MINAMISOMA, Japan - For nearly 40 years, farmer Eiichi Fukuda has put his faith in the land, trusting the annual yield of the fertile brown soil to help feed his family and the rest of his nation.
But these days, the veteran grower has watched the good earth turn dangerous. Nearly nine months after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was struck by an earthquake-triggered tsunami, releasing radioactive cesium into the atmosphere, many nearby farmers are now at odds with their own land.
Fukuda's eldest son, Hideaki, refuses to drive the tractor without a glass compartment to protect him from blowing dust. Family members now scrub their boots and work clothes immediately after leaving the field as a precaution against any radioactive residue.
And, most telling, they no longer eat the food they grow.
"For the first time in my life I'm afraid of my own crops," said Fukuda, 60, a third-generation rice and vegetable farmer whose 50-acre spread sits a few miles from the ailing power plant. "Now we buy everything from the markets, grown far away from the reactor's reach."
These are dark days for Japan's farmers as a perfect storm of politics, a slumping economy and natural calamity threatens a way of life here that dates back 2,500 years.
Even as growers in the disaster-hit Tohoku region 200 miles north of Tokyo deal with the nuclear fallout, another threat looms: the government's possible participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a controversial free-trade pact that would scrap import tariffs that protect Japanese growers from cheaper imports.
Rice growers like Fukuda would be hit worst. Many are now protected by a whopping 800 percent duty on imported rice. Irate farmers recently drove their tractors down busy Tokyo streets to counter lobbyists who promote the free-trade pact as a boost for Japan's sagging economy.
Analysts say Japan must keep pace with developments such as South Korea's recent free-trade pact with the United States. Membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, these observers say, will strengthen ties with Japan's neighbors and the U.S. while reducing the damaging effects of a surging yen.
But caught in the middle are Japan's estimated 2.4 million farming households. The nation's agriculture sector suffered $30 billion in losses from the March earthquake and deadly tsunami, which deluged crops and damaged the cooling system at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, leading to reactor meltdowns and escaping radiation.
In recent months, excessive levels of radioactive cesium have been detected in nearly three dozen Fukushima food items, a development that many characterize as a final blow to an already doomed industry.
As he waits to see how badly his land has been contaminated by radioactivity, Fukuda planted only broccoli this year after he found out through his own Internet research that the plants had a slow absorption rate for cesium. But once harvested, by law the broccoli must be labeled as produce grown in Fukushima, the nuclear zone, a damaging disclaimer that will bring him less than 40 percent of usual market value.
Yuji Sakai, a representative at a Fukushima regional office of the Japan Agricultural Cooperative, called agriculture an aging trade, with many farm families in their last generation on the land.
More than 70 percent of the 15,000 farmers his office represents are older than 65, and only 10 percent of those are like Fukuda, with a son or daughter willing to take over the business. Further, a survey found that nearly one in three Japanese farmers are so disillusioned that they do not want their children to succeed them.
With young people leaving the farms, Sakai laments the future of farming in Japan, which he predicts might one day resemble the U.S.: a domain of large-scale agricultural interests rather than small family farms.
"The biggest, most diverse farms will survive," he said, "but the smaller ones will probably not."
As he considers joining the multination free-trade pact, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda promises to protect "traditional Japanese culture and beautiful farm villages."
But Fukuda believes that those farms are already becoming a thing of the past. "I honestly don't know if there will be a farm around here for my eldest son to work when he reaches my age," he said.
Fukuda began farming at 18 and eventually took over the