Natural agriculture

«If we throw mother nature out the window, she comes back in the door with a pitchfork».

«If you use thinking to divide red from black, you’ve learnt about division but you know nothing about red and black».

«I wonder how it is that people’s philosophies have come to spin faster than the changing seasons».

– Masanobu Fukuoka

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«Agriculture is now a motorized food industry, the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same thing as blockades and the reduction of countries to famine, the same thing as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs».

– Martin Heidegger

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Masanobu Fukuoka (福岡 正信, Fukuoka Masanobu) (2nd February 1913 – 16th August 2008) was schooled in the Western sciences of microbiology and began his career as a soil scientist specialized in plant pathology, working as an agricultural customs inspector in his native Japan, until he became gravely ill at the age of twenty-five.

His sickness made him realize that «human knowledge was meaningless» and, particularly, modern agricultural science:

«My method completely contradicts modern agricultural techniques. It throws scientific knowledge and traditional farming know-how right out the window».

After he “reborn”, he began to practice a no-plowing, no-tiling, no-fertilizing, no-weeding, no-pesticides, no-pruning, no-machinery, no-compost  agricultural method which he calls natural farming.

To him it is ego-centric to think that people grow crops. Ultimately it is nature that grows crops.

Modern agriculture, as doing-this and doing-that to grow crops, is mean and meaningless work.

Through his “do-nothing” method, which is not exactly “lazy agriculture”, Fukuoka was able to get yields in his rice fields equal to the highest yields attained with chemical, do-something agriculture. He worked within the laws of ecology to tilt the ecosystem in favor of the plants he wanted.

«With this kind of farming, which uses no machines, no prepared fertilizer and no chemicals, it is possible to attain a harvest equal to or greater than that of the average Japanese farm» (“The one-straw revolution” page 3).

Rudolf Steiner, who created biodynamic agriculture, made a similar statement: the «soil is sick». He believed that living matter was different from dead matter; in other words, synthetic nutrients were not the same as their more living counterparts. He also was convinced that the quality of food had degraded, due to chemical farming’s use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides, and that we had to face a «problem of nutrition»:

«Nutrition as it is today does not supply the strength necessary for manifesting the spirit in physical life. A bridge can no longer be built from thinking to will and action. Food plants no longer contain the forces people need for this».

Fukuoka refers that his system (in India, it is called “Rishi Kheti”) goes further than organic farming:

«The problem, however, is that most people do not yet understand the distinction between organic gardening and natural farming. Both scientific agriculture and organic farming are basically scientific in their approach. The boundary between the two is not clear» (“The Road Back to Nature”, page 363).

He also had successfully been applied his method around the world for reforestation of highly-desertified zones in Africa, India, Thailand, Greece, etc. He won the Magsaysay Prize (equivalent to the Nobel Prize in the Eastern part of the world).

His philosophy aims to maximize diversity:

«The key for success and balance is diversity».

That is why Fukuoka recommends the seeding of the largest number of different species of plants possible in the same place: one hundred or more. He re-introduced an ancient technique: seed balls [nendo dango, “earth balls”]. The seed for next season’s crop is mixed with clay, compost, and sometimes manure, and formed into small balls.

Every species has a role. Ducks are let into the grain plot, and specific insectivorous carp into the rice paddy at certain times of the year to eat slugs and other pests.

Everything is needed, zero waste. The straw from the previous crop is used as mulch because the ground is always covered, in order to keep humidity and nutrients. The weeds are kept in its place.

Each grain crop is sown before the previous one is harvested. This is done by broadcasting the seed among the standing crop. The result is a denser crop of smaller but highly productive and stronger plants.

To find out more about his techniques:

«PLOWBOY: Did you begin practicing natural farming right away?

