So what exactly is this “natural farming” jazz, anyway?
I will admit I only learned about it for the first time in early January 2018, just as I was kicking of my planning for the 2018 growing season. So all I can offer is theory at this point. We are going to try to implement natural farming this season, but we won’t know it’s efficacy (or rather our degree of attunement with it) until the season wraps. So this page will evolve greatly over time, I expect.
Natural farming, sometimes rendered “do-nothing” farming in English, was a concept promulgated by the Japanese farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka. The foundational underpinnings are frequently lost on members of the western audience, but some elements of the practice and the spirit of natural farming have been intuited (more or less) by westerners from time to time. The best example I have come across to date is Ruth Stout. While she didn’t share the foundational philosophy of Fukuoka, the spirit of her work and outward techniques were quite similar in many ways.
While I have no doubt Fukuoka-san regarded his “green philosophy” as paramount and the practices of natural farming as secondary (derivative), most westerners will be attracted to the practices and relegate the philosophy in importance. Therefore, with some chagrin, I will present information in that order.
THE PRACTICES OF NATURAL FARMING
1 – No Cultivation
This means no plowing, no tilling, and no removal of weeds by cultivation. Most commonly this practice is rendered in English: “Disturb the soil as little as possible.” Very few realize the degree to which this idea penetrates. At the end of the season only root crops should be pulled up. All other annual crops should be cut off as soil level with their roots in place. This accomplishes two things. First, the soil is not disturbed unnecessarily. Second, the roots provide food for the soil biome.
Conventionally-minded people will cry foul at this point saying: “What about disease? Crop residues must be removed and composted in order to break any potential pathogens’ life cycles.” Actually that isn’t necessary. If you don’t believe me you’re going to have a hard time with what is coming…
2 – No Fertilizers, Including Prepared Compost
This is a little bit of an awkward one because of the words one must use. Fukuoka-san was not saying plants don’t need nutrients; that would be silly. He fed them in two ways: returning all residues without composting and adding dried poultry manure on top of the residues.
Early in his career he recommended 10 ducks per 1/4 acre of cereal field; he simply let them run through his rice and barley fields all day and cooped them up at night. They had free run of his fields year-round. When the government built a highway through his land and he had no way to range ducks on it safely he switched to dried chicken manure from a local chicken farmer. At that point he recommended 600-900 lbs of manure per 1/4 acre of cereal crop annually (he grew rice in the summer, then barley or rye in the winter). That is the only number I have been able to find, and it was from the midpoint of his career, so who knows if that number changed later.
So obviously he fertilized. The “no fertilizer” practice meant there was no need for manufactured fertilizer; and he was not shy about saying the industries that manufactured and distributed fertilizer should be done away with as well.
The reason for his avoidance of prepared compost was in protest to what he saw as bad agricultural policy being foisted upon Japanese rice farmers. Traditionally Japanese rice farmers grew rice in the summer and a winter grain (usually rye or barley, but sometimes wheat) in the winter. After World War II and the American restructuring of Japan, they were flooded with cheap American grains (except rice). The authorities pressured farmers to stop growing winter grains.
The winter grains were usually mulched with straw from the rice harvest in the fall. When the winter grains stopped being grown the rice straw sat on fallow fields and gave shelter to let the rice pathogens overwinter. Soon rice crops began to fall victim to disease cycles. Then came the next burden: rice straw was no longer allow to sit on fallow fields. So the farmers were forced to painstakingly compost the straw, then apply the compost to the fields. This all had to be done by hand so soon many farmers stopped doing it. They began to burn the rice straw in the fields and leave the scorched fields fallow until the following season.
However if the soil is kept active by the growing of a winter crop, then the rice straw acts as a mulch and nutrient source for the winter grain; it is decomposed in a short while. The rice pathogens lose their overwintering homes and die before the next rice crop is planted.
So this whole second principle is driving at 1.) returning nutrients as quickly and efficiently as possible, and 2.) trying to avoid being distracted by needless “chores” that authority figures insist need to be followed.
3 – No Weeding (By Cultivation or Chemicals)
Obviously crops cannot be grown if they can’t compete with weeds. But Fukuoka-san was convinced that weeds have every right to life that any of us have. Further he thought weeds performed jobs the human intellect could never hope to grasp.
