FUKUSHIMA, Japan (AP) — Last year's crop sits in storage, deemed unsafe to eat, but Toraaki Ogata is back at his rice paddies, driving his tractor trailing neat rows of seedlings. He's living up to his family's proud, six-generation history of rice farming, and praying that this time his harvest will not have too much radiation to sell.
That conflict is shared by several thousand farmers in more than 7,000 hectares (17,000 acres) of Fukushima, where some of last year's harvest exceeded government safety standards because of radiation released when the March 2011 tsunami set off the world's second-worst nuclear accident.
For their rice to be sold, it will have to be tested — every grain of it.
"All I can do is pray there will be no radiation," Ogata, 58, said last week, wiping his sweat during a break in his 1.5-hectare paddy 60 kilometers (35 miles) from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant. "It's not our fault at all, but the land of our ancestors has been defiled."
Rice farming is almost sacred in rural Japan, and the government protects farmers with tight restrictions on imports. Many farmers are too close to the nuclear disaster to return to the fields, but others have gotten the go-ahead, even with the risk their harvests may end up being too radiated to ship.
Hopes are high in this major agricultural northeastern prefecture (state) that farmers will meet the unprecedented challenge of producing safe-to-eat rice in contaminated soil.
Following orders from the government, they have sprinkled zeolite, a pebble-like material that traps radioactive cesium, and added fertilizer with potassium to help block radiation absorption. That work is part of the 100 billion yen ($1.3 billion) Tokyo has allocated for decontamination efforts this year.
There had been no time for that last year. Tens of thousands of bags of rice from that harvest were too radiated to be sold. The government bought those crops, which sit in giant mounds in storage.
Rice planting has been banned in the most contaminated areas, but the government allowed it at some farms in areas that produced contaminated rice last year, including Ogata's. After the October harvest, their rice will be run through special machines that can detect the tiniest speck of radiation.
Ogata is filled with uncertainty. Though the government recently set up a system to buy and destroy his crop from last year, he has no assurances that it will do so again if this year's rice can't be eaten.
He also doesn't know which experts to believe. Scientists often come to Fukushima to discuss radiation at neighborhood meetings, but some say there will be no health effects at all, while others say tens of thousands may get sick.
Radiation is expected to decline year by year. But Ogata and other farmers acknowledge they are in for a long haul.
Japan has a safety limit of radiation exposure at 1 millisievert per year, although some areas in Fukushima measure higher at about 20 millisieverts. A 20-kilometer (12-mile) no-go zone was set around the nuclear plant, displacing some 100,000 people.
Right next to the no-go zone, in Minami Soma, 135 farms have been granted special permission to plant rice as an experiment but on the condition that all rice, regardless of radiation levels, will be destroyed.