FUKUOKA: I had started experimenting in some of my father’s mandarin orange orchards even before the war. I believed that — in order to let nature take its course—the trees should grow totally without intervention on my part, so I didn’t spray or prune or fertilize… I didn’t do anything. And, of course, much of the orchard was destroyed by insects and disease. The problem, you see, was that I hadn’t been practicing natural agriculture, but rather what you might call lazy agriculture! I was totally uninvolved, leaving the job entirely to nature and expecting that everything would turn out well in the end. But I was wrong. Those young trees had been domesticated, planted, pruned, and tended by human beings. The trees had been made slaves to humans, so they couldn’t survive when the artificial support provided by farmers was suddenly removed.

PLOWBOY: Then successful natural farming is not simply a do-nothing technique?

FUKUOKA: No, it actually involves a process of bringing your mind as closely in line as possible with the natural functioning of the environment. However, you have to be careful: This method does not mean that we should suddenly throw away all the scientific knowledge about horticulture that we already have. That course of action is simply abandonment, because it ignores the cycle of dependence that humans have imposed upon an altered ecosystem. If a farmer does abandon his or her “tame” fields completely to nature, mistakes and destruction are inevitable. The real path to natural farming requires that a person know what unaltered nature is, so that he or she can instinctively understand what needs to be done—and what must not be done—to work in harmony with its processes.

PLOWBOY: That attitude certainly denies the “manipulate and control” foundation of established modern agriculture. How did you progress from your traditional training to such an unusual concept of farming?

FUKUOKA: During my youth I had seen all the farmers in the village grow rice by transplanting their seedlings into a flooded paddy . . . but I eventually realized that that isn’t the way rice grows on its own! So I put aside my knowledge of traditional agricultural methods and simply watched the natural rice cycle. In its wild state, rice matures over the summer. In the autumn the leaves wither, and the plant bends over to drop its seeds onto the earth. After the snow melts in the spring, those seeds germinate, and the cycle begins again. In other words, the rice kernels fall on unplowed soil, sprout, and grow by themselves. After observing this natural process, I came to view the transplanting/flooded field routine as totally unnatural. I also guessed that the common practices of fertilizing a field with prepared compost, plowing it, and weeding it clean were totally unnecessary. So all my research since then has been in the direction of not doing this or that. These 30 years of practice have taught me that many farmers would have been better of doing almost nothing at all.
People often think, in their arrogance and ignorance, that nature needs their assistance to carry on. Well, the truth is that nature actually does much better without such “help” from humans! Once a field is healthy and working on its own, natural — or “non-interference” — agriculture becomes a real possibility. However, as my orange grove demonstrated, such a condition can’t be initiated suddenly. In Japan and other agricultural countries, the land has been plowed by machines for decades… and before that it was turned by cows and horses. In fields such as those, you wouldn’t have very good results in the beginning if you simply stopped cultivating the earth and adopted a do-nothing attitude. The soil must first be allowed to rehabilitate itself. Fertility can then be maintained by surface mulch and straw that break down into the soil.

PLOWBOY: For folks who may be unfamiliar with your book, The One-Straw Revolution, let’s review the basic practices you follow in your natural system of growing grain, vegetables, and citrus.

FUKUOKA: First of all, I operate, under four firm principles.

The first is NO TILLING… that is, no turning or plowing of the soil. Instead, I let the earth cultivate itself by means of the penetration of plant roots and the digging activity of micro organisms, earthworms, and small animals.

The second rule is NO CHEMICAL FERTILIZER, OR PREPARED COMPOST. I’ve found that you can actually drain the soil of essential nutrients by careless use of such dressings! Left alone, the earth maintains its own fertility, in accordance with the orderly cycle of plant and animal life.

The third guideline I follow is NO WEEDING, either by cultivation or by herbicides. Weeds play an important part in building soil fertility and in balancing the biological community… so I make it a practice to control – rather than eliminate — the weeds in my fields. Straw mulch, a ground cover of white clover interplanted with the crops, and temporary flooding has provide effective weed control in my fields.

The fourth principle of natural farming is NO PESTICIDES. As I’ve emphasized before, nature is in perfect balance when left alone. Of course, harmful insects and diseases are always present, but normally not to such an extent that poisonous chemicals are to correct the situation. The only sensible approach to disease and insect control, I think, is to grow sturdy crops in a healthy environment.

