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Unbowed by Tsunami

Kazumi Terai

Many rice farmers in northeastern Japan are still recovering from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The saltwater that flooded the area contaminated the soil, making rice difficult to grow. Now, some farmers in Miyagi Prefecture are teaming up with scientists to produce a very different crop: barley.

The project began two years ago when researchers planted a type of barley that can grow in salty soil.

The seeds were provided by the Institute of Plant Science and Resources at Okayama University in western Japan. The group maintains one of the world's largest banks of barley seeds -- about 15,000 types from all over the world.

Professor Kazuhiro Sato is a key figure at the institute. He's been experimenting with barley genes to produce a more delicious beer.

It took him five years to develop a new type of seed. He provided samples to farmers in regions hit by the tsunami.

"Rice can't be grown in the affected areas," he says. "But I thought it might be possible to grow barley."

Two years ago, Sato started an experiment on a farm untouched by seawater.

With the professor's advice, farmers have adjusted the planting schedule. They've also made modifications to the soil, so the yield is expected to increase.

"I never imagined things would improve so much this year," says one of the farmers, Hiroshi Honda. "I think the barley is growing really well."

The farmers turned their harvest over to a local brewer, which used it to make a rich-flavored beer with a hint of lemon. Appropriately, it's named Recovery Ale.

"Of course, selling the beer is our ultimate goal," says Koya Hayasaka, managing director of Yakurai Beer Plant. "But we want to rebuild the community by bringing everybody together to play a role in the project."

Sato has been working to develop a new type of barley that resists salt and excess moisture. He expects his research to enter the final stage soon.

"I want to help rebuild the local farming industry by turning the area into a small center for beer production," he says. "Then, to celebrate, I want to drink beer with everybody."

Sato's research helps farmers in tsunami-hit areas make a living again. And the beer gives people in struggling communities something to hope for.

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