Shumei is an international nonprofit organization based in Japan that promotes Natural Agriculture, sustainable living and a deeper understanding of our interconnectedness with Nature through programs and projects worldwide. Shumei has been working with the Catskill Hunter Farm since its inception. As a Natural Agriculture farm, the Catskill farm uses only natural, heirloom seeds and zero chemicals, pesticides, manure or additives in the growing process. Catskill farm is dedicated to vegetables and fruit and aims to be in harmony with nature following natural growing seasons. As part of our focus on farms and plant-based agriculture around the world, Pacific Roots Magazine talked with Alice Cunningham, Executive Director of International Affairs at Shumei International.
Interview with Alice Cunningham, Executive Director of International Affairs of Shumei International
Alice Cunningham is the Executive Director of International Affairs of Shumei International, a Japan-based non-governmental organization that has consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. She currently serves as a Shumei representative to the U.N. Ms. Cunningham works closely with the president of Shumei as her spokesperson to the international community, promoting sustainable development and a lifestyle in harmony with nature. She has traveled extensively throughout the world visiting Shumei Natural Agriculture farms in order to share program information with other communities, and is a strong advocate for natural and sustainable living.
Pacific Roots Magazine: Can you share about your involvement with Shumei – what drew you to the organization and your own role within it.
Alice Cunningham: I oversee Shumei’s international activities, particularly our partnerships with other organizations and our work with the United Nations to address sustainable development and the role of agriculture in mitigating climate change. My background is in communications in the food and hospitality industry, but I’ve been involved with Shumei for more than two decades.
I was drawn to their emphasis on spiritual values alongside living in harmony with nature. Their holistic approach to life was very interesting to me and how they applied their philosophy to our relationship with food and how our food is grown.
Having come from the food industry, I can see how many people are missing this connection and deep understanding of the natural world. I believe this permeates other parts of our lives and what is happening with climate change and food insecurity today reflects that disconnection in modern society.
Pacific Roots Magazine: Can you share more about the mission and actitivies of Shumei?
Alice Cunningham: Shumei International is a non-governmental organization with special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council. Our organization was founded on the philosophy of Mokichi Okada, a Japanese philosopher, art connoisseur, agriculturalist and humanist, who believed in the importance of developing our inner resources and living in harmony with nature to address the root causes of the challenges facing our global community.
The basis of his philosophy was to cultivate spiritual values, the appreciation of art and beauty and a way of life based on harmony with nature that could balance materialism and spirituality for the betterment of the planet and all humankind. He developed Natural Agriculture as an approach to cultivating pure, wholesome food with minimal interference in the growing process while renewing our relationship with nature.
Shumei promotes Natural Agriculture through agro-ecological farming projects and demonstration farms around the world. We work to educate others on the benefits of living in harmony with nature, and offer programs on art and music to foster an appreciation of diverse cultures and beauty.
Pacific Roots Magazine: You have been working with Catskill Mountain Foundation on Catskill Hunter Farm since its inception. How did the relationship between Shumei and the Catskill Mountain Foundation develop and when was Catskill Hunter Farm established?
Alice Cunningham: I met Peter Finn many years ago. He told me about his intentions to establish a farm for the Catskill Mountain Foundation that was sustainable. He was very interested in being respectful of the ecosystem in the Catskill, especially because it is a watershed for New York City. I quickly realized there was a lot of synergy between what he wanted to do and Natural Agriculture. One of our core practices is avoiding the use of any chemicals which can pollute the land or ground water. We developed this partnership with the Foundation to start the farm, which has flourished even more given the Catskill Mountain Foundation’s focus on the Arts and our philosophy to promote the appreciation of beauty. The Catskill Mountain Foundation farm was established in 1999. We celebrated 20 years in Hunter.
Pacific Roots Magazine: The Catskill Mountain Foundation explains the idea of ‘Natural Agriculture’ as: “… no agricultural chemicals of any sort are used. It also means that no manure or other soil additives used in organic farming are permitted. Only compost made from local leaves and grass can be added to the soil.” Shumei is also committed to the Natural Agriculture method and presumably also educated the Catskill Hunter Farm on this philosophy and its techniques, correct?
Alice Cunningham: Yes, the practice of Natural Agriculture is a core pillar of Shumei’s philosophy. It encourages farmers and consumers to be guided by an overriding respect and concern for nature. This is why we do not use chemicals, fertilizers, or pesticides because it is our belief that we must work with the nature world.
Nature is perfect and when we acknowledge this, we learn to stop trying to interfere. We believe the soil has everything it needs and so we don’t add any additives including animal manure to our fields. It is often our human interference which causes the problems we are facing today.
Shumei has worked with agricultural organizations, like the Catskill Mountain Foundation, to promote this approach to farming. We like to say that Natural Agriculture is more than a technique, it is really a way of life. It requires a shift in mindset.
Pacific Roots Magazine: It appears that a commitment to plant-based philosophy is inherent in Natural Agriculture as practiced by Shumei and Catskill Hunter Farm. Could you share more about this?
Alice Cunningham: Natural Agriculture is about how you are living with the natural world and being conscious of the interconnections that exist in the ecosystem. I would say most of our farms are plant-based.
One of the important aspects of Natural Agriculture is that farmers learn to trust the inherent power of nature itself and with the trust comes a deep sense of respect and gratitude. For example, when you look at the biodiversity in the soil and billions of microbes that exist, you realize that the natural world is so much bigger than us.
I think there are many similarities with plant-based philosophies and Natural Agriculture provides a holistic approach and way of life that sparks a shift in consciousness. Many people start to experience those shifts when they renew their relationship with food and how it is produced. We often say nature will teach us and you can learn about life from observing nature.
Pacific Roots Magazine: When is growing season at Catskill Hunter Farm and what is grown?
Alice Cunningham: Our growing season in the Catskills is February through October. We have green houses and open fields where we grow many types of vegetables and herbs. Our farm is known in the community for our Natural Agriculture greens, which include arugula, romaine lettuce, mustard greens, kale, swiss chard and spinach. We also grow yellow squash, winter squash, zucchini, pumpkin, cucumbers, carrots, peppers, eggplant, onions, beets, green beans, snap peas, various varieties of potatoes, tomatoes, and radishes. We also have cilantro, basil, parsley and mint – all grown without any additives.
Pacific Roots Magazine: The farm has a visitor’s center – this is for visitors to buy produce as well as to learn about Natural Agriculture?
Alice Cunningham: Visitors can come to the Red Barn, which is connected to the farm and part of the Catskill Mountain Foundation. At the farm in Sugar Maples, visitors can buy produce and learn about Natural Agriculture. We have school programs and tours. For example, a local school brings their science club to visit the farm and we also do tours for elementary school students with a garden program, which is connected to the Art Explorers program.
Pacific Roots Magazine: Is Shumei working with any other farms? Does Shumei have their own gardens or farms?
Alice Cunningham: Shumei has a network of more than 1,500 farmers in Japan practicing Natural Agriculture. We work with farmers around the world, including in the US, Canada, Brazil, England, Germany, Madagascar, Nepal, Philippines, Zambia and the Gambia. We also have our own demonstration farms and gardens on a smaller scale to showcase how Natural Agriculture works. Our headquarters for Natural Agriculture is at Shigaraki No Sato in the Shiga Prefecture, just outside of Kyoto, Japan.
Overall, I would say there are many independent farmers and gardeners who are practicing Natural Agriculture to try something new. There is a growing interest in sustainable agriculture because farmers are struggling to adapt to climate change. They appreciate the fact that they can save their seeds and do not have to buy fertilizers or pesticides. We often hear from new Natural Agriculture farmers that they notice an improvement in the taste of their produce and the resilience of their crops.
We even have farmers in Italy who have started to produce Natural Agriculture wines, olive oil and balsamic vinegar that have received many accolades for their superb quality. It is not so much about our own farmers, but rather helping to start a movement of farmers and consumers who are supporting nature with healthy soil, natural seeds and preserving our rich biodiversity.
Visit Shumei International online at https://shumei-international.org/