Rachel Kimura at Hinata Farms in Bronzeville, 4431 S. Federal Credit: Matthew Gilson for cHICAGO READER

Rachel Kimura conducted more than a few experiments during the first growing season on her 1/8-acre Hinata Farms. One was an Asian version of the Native American companion planting method known as the Three Sisters. Kimura, one of eight small commercial farmers operating on a largely empty lot on the site of the former Robert Taylor Homes, planted popcorn on the edge of her plot. The stalks served as trellises for purple and green long beans to climb as they fixed nitrogen in the soil, while kabocha squash sprawled on the grounds to shade out weeds. But she didn’t count on vine borers attacking the squash. She could’ve surgically removed them with her bypass pruners, plant by plant, but it seemed too labor intensive for a crop she’d only get to harvest once at the end of her season. 

Besides, she started the season intending—as much as she could—to implement the principles of the father of Japanese natural farming, Masanobu Fukuoka, who took an indulgent position on pests and weeds.

“We’re all expected to apply organic practices, and any fertilizers or pesticides we put in are organic,” she says, speaking of her fellow farmers at the Legends South Farm in Bronzeville, managed by the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Windy City Harvest program. “I try not to use any because there’s a balance created by nature. If you’re killing a specific bug there might be unintended consequences. It sets back the clock and you have to let nature rebalance itself.”

Kimura had to rebalance her crop plan in mid-March when the chefs she was planning to sell dozens of varieties of uncommon Japanese herbs and vegetables to shut down their restaurants. She pivoted to a CSA model, but worried it would be too difficult to exclusively sell Japanese cultivars to people who’d never cooked with or eaten them before. So she allowed the reseeded ground cherries, sage, and garlic chives planted by last season’s tenant to flourish, and she planted zucchini, summer squash, kale, green bell peppers, and Genoa basil, along with five varieties of bitter melon, red, green, and bicolor shiso, fushimi and shishito peppers, five varieties of Asian eggplant, and more. 

Apart from Green Acres Farm in North Judson, Indiana, the Pear Angel Oriana Kruszewski, and the Global Garden Refugee Farm, growing commercial Asian crops isn’t common locally, she says. “I think a lot of immigrant families don’t want their kids to be farmers.” Though her family had a small garden in the West Rogers Park backyard where she grew up, her parents didn’t expect she’d become one either. They immigrated in the early 80s, her dad to succeed an aging minister at a Tenrikyo temple. 

Kimura believes that because of pressure to assimilate among post-World War II arrivals from internment camps, “there wasn’t a clear concentration of Japanese people” in the city by time she was getting into J-pop and envying her friends in LA. “There wasn’t a Japanese grocery store,” she says. “If we wanted anything we had to drive to Mitsuwa in Arlington Heights or just find the closest equivalent in the Korean or the Chinese market.” 

Kimura checks on a Japanese bitter melon.Credit: Matthew Gilson for cHICAGO READER

She got into growing in her 20s. Helping to convert an empty lot into a community garden as part of an AmeriCorps program led to classes and volunteering, while she launched a teaching career. 

“Growing up in the city, a lot of the things we learned about the effects of climate change and just how much humans have messed up the earth seemed really theoretical. It was really easy to not feel that in practice and understand it. I wanted a more concrete connection than just theoretical.” She researched small, sustainable farming methods and eventually came across Fukuoka’s 1975 manifesto The One-Straw Revolution, in part a rejection of centuries of agricultural methods in favor of a “do-nothing” approach that lets nature take its course. Among other things, he calls for an avoidance of plowing, tilling, weeding, herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. 

“Nature tries to find balance and it’s been doing it on its own forever, even before we came around,” as Kimura puts it. “It’s almost arrogant of humans to think that we can try to create a system that mimics nature.”

Two years ago, she’d left teaching, and was working as a paralegal and volunteering every week at the Garfield Park Conservatory when she applied for a Windy City Harvest Apprenticeship, an eight-month urban agriculture training program run by the Chicago Botanic Garden. “Ten years later I’m still thinking about all of this stuff,” she says. “I had to try. If I gave it my all, and it didn’t work out, then at least I know I tried.” After completing the program she applied for and was offered a plot at the Legends South Farm among other small farmers such as Just Roots, Finding Justice, and Good Vibes/Nodding Onion Farm, each with their own growing and marketing models.

Kimura couldn’t follow Fukuoka’s principles to the letter. For one thing the farm’s soil is trucked in from Wisconsin and spread across raised beds, separated from the native soil by fabric that roots can’t penetrate. And 1/8 of an acre is much too small to employ Fukuoka’s planting method of tossing clay balls containing hundreds of seeds across the earth, and letting them germinate as the rain breaks them down.

But she let the vine borers be and the clover grow up under her peppers and eggplant, and overall she had a pretty good season, alternating between CSA boxes and Saturday morning pop-up sales. She’s managed to sell to some chefs too. Elizabeth Restaurant compressed her alabaster Okinawan white bitter melon with liquid kogi and sweet pickled vinegar. Mom’s (now at Marz Community Brewing) uses her eggplant, and shishito and fushimi peppers in their miso eggplant donburi. But even without those chefs she’s been encouraged enough by the response from Asian customers of all kinds—Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean—to go all-in on Asian varieties next year. She plans to either find a larger piece of land, if she can find one, or stay right where she is now. She’s thinking about expanding her methods too, reading up on Korean natural farming practices. 

And even some of her unsuccessful experiments were fruitful. In August some of her popcorn started blooming with huitlacoche, and the prized inky fungus was quickly snapped up by a customer after she posted a photograph on Instagram (@hinatafarms). “I’ve just been seeing what works and what doesn’t work,” she says. “Just letting nature do what it’s already been doing and doing well.”   v