PLOWBOY: Don’t you also grow vegetables in a kitchen garden?

FUKUOKA: Actually, I raise such produce, in a semiwild manner, among the weeds all over the mountain. In my orchard alone I grow burdock, cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, mustard, beans, turnips, and many other kinds of herbs and vegetables. The aim of this method of cultivation is to grow crops as naturally as possible on land that might otherwise be unused. If you try to garden using “improved” high-yield techniques, your attempt will often end in failure as a result of infestation or disease. But if various kinds of herbs and other food crops are mixed together and grown among the natural vegetation, pest damage will be so low you won’t have to use sprays, or even pick bugs off by hand. (…)

PLOWBOY: What about the wild grasses and weeds that grow right among your crops? Don’t they ever threaten to get out of control?

FUKUOKA: Instead of relying on herbicides or mechanical cultivation to control weeds, I’ve always used legumes and other cover crops to limit the spread of the less helpful plants. I also throw straw on the fields as a mulch that will both discourage weeds and let the soil retain enough moisture to germinate seeds in the autumn dry season.

PLOWBOY: It all sounds like the ideal low-labor farming method. But what about the yields of your crops? Is it true that they compare favorably with those of conventional farms?

FUKUOKA: In the beginning my expectations and desires were not great… and my yields were not great, either! But as the condition of the soil stabilized over time and the fields returned to their natural state, my crop output began to rise steadily. I never noticed any dramatic changes, but eventually I found that I could grow rice without plowing or flooding the field all summer long, and still produce as much as the other farmers did with all their machinery and chemicals… sometimes more. My production has now stabilized at about 1,3OO pounds, or 32 bushels per quarter acre for both winter grain and rice. That is close to the highest in Japan! In the future, I expect that my yields of rice, barley, and other grains will continue to increase. After all, until recently I was growing the same kinds of crops that other farmers in the village — and, indeed, all over Japan — were planting. But as a result of practicing natural agriculture, I have now “developed” some new varieties, simply by allowing them to spring up in the fields. With those native seed cultivars, 1 think my farm has the potential to achieve the highest productivity in Japan… and possibly in the world, since my country leads the planet in average rice yields! If natural farming were used on a permanent basis, there’d be no reason why the production capability of any piece of land couldn’t go far beyond its “chemical-based” levels… eventually approaching the highest yield theoretically possible, given the amount of energy reaching a field from the sun.

PLOWBOY: I assume that – given such favorable production figures – you’ve been able to support yourself and your family with natural farming.

FUKUOKA: I haven’t made a lot of money, but my overhead costs are so low that I’ve never been in danger of going completely broke. For one thing, after I began farming this way, word got around that the oranges grown on my mountain were the largest and sweetest in the entire village. That fruit provides the greatest part of my income. Then, too, as my holdings increased and the soil improved, things got easier for us. Yes, I’ve been able to make a comfortable – though modest — living by practicing natural farming. (…)

PLOWBOY: Why the sudden surge of curiosity about your farming technique?

FUKUOKA: I think it’s because many people have gotten very far away from nature. Everything in this modern world has become noisy and overcomplicated, and people want to return to a simpler, quieter life… the kind of life I live as an ordinary farmer. You see, to the extent that men and women separate themselves from nature, they spin out further and further from the unchanging, unmoving center of reality. At the same time a centripetal effect asserts itself, causing a desire to return to nature – that true center – even as they move away from it. I believe that natural farming arises from that unchanging, unmoving center of life. It seems, also, that general recognition of the long-term dangers of chemical farming has helped renew interest in alternative methods of agriculture. Many people are looking at my methods and seeing that what they previously viewed as primitive and backward is perhaps instead far ahead of modern science!

PLOWBOY: You practice a low-cost, low-labor method of growing food that requires no heavy machinery, fossil fuels, or processed chemicals… and yet achieves yields comparable to those of more “modern” scientific methods. That sounds almost like a dream come true. There must be people trying natural farming all over the place!