To cultivate to eliminate weeds is to violate the soil upon which our lives depend. Cultivation destroys the living environment of many beneficial organisms and the delicate roots and mycorrhizal networks supporting our crops. To poison weeds is to spread toxins that can harm plants (an unfathomable numbers of other living things) that we depend on, even if we are not aware of it.
Of course weeds must be out competed, but that must be done in a way that causes the minimum amount of harm. His three techniques to combat weeds were:
- No Plowing: plowing resurrects weed seeds that would never otherwise germinate but can lay dormant in the soil for decades and still be viable.
- Mulching: Monocots have a knack for growing though mulch that broadleaf weeds do not.
- Growing nitrogen-fixing, shade tolerant ground cover (in his case ladino white clover) under the cereal crops. He re-seeded the perennial clover with his grain crops periodically to ensure it always was more viable than the windborne weed seeds that tried to establish themselves in his fields.
The upside of solving this riddle – the most difficult of all agricultural riddles to solve – is that when you do, your work burden is reduced by an amazing degree!
4 – No Dependence Upon Chemicals
The same concern about spreading toxins to control “weeds” applies to controlling insect, bacterial, and fungal pests. The main competitors of certain insects are other insects. The main competitors of certain bacteria are other bacteria. The main competitors of certain fungi are other fungi. Therefore to use an insecticide, pesticide, fungicide, etc. is to poison the very kingdom of life you need to achieve a healthy balance. Why do you think the most deadly infectious bacteria live in hospitals? The endless sanitizing removes weak (and often relatively benign) competition and gaping niches are left open to be colonized by the toughest, most pestiferous bugs.
Fukuoka-san argued that pest overruns of crops (insects, bacteria, fungal diseases) were always nature simply trying to restore balance to the unnatural systems human beings have imposed upon their croplands. If we ceased trying to eradicate what, in our myopic reasoning, we consider to be “pests,” then over time the “pests” would cease to be a problem. Every “pest” is a predator of sorts. And every predator is the prey of yet another predator. The best defense against one “pest” wreaking havoc is to ensure you have the widest possible biodiversity in your immediate vicinity. Spreading toxins that can wipe out entire classes of beings is hardly a wise way to go about building biodiversity.
Also in this practice it is a good idea to plant more than you need. A great excess is not needed, just a little extra. This system is trying to out-compete “pests.” It is not trying to eradicate them. By growing a little more than you need the “pests” are allowed small foothold. They will cull the crop and provide food for beneficial predators. The predators you want as your defense and the most robust strains of your crops will thrive (and be the ones to provide you seed). The less robust strains of crop will be the fodder for a minimal (but terribly effective) pruning crew.
The “pests” are likely needed in some way we cannot yet (and may never) comprehend. After all they’re here aren’t they?They’re doing something. But we have no idea what they are doing. No one has ever bothered to investigate. All science and agriculture has been concerned with is destroying them.
Fukuoka-san thought nature was smarter than the human intellect – and to an infinite degree. And I’m inclined to agree with him.
So we have decided to develop our farmlet under these principles. The outworkings of that commitment are numerous and must remain unspecified for the moment. When you get into the nuts-and-bolts of growing food, a lot of questions arise. Given that, what is the general quality of inquiry that carries us forward? Especially when it seems that humans are among the least reliable resources to turn to for good answers?
This is where the philosophy kicks in and, frankly, loses most western people. Sadly it’s because our western cultures are not nearly as introspective as eastern cultures, generally speaking. And introspection is key to the application of natural farming.
THE GREEN PHILOSOPHY of FUKUOKA
While Fukuoka-san was not formally religious as an adult, he was raised in a Buddhist family. He had extensive exposure to Shinto and Christianity as well. Somewhere along the way he picked up elements of Zen Buddhism, which draws much inspiration from Taoism. In his writings and philosophy he borrows from all these traditions generously to articulate his understanding of nature and life.
As a young man he experience what might be called satori in which he realized “In this world there is nothing at all.”1 In other words that intellectual knowledge was completely unable to apprehend the reality of nature.
