Like many in the tea industry we are always interested in environmental trends or practices which impact the production of the camellia sinensis (tea) plant. While there is significant concern about global warming in many parts of the tea growing world, Japan included, the Japanese have become known for the practice of Chagusaba. This sustainable farming method protects the topsoil and even enhances it while protecting tea plants from cold weather extremes. It also improves the overall taste and quality of Japanese green tea. This method, native to the Kakegawa region of the Shizuoka Prefecture, about 90 minutes by train from Tokyo has been in existence since the 1600’s and provides balance between the land and the farmers who produce some of the finest green tea in the world.
The Broad Strokes of Chagusaba Tea Production
Chagusaba is a farming method which originated in Shizuoka Prefecture nearby Mt. Fuji, whereby farmers grow native grasses for use in mulching between tea bushes. Specifically, these tall grasses, like the silver pampas grass, are grown alongside tea gardens. During the late fall and winter the grass is cut, dried, and spread between the rows of the tea bushes. The addition of this dried grass provides insulation for the root systems of the plants allowing protection and earlier growth in spring. As the season progresses the grass keeps the weeds down and slowly decomposes, adding nutrients and organic matter to the soil, improving its quality over time. Where fertilizer is used, the grass helps keep fertilizer in place and lessons the ability of rains to erode the topsoil. For all the added work work, tea farmers believe that the Chagusaba practice produces better color, taste, and aroma for their tea.
Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS)
Japan has seen a significant reduction in its native grasslands over the past 100+ years. It’s estimated that today’s grasslands are 1/30th of what they once were. While the chagusaba practice enhances the soil and helps produce superior green tea for the Shizuoka region, the practice provides substantial added value to the environment. It encourages biodiversity by providing nourishment to the soil and supports growth of many other smaller plants. If not for chagusaba these smaller plants would be crowded out by larger plants that would otherwise take over if not for the annual harvesting of grasses. The environment created in chagusaba supports a significant number of rare plants including the “7 herbs of autumn” and numerous animals that live and find food from among the grasslands. Many of these plants are also important to Buddhist traditions and ceremonies. When the Shizuoka region proposed being designated as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System it stressed the impact of the farming practice on the environment, the economy, and the cultural practices of the region (Kawakatsu). In May 2013 The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization officially designated the Chagusaba farming practice of Kakegawa in Shizuoka Prefecture as a GIAHS site.
As sustainable farming practices become increasingly desired both by farmers and by consumers we are interested in seeing where this practice, and those like it, may be copied and adapted in other parts of world. Closer to home the Chesapeake Bay has struggled for years with excessive nitrogen runoff from poor fertilization practices, excessive or inappropriate use of fertilizer on lawns, and overflow from waste water treatment facilities. Many great organizations are working to improve the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay starting hundreds of miles away in the headwaters which lead to the bay. Upstream the emphasis is on forest restoration with native trees and plants. Closer to the bay work is also being done to create buffers to absorb runoff and change destructive human behaviors. We would love to see increased sustainable farming practices take hold along with homeowner education and improved infrastructure to speed this restoration along. We would love to see increased forest buffers and native plants along the edge of the Chesapeake but we also we wonder if there may also be room for adapted chagusaba practices to aid in improved soil fertility and acting as both a buffer to the Chesapeake.
Traditional Tea-Grass Integrated System: Shizuoka’s Chagusaba, A globally significant agricultural system and landscape, by Dr. Heita Kawakatsu, May 29, 2013, http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/giahs_assets/Information_Resources_Annexes/Japan_Forum/Traditional_tea_Chagusaba_of_Shizuoka.pdf
GIAHS Propsal, Traditional Tea-Grass Integrated System in Shizuoka, http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/giahs_assets/Sites_annexes/GIAHS-Shizuoka_proposal.pdf