FUKUOKA: Not really… because my method does seem like a dream to them. In fact, I think natural farming is actually a very frightening concept to many people. It entails a revolutionary attitude that could change the whole climate of our society and our civilization.

PLOWBOY: What would it take, then, to convince such individuals to try your methods?

FUKUOKA: It would be very difficult for single farmers or families to get started by themselves. Natural agriculture requires a great deal of work in the beginning – until the land is brought back into balance — and you can’t do it alone unless you have a lot of time to devote to the effort. The change might be brought about more easily on a village or small-town level, but I really think the best way to start this “one-straw revolution”, as I call it, is on a large scale… through some sort of cooperative effort. The government, the agricultural co-ops, the farmers, the consumers — in other words, everyone — must decide that this is the direction in which our society should go. And, of course, if we don’t get that kind of cooperation, the possibility of bringing about significant change in our farming methods is remote. Most important we’ve got to revise people’s concepts of nature. In America, especially, the outdoors that’s seen often isn’t natural at all… it’s an imitation, man-made nature. For example, look around the grounds of the university. You’ll see beautiful lawns, soft and comfortable, planted here and there with trees. The foliage is indeed lovely, but these aren’t the trees and grasses that originally evolved here. They’ve been put here by human beings for the benefit of other human beings. The native plants were smothered or exterminated… and this nonnative, exotic lawn grass was nurtured instead. Allowing such an artificial landscape to return to its natural state would be good for human beings and for all the other animals and all the plants that live on this planet. However, not everyone would appreciate it… There’d be more flies, more mosquitoes, and other insects that people don’t find very pleasant, and some would say, “Oh, how inconvenient. What a bother!”

PLOWBOY: Several weeks ago you started your American tour in California. did you see “artificial nature” there, too?

FUKUOKA: It was really a shock for me to see the degenerate condition of California. Ever since the Spanish introduced their grazing cows and sheep, along with such annual pasture grasses as foxtail and wild oats, native grasses have been all but eliminated. In addition the ground water there has been overdrawn for agriculture, and huge dams and irrigation projects have interrupted the natural circulation of surface water. Forests have been logged heavily and carelessly, causing soil erosion and damage to streams and fish populations. As a result of all this, the land is becoming more and more arid. It’s a dreadful situation… because of human intervention, the desert is creeping across the state, but no one will admit it.

PLOWBOY: Do you think the widespread adoption of natural farming techniques could help reverse that process and make California green again?

FUKUOKA: Well, it would take a few years for people to learn how to adjust and refine the weed/ground cover rotation, but I think the soil would improve rapidly if growers really attempted to help it. And if it were done, California could eventually become an exciting, truly natural place… where farming could be the joyous activity it should be. But if modern agriculture continues to follow the path it’s on now, it’s finished. The food-growing situation may seem to be in good shape today, but that’s just an illusion based on the current availability of petroleum fuels. All the wheat, corn, and other crops that are produced on big American farms may be alive and growing, but they’re not products of real nature or real agriculture. They’re manufactured rather than grown. The earth isn’t producing those things… petroleum is!

PLOWBOY: Haven’t you said that you’d view a severe oil shortage as a positive development?

FUKUOKA: Of course. I believe that the sooner our oil supply lines dry up, the better. Then we’ll have no choice but to turn to natural agriculture!

PLOWBOY: But the typical “agribiz” farm has hundreds or even thousands of cultivated acres. How could someone apply natural agriculture in such a setting?

FUKUOKA: First of all, there shouldn’t be such large spreads. It’s unfortunate that, in the modern American agricultural system, a very few people are producing the food for millions of others who live in the cities. In Japan, the average field is smaller than in the United States… but its yield per acre is much greater. I can do all the work on my own farm with hand tools, without using power machinery of any kind. But I guess those mega-farms in your country would need some machinery, at least for harvesting. In the future, though, as more and more people move back to the country and begin to grow their own food on small plots of land, there’ll be much less dependence on machines and fossil fuels… and natural farming techniques can begin to be used.

