FUKUSHIMA CITY // On his farm on the outskirts of Fukushima City, Akio Abiko 73, digs up burdock roots and worries about the future.
For now, he is donating the roots to a nearby evacuee centre, to garnish rice and help feed those who have fled from the crippled Daiichi nuclear plant 70 kilometres away.
But Mr Abiko and other local farmers wonder if anyone outside this part of north-east Japan will ever again buy produce from Fukushima. He used to sell carrots, potatoes and other vegetables from his 9,900 square metre farm to Tokyo. But the chances of that continuing now look unlikely.
"Grown in Fukushima" has become a warning label. Radiation has already been found in vegetables grown close to the nuclear plant that was wrecked by last month's earthquake and tsunami.
"There is no way we will be able to sell anything," Mr Abiko said. "People in Tokyo are just too sensitive about this kind of thing."
A group of farmers came to Tokyo from Fukushima at the weekend, using Geiger counters to show their produce was safe. Japan's worst crisis since the Second World War has sparked widespread fears about the safety of its food.
Authorities are still trying to bring the damaged nuclear reactors under control. The radiation worries are likely to put a further squeeze on farmers in north-east Japan, where the economy has been on a steady decline for years, hit by a falling birth rate and a rapidly ageing population.
Japan's consumers were already among the world's most demanding, inspecting freshness, quality of packaging and place of origin with almost religious zeal.
Even the most run-down markets separate produce by place of origin. At a fruit stand in a Fukushima truck stop, produce is clearly labelled: apples from Aomori, bananas from the Philippines, mushrooms from Yamagata.
Asked about the business outlook, another farmer, Takao Watanabe simply laughed. "This year will be no good. Just because it is from Fukushima."
Mr Watanabe, 52, owns an orchard not far from Mr Abiko's. He used to sell more than half the fruit outside Fukushima. "You can't worry about it," he said. "That won't make it any better. There's not a damn thing we can do except keep working. We're just going to have to tough it out until everyone forgets about this."
Fukushima produced 4 per cent of the apples and 20 per cent of the peaches harvested in Japan in 2008, according to data from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
Some consumers in Fukushima are supporting their local farmers, for now. Takashi Endo, 53, said as he carries a bag of vegetables back from market: "I think the vegetables are still OK, and I'm still buying them. But I'm worried about the long-term effects. I'm concerned about the next harvest of peaches and apples."