Conversation with Jon Walsh, urban farmer in Japan

Jon Walsh is a New Zealander who has been living in Japan for almost 20 years. He is an urban farming and sustainability instructor and consultant based in Tokyo. Since 2012, he has taught nearly 1,000 people including individuals, families, students, and working professionals how to grow healthy urban food to improve health, support the environment, and reconnect with Nature.

Jon took part in our first edition of  Conversations with Green Changemakers in Japan and you can find below, the player to listen to the full interview.

This podcast is also available to listen on Apple Podcast, Deezer and Spotify.

If you want to know more about urban farming and how to grow your own food, do not hesitate to send him an email businessgrow@hotmail.com.

jon walsh urban farmer in Tokyo

When and how did you become aware of climate change?

I started researching and discovering how serious it was over 10 years ago, and wanted to do something to help address it but couldn’t decide what.

How did you start your ecological transition?

The deadly earthquakes in Tohoku, Japan, in March 2011, and in Christchurch, New Zealand a month earlier started everything. Before then, I had no interest – or experience – in growing food.

Read more: New Zealander is on a mission to turn Japan green, one balcony at a time

These two earthquakes had a huge effect on me and made me think: if a quake that size hit Tokyo and lots of roads get blocked and food stores are destroyed, where would we get food from? I had no answer, which was pretty scary.

I figured that many people who have emergency supplies would run out within days and these supplies would quite quickly become a pile of empty cans, boxes and bottles. We can’t eat these.

I wondered, then what?

I quickly realized that food sources had to be local, not in some distant warehouse or being trucked in from a farm in the countryside. In addition, these food sources also had to be sustained, and sustainable. It was then that I decided to take more control over my family’s future, focus on food, and create a more sustainable, self-sufficient lifestyle.

So, I put some seeds onto some soil in a pot and a plant grew. That was pretty cool! It blew me away.

I started growing flowers, vegetables and herbs in planter boxes and pots behind my family house, and began renting a 3×5 square meter plot in a nearby community garden.

By the end of the first summer, I had grown over 1,000 tomatoes in the community garden – on two square meters, and over 200 cucumbers – also on two square meters, as well as 40 lettuces and lots of other vegetables.

It was fantastic! I was blown away and had no idea that this tiny little plot could produce so much food. As my family couldn’t eat it all, I had to give a lot of the food away and I found I had changed from being a regular consumer into a food producer in one season. I do this most years now.

I then contacted the founder of Tokyo International School, asked him if they grew any food on site, and offered to set up 10 planter boxes and grow some food. They said they didn’t grow food on site, but would be interested to find out more. I went in for a meeting, covered the deputy principal’s desk with photos of food I had grown, and he effectively hired me on the spot.

I was subsequently asked to teach urban farming lessons to their students.

At that point I had no experience teaching anything to anyone (not even English), but was really enjoying growing food and had nothing to lose, so I accepted the challenge. That was 2012.

There has been a lot of progress since and it has been great fun and hugely satisfying to teach kids how to grow their own food. They are always really excited to see their seeds sprout and plants grow.

Kids can go to Disneyland and enjoy fake magic, or they can sow some seeds and see real magic.

What is urban farming?

Traditional farming is where people grow food and raise animals in the countryside.

In contrast, urban farming is mainly growing food, but in urban areas, such as in the city. That’s why it’s called ‘urban farming.’

Can you tell us a bit more about what you do?

I teach people (nearly 900 people to date) how to grow healthy food without chemicals in the city – like our grandparent’s generation did – with sunshine, water, and little else.

The full seed-to-salad process looks like this when done at a school: School salad lunch harvest.

I also install gardens – so far, I’ve helped set up gardens at the Grand Hyatt Tokyo (view report), Tokyo International School, Montessori School of Tokyo, Aoba-Japan International School, Tokyo Children’s Garden kindergarten), and helped other urban farmers set up new and expand existing gardens in Tokyo. 

Besides, I run workshops, seminars and lectures about urban farming for organizations, clubs (Tokyo American Club, U.S. Embassy housing compound), embassies, parks and private residences.

My most popular service is my on-site urban farming consulting service – called the Urban Farming Quick Start Pack – where I train and advise people at home. This is really taking off, and I have just launched a remote consulting service that can be run for anyone, anywhere.

What initiatives are you implementing to bring about positive change and make a difference?

First and foremost and along with the above-mentioned workshops and training, I am focusing on teaching beginners and advancedurban farming programs as well as practical sustainability and disaster preparation/survival skills.