PLOWBOY: So you think that it would be feasible to someday adopt natural farming in North America?

FUKUOKA: Of course, of course! When you talk about nature, it doesn’t matter whether you’re referring to North America or Africa or Indonesia or China… nature is nature. After all, modern industrial farming is now being practiced almost everywhere in the world. In the same way, natural farming could be practiced almost everywhere. I’m just a village farmer who has come visiting from another part of the same world. Through my one-straw research, I’ve come up with some important clues as to how people can relate to nature and live harmoniously with it… wherever they may be.

PLOWBOY: But wouldn’t your method have to be adapted to fit local growing conditions in this country?

FUKUOKA: It’s true that each place is somewhat different. Here in Massachusetts we are very far from the Pacific Ocean and even farther from my home on the island of Shikoku… so it may seem as if the experience and knowledge that I’ve accumulated would not be applicable here. However, the research I did on that little farm eventually led me to a practical and tested method of crop rotation. So I would suggest that beginners at least start with the techniques I’ve already worked out, no matter where they live… even here on the Atlantic coast. A person who does that will probably have some problems during the first year, and the results may not be exactly the same as mine. But it should then be obvious to that grower why things didn’t work out. Maybe a certain crop was planted too late, or perhaps the wrong variety was used for that climate and soil. By the second year of understanding and practicing my principles, a person should see clearly what needs to be done on his or her own land. I tell everyone who wants to try natural farming to take the benefit of my study and research and use it as it is… that is the smart way to begin. If you immediately go off on your own and begin looking for the true “nature” of your area, it’ll take you 20 or 30 years to find it, just as it took me years to do so in Japan. Instead, your first step in any attempt at natural farming should be to throw away your preconceptions… then you can learn by simply doing!

PLOWB0Y: Are you telling us to abandon all logical reasoning?

FUKUOKA: Yes!

PLOWBOY: But Mr. Fukuoka, you did a lot of experimenting and research yourself in the process of developing the concept of natural farming. You used reason… and now you are telling us to discard it all?

FUKUOKA: Exactly! Throw away your own ideas for a moment and let the results of my experiments be the seed of some new ideas and ways of thinking. Many people might be tempted to think, “Hmmm… my climate is totally unlike his, so rather than use white clover, I’ll try this other ground cover.” That line of reasoning could well take you off the track and lead you down a lot of blind alleys! Clover is necessary to keep the weeds back and replenish the soil.

PLOWBOY: But there are many kinds of clover that could be used, aren’t there?

FUKUOKA: Ah, you see? That’s exactly what I mean. That’s your reason speaking! Don’t question so much. If I suggest white clover, use white clover. If I suggest red clover, then use red clover. Over the years I’ve tried vetch, alfalfa, lupine, trefoil, and many kinds of clover… and I reached the conclusion that for natural no-till rotation of grains and vegetables, and as a ground cover in the orchard, white clover is best.
My findings have been verified by others, too. When I visited Rodale’s Organic Farming Research Center in Pennsylvania recently, the people there showed me the experiments they’ve been doing for several years in interplanting grains and row crops with clover and other ground covers. And you know, the plots where they were having the greatest success were the ones in which they were using white clover!

PLOWBOY: In the Pacific Northwest, there’s a network of organic farmers and gardeners called Tilth. They’ve started a “clover project” in which members in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia plant various types of clover in barley and corn fields, apple orchards, and vegetable gardens… all to gain experience with that cover crop. Don’t you think that sort of experimentation is worthwhile?

FUKUOKA: Well, yes, it’s fine… but the results are already here and available right in front of us! I did those kinds of experiments 25 years ago, and now others could benefit from my experience if only they’d look at the results. They could save themselves a lot of time and effort by just taking the shortcut of believing. Americans, I think, find it difficult to believe. They have to experiment and see for themselves. But believing is the most direct approach.

PLOWBOY: Some people have noticed a spiritual, almost mystical quality to your theory of farming. Do you feel you’re receiving insight and guidance from a divine source?

FUKUOKA: Although natural farming — since it can teach people to cultivate a deep understanding of nature – may lead to spiritual insight, it’s not strictly a spiritual practice. Natural farming is just farming, nothing more. You don’t have to be a spiritually oriented person to practice my methods. Anyone who can approach these concepts with a clear, open mind will be starting off well. In fact, the person who can most easily take up natural agriculture is the one who doesn’t have any of the common adult obstructing blocks of desire, philosophy, or religion… the person who has the mind and heart of a child. One must simply know nature… real nature, not the one we think we know!

PLOWBOY: Can you be more specific about what that attitude should be?

FUKUOKA: Many people think that when we practice agriculture, nature is helping us in our efforts to grow food. This is an exclusively human-centered viewpoint… we should instead, realize that we are receiving that which nature decides to give us. A farmer does not grow something in the sense that he or she creates it. That human is only a small part of the whole process by which nature expresses its being. The farmer has very little influence over that process… other than being there and doing his or her small part. People should relate to nature as birds do. Birds don’t run around carefully preparing fields, planting seeds, and harvesting food. They don’t create anything… they just receive what is there for them with a humble and grateful heart. We, too, receive our nourishment from the Mother Earth. So we should put our hands together in an attitude of prayer and say “please” and “thank you” when dealing with nature.

PLOWBOY: Do you think that, partly by helping foster such different altitudes, your method could influence more than the way we grow our food?

FUKUOKA: Yes, natural farming could lead to changes in our way of life that would help solve many of the problems of our present age. I think that people are starting to have misgivings about the way the modern world’s ever-accelerating growth and scientific development, to question such things as nuclear power plants and the massive slaughter of great whales, and to realize that the time for reappraisal has arrived. By living a natural lifestyle and demonstrating its usefulness in this day and age, I feel I am serving humankind. As the steward of my rice fields, I am making my stand against the need to use destructive technology or eliminate other forms of life. After all, the problems of our time are ones all of us must face in our own hearts and deeds. As I see it, the ultimate goal of natural farming is not the growing of crops… but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.»

[Source: “Mother Earth News” interview, 1982]

 

Fukuoka wrote:

«If a single new bud is snipped off a fruit tree with a pair of scissors, that may bring about a disorder which cannot be undone… Human beings with their tampering do something wrong, leave the damage unrepaired, and when the adverse results accumulate, work with all their might to correct them».

«The more people do, the more society develops, the more problems arise. The increasing isolation of nature, the exhaustion of resources, the uneasiness and disintegration of the human spirit, all have been brought about by humanity’s trying to accomplish something. Originally there was no reason to progress, and nothing that had to be done. We have come to the point at which there is no other way than to bring about a ‘movement’ not to bring anything about.» (“One Straw Revolution”)

«Speaking biologically, fruit in a slightly shriveled state is holding its respiration and energy consumption down to the lowest possible level. It is like a person in meditation: his metabolism, respiration, and calorie consumption reach an extremely low level. Even if he fasts, the energy within the body will be conserved. In the same way, when mandarin oranges grow wrinkled, when fruit shrivels, when vegetables wilt, they are in the state that will preserve their food value for the longest possible time.» (“One Straw Revolution”)

«We just serve nature. A piece of advice I need to give you here. When I say gaze at a rice plant or stare at its true form, it does not mean to make an observation or to contemplate the rice plant, which makes it an object different from yourself. It is very difficult to explain in words. In a sense, it is important that you become the rice plant. Just as you, as the subject of gazing, have to disappear. If you do not understand what you should do or what I am talking about, you should be absorbed in taking care of the rice without looking aside. If you could work wholeheartedly without yourself, that is enough. Giving up your ego is the shortest way to unification with nature».

«When a decision is made to cope with the symptoms of a problem, it is generally assumed that the corrective measures will solve the problem itself. They seldom do. Engineers cannot seem to get this through their heads. These countermeasures are all based on too narrow a definition of what is wrong. Human measures and countermeasures proceed from limited scientific truth and judgment. A true solution can never come about in this way».

Fukuoka’s books

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