Further, he said “I could see that all the concepts to which I had been clinging, the very notion of existence itself, were empty fabrications… Everything that had possessed me, all the agonies, disappeared like dreams and illusions, a something one might call ‘true nature’ stood revealed.”1
I think his most succinct commentary on the experience is this one: “That realization completely changed my life. It is nothing you can really talk about, but it might be put something like this: “Humanity knows nothing at all. There is no intrinsic value in anything, and every action is a futile, meaningless effort.” This may seem preposterous, but if you put it into words, that is the only way to describe it.”1
Later he “…challenged a lot of people with my conviction that everything is meaningless and of no value, that everything returns to nothingness.”2
This was a difficult message even for the Japanese to make sense of, and Fukuoka eventually settled back on the family farm. He knew talking about what he experienced was of little value. “But this was too much, or too little, for the everyday world to conceive.”2 He knew he needed to demonstrate the insight through something tangible that others could actually see and experience for themselves. After some twists and turns, he began a long, quiet life trying to divine the principles of natural farming.
For the occidental, English-speaking mind it might help to be reminded to not get hung up on words like “value” or “meaningless” or “nothingness.” Words are all we have, yet they are very clumsy tools to employ because cognitively they work in the opposite direction that this insight works in (more on that in due course).
“Nothingness” does not mean “the absence of anything.” It is the Japanese word mu. Zen traditions might describe mu as pure human awareness, prior to experience or knowledge. Pure consciousness is a phrase that might be employed. Mu can be used to indicate the Tao itself.
For something to have “value” or “meaning,” this is only possible after a person starts thinking about it. Thinking about something is a process Fukuoka frequently called “the discriminating mind.” Another term I like to use is “discursive intellect.” Take thinking about nature as an example. What we humans think about nature 1.) has no impact on nature itself and 2.) is a pale shadow of the reality of nature itself. When we die any thoughts or feelings we have about nature die with us, and return with us to the mu from which we burst forth originally.
So this philosophy is not simple nihilism; this is a profound, indescribable connection with ultimate reality at the fundamental level of consciousness itself. And from this point of connection natural farming manifests.
The Japanese word kami can be translated into English as: spirit, divinity, divine, god, effigy, or principle (that is worshiped). It’s very frequently simply translated as “god.” But this can result in misleading translations since the English word “god” grew up in the context of Christianity dominating Western civilization. Also generally in Japanese there is no distinction between singular and plural in nouns, thus inviting further confusion.
Kami can mean all those things, and many more, as the word came from Shinto. In Shinto kami is generally the divine nature or spirit of whatever is being considered/worshiped. I think of it as similar to Buddha-nature, or the true reality of something that comes from the Tao that gives rise to it. Nature is kami. Ancestors can be kami. Any tree or rock can be kami. Kami is the supreme being/reality.
Fukuoka saw human beings at part of nature just as nature is part of kami. Kami and nature (along with everything in it) are all manifested from mu; the undifferentiated, ultimate reality.
Since nature is axiomatically all that there is, everything “else” that “is” came out of it. Therefore everything is interconnected. Everything is in interrelationship with everything else. Given the vastness of nature and the innumerable beings within it, we can easily see how human intellectual understanding cannot even begin to apprehend a minuscule portion of the true “nature” of nature.
The classic Buddhist illustration of this aspect of reality is Indra’s Net. Imagine a net extending infinitely far in all directions. In each eye of this net there is a perfectly cut and polished jewel. Any jewel is so perfect it reflects the image of all other jewels in the net; yet each jewel already contains all the reflections of all the other jewels in the net. There is an infinite regress of reflections and a perfection of interconnectedness. Any one jewel reflects the whole of the net and the whole of the net creates the image of one jewel. The individual implies the whole. The whole implies the individual. And the degree of interrelationship cannot be grasped by the discursive intellect.
One who dares to impact a single element of nature, dares to impact the whole of nature. Additionally it is impossible to even begin to comprehend the extent of the impact. Imagine plucking a single jewel out of Indra’s Net; how will the totality of the net be changed? We cannot say other than to concede the totality will change. Lastly to impact nature is to impact ourselves and every other thing within nature; yet every single aspect of our lives depend on nature. Should this not give us pause?
Another wonderful illustration of these principles comes from an unexpected discipline: mathematics. Chaos theory specifically. The famous Butterfly Effect is a very interesting phenomenon. Very slight variances in atmospheric conditions in one locale can influence very large-scale differences in another locale far away and in the future. Edward Lorenz, the man who coined the term, offered the illustration that the specific characteristics of a given tornado must have been influenced by the perturbations of a distant butterfly flapping its wings some weeks earlier.
Given these matters, Fukuoka regarded nature as perfect. Not perfect in the sense that humans won’t see “room for improvement.” But perfect in integrity; nature lacks nothing. Humans (and our brains) are derivatives of nature. Therefore we are incapable of improving upon nature, because it lacks nothing and our intellect is myopic.
The Limitation of the Human Intellect
There are three reasons the human intellect is limited and, therefore, should not be our only (or primary) tool in figuring out how to interact with nature.
Firstly, the human intellect is, and always will be, lesser than that which gave rise to it: nature. Therefore we should acknowledge this inherent limitation: it’s impossible for our intellect to apprehend the totality of nature. Realistically we can only apprehend the tiniest fraction of nature. This is not good nor is it bad. It’s simply the way things are. If we keep this idea in mind, it will help us from losing our way.
Secondly, the human intellect became corrupted at the dawn of civilization. At some point in our distant past we stopped seeing ourselves as part of nature. With the help of some technology we isolated ourselves from nature and began to regard nature as something outside ourselves. We began to look at nature as something that could (should?) be manipulated for our own gain. The human intellect became the primary tool employed to bend nature to our collective will.
Thirdly, the intellect is an process of analysis; it is the opposite of synthesis. As Indra’s Net illustrates, true nature – true reality – is an integrated, interrelated affair. Analysis must break the whole (which is all there really is) apart into conceptual “things”; then isolate these “things” from the whole and from each other. Analysis continues by then dissecting the “things” into “parts.” Then the “parts” are looked at in isolation and, in turn, broken into sub-components, ad infinitum.
As an aside language is born of this kind of mental processing. Why is a picture worth a thousand words? Because words are discrete components in an analytical process. No matter how many you use, no matter how well you use them, they will never be equal to the image. How much more inadequate are they to apprehend nature! To do so is to try to quench thirst by drinking the word “water.”
Quantum physics currently demonstrates the limits of how much breaking down of nature humans can do with analysis and the intellect. But even at the limits of feasible technology there’s no reason to expect that the standard model of particle physics is “all there is;” that with it we’ve hit “bedrock.” There’s no reason to think quarks themselves aren’t made of yet smaller particles, even though it would be impossible to test this idea. Why do I say this? Every time humans have cut open a “thing” to see what it’s made of they have just found smaller “things” inside that need to be cut apart so see what is inside of them. It just so happens we can’t build the tool that can cut a quark, and so our analysis must stop. Our technological limits have nothing to do with whether a quark is a fundamental particle or is itself comprised of smaller particles.
The human intellect has investigated everything from clusters of galaxies to quarks and nowhere along the way is there anything we can point at and say for certain “This is the fundamental ‘stuff’ of the cosmos.” There are just nested patterns from the smallest to the grandest scales. Exercising the human intellect is like looking closer and closer and the patterns in the edges of a fractal and being mesmerized at the new details without realizing the recursive nature of the pattern as a whole. For all our great accomplishments in science, everything we know about matter and energy amount to just over 4% of what exists in the cosmos.3 That other paltry 96% of the cosmos? We haven’t the foggiest idea what it is.4 This is one of the main reasons why I’m doubtful the standard model of particle physics is hitting the bedrock of what “matter” is. The pinnacle of rational, human thought fails to even shed light on the most basic nature of the universe.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
In order to interact with nature properly, then, we have to fix the three problems with the human intellect. First, we must consciously recognize that our minds are vastly too inadequate to apprehend the reality of natural processes. This will guard against hubris. Second, we must repair the cognitive gulf between humans and nature. We must seek to be like our ancestors who knew they were a part of nature, and wholly dependent upon nature for every aspect of their survival. This promotes humility, gratitude, and engenders an appropriate spirit of stewardship.
Fixing the third problem has two aspects. The first aspect: we must value the analytical intellect appropriately. It is not the