there was no way to tell where there were seeds and where there were not, so we just had to carry on. Takao-san may find he has a hole in the middle of one of his rows next year.

We finished sowing the whole field at 2:40pm, a full 50 minutes before we were due to be picked up, so we decided to walk back to the house. When we got home, we discovered Hisami-san was not there. We realized she must be out running errands and planning to pick us up on her way back, so we walked all the way back to the field! We had almost made it back when Hisami-san came around the corner. 

Making a Quail House

One morning, we woke up to find two quails had hatched! We did not even know Takao-san was incubating eggs, but apparently he had bought some quail eggs from the grocery store. He had read that roughly 25% of grocery store quail eggs are fertilized, and wanted some quails to raise for quail eggs, so he decided to try it out. Of ten eggs, he got two quail chicks.

The chicks stayed in the incubator for one day, but then we had to find them a new home. Takao-san and Mi-chan made a small cardboard house with some rice husks in the bottom, and a jar lid for water. The huge problem was keeping the chicks warm for the night. There is a reason chicks are usually hatched in the spring, not November. This is particularly important in an un-insulated house. One of the chicks had already fallen in the jar lid of water, gotten all wet, and then laid down like it was dying. Luckily, it, or its sibling was cheeping at the top of its lungs, so we knew something was wrong and could warm it up by the heater. Takao-san knew chicks needed to be kept at 78 degrees or warmer, but the house was freezing, and they could not run the kerosene heater all night. We were certain we were going to wake up to find two dead baby chicks the next morning, but somehow, magically, they survived the night.

The next morning we spent the whole morning making a quail house. Takao-san found a plastic bin and had us drill air holes in it. Then he wanted to make a little water station, but how? Jess had no clue what a water station for any kind of bird would look like, let alone a miniature one, but Eric had seen a water drinker for chicks before. The plan was to find a container we could fill with water and turn upside down so only a small amount of water would come out at a time. Takao-san went rummaging in the trash and found a redbull-sized can and the bottom of an aerosol can. We had to figure out where to put the holes in the coffee can to get the water to come out slowly, so we tested it many times until Takao-san made a bigger hole and it worked. Takao-san made a little food bin out of cardboard and duct tape.

Testing the quail water station

Next we had to figure out how to heat the house to keep it warm through the winter. Takao-san put an electric blanket under the rice husks and built a wooden roof covered with a blanket. It was now 57 degrees F in the quail house (it was 46 degrees F outside), but that was not enough. Takao-san added sticky heat pads, like the ones you use for a sore back, to the roof of the quail house which made it warmer but still only 68 degrees F. That seemed like an expensive and temporary solution. He explained that these sticky pads had kept the quails warm in their cardboard house the night before! We still needed to get the temperature higher, so we found a glass bottle and filled it with water we heated on the stove, wrapped it in a t-shirt, and put it inside the quail house. Finally we were getting somewhere; the temperature started climbing.

Cozy quail house with feeder and drinker

We put the quail chicks in the plastic box and it was clear they were cold. They cheep a lot and walk like they are drunk when they are cold, but they eventually figured out it was warm under the roof and went inside to warm up. Initially they were not able to find the water drinker, and one of them seemed very confused by the clear walls he could see out of. He kept trying to run through them until we covered them up with paper. They finally found the water and food and settled into their new home.

Quail chicks hanging out in the food bin

The hot water bottle was not a permanent solution because it needed to be refilled or the temperature would drop, so the next day Takao-san found a stronger electric blanket and made the house very cozy for the quails. They should survive the winter.

Inspired by his initial success and now having an acceptable home in which to raise quail, Takao-san bought 40 more eggs from the grocery store to incubate.

Filling Rice Bags

We mentioned the fall season had not been kind to rice growers trying to dry their rice because of all the rain. Takao-san had rice everywhere in various stages of drying. Every few days he would take us to a greenhouse to pour rice from flat sheets into mesh bags to dry, or from mesh bags to paper storage bags if it was dry enough. The moisture rating had to be less than 14 for it to be considered dry enough. We were pretty bad at getting the rice from these long sheets into the bags, but we did eventually manage to transfer it without spilling too much.

Rice drying in the greenhouse

Working on this farm was our favorite WWOOFing experience of the year. We loved how collaborative Takao-san was. It did not matter if we were fixing a machine or building a quail house, he would say, “we need to do xyz, but how?” He did not care whether we knew anything about the subject at hand; he really was interested in how we thought we should do it. If we came up with a suggestion, he would say, “ok, try it.” It was incredibly rewarding to work this way, and we truly felt like we were helping him get his work done. It was not just the work that made us love this place. The family welcomed us in from day one, and it did not take long to settle into a comfortable routine. Check out our next post for more on what life was like at the farm.

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