This is growing rapidly as more people learn about my services, and it is lucky that all these areas are related and support each other.

Second, I have launched ‘Grow For Good’ and Food Havens Tokyo CSR/community support strategies where I encourage individuals, groups and businesses in Tokyo to grow food and donate a portion of it to food banks (see photos), charities, and community support organizations.

This is about putting food on plates for people who need it, and has led to donations of fresh food and money to Second Harvest Japan food bank, and I hope will lead to more. The aim here is to get as many households, businesses and other organizations as possible to grow and donate food and help eliminate food shortages in major cities. I believe this could be done in two growing seasons – that’s 12 months.

Wrapped around all that, I am pushing a broad sustainability outreach strategy involving teaching people at every level – private individuals, families, students, office staff and club members – getting urban farming articles published in the media (over 20 to date), and running lectures and seminars on urban farming and sustainability issues.

I back all this up with an expanding catalogue of guides (see Urban Farming & Sustainability Report Pack), articles, how-to guides and self-learning packs I have created that help people learn and pass on key food growing skills.

How do you think urban farming can have a positive impact on the environment?

The impact of growing food without chemicals in urban areas is massive and all good.

There’s many important benefits including showing people how to eat healthier food, reducing usage of poisonous agricultural chemicals (protects soil, waterways, and personal health), helping people become more self-sufficient, reducing food miles, and protecting the environment.

It also lets people grow healthier food more cheaply, and enables us to enjoy a larger range of natural tastes and flavors.

In your opinion, what are the main issues with pesticides that are used when growing our food?

Agricultural chemicals are known by a number of names: insecticides, pesticides, fertilizers.

These names all obscure the fact that they are poisons.

If we use them, we will be poisoning the plants and soil, and if we do that and feed these vegetables to our families, we will be poisoning them too.

Every season commercial farmers spray and poison their fields. More spray equals more poisoned food, which equals more allergies, diseases, poisoned and sick people.

The solution is to do the opposite – don’t use chemicals. Healthy soil leads to healthy people and a healthier planet.

Is urban farming becoming more and more popular in Japan?

I haven’t seen any statistics, however, I have seen a noticeable uptick in interest in urban farming and growing food as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

In the current global context with Covid-19, how do you think urban farming can help?

The virus has impacted food supply lines and made people stay inside. Urban farming addresses both these circumstances in one hit by putting the food where many people are spending the most time – at home.

What is your vision of the future of urban food?

Free, healthy food everywhere.

Here are 6 ways cities can be transformed into food havens that can build personal and environmental health, community and self-sufficiency:

1/ Convert building rooftops, underused car parks, empty building sites and other under-utilized areas within cities into gardens

2/ Grow food instead of flowers, plant gardens instead of lawns, and grow food on walls and rooftops everywhere

3/ Line streets with raised gardens so people can see and have access to food all around town.

4/ Mobilize teams of urban farmers to build local gardens and train people how to grow their own food sustainably

5/ Promote food growing programs in all schools

6/ Promote town composting initiatives using organic household waste to create free soil for any residents to use to grow food.

For more information, see my Making Every City Sustainable article.

What is the best thing about being an urban farmer?

Where do I start? 😊 It’s immense fun, hugely satisfying, and super healthy. It involves creativity, life, colors, flavors and smells. It teaches lessons in resilience, life (and death). It gets us outside into the sunshine, increases physical activity, and you can eat the results of your work.

Oh, and it does great things for the environment. You can’t beat that! 😊

Spring is like Christmas for urban farmers!

What resources (books, documentaries, podcasts, etc.) would you recommend on ecology or urban farming?

In my urban farming guide,  ‘How To Grow Healthy Food In The City‘, I have distilled 7 successful years of teaching people how to grow real food, hosting urban farming lectures and workshops, and building gardens in Tokyo into 60 information-packed pages.

It’s the first and last urban farming resource urban farmers will ever need, and if you are new to gardening and keen to start, this guide will equip you with a massive dose of need-to-know information, smart tips, and food growing knowledge that will help you bypass all the usual beginner’s mistakes and get gardening in no time. If you are interested in getting it, feel free to send me an email at businessgrow@hotmail.com.

If you want to learn about urban farming and get fired up for it at the same time, check out:

Final thoughts?

To make a mark in this field, you have to combine a seed with the motivation and enthusiasm to sow it, and then spread that passion.

That is how we can make a difference.

That is how we can change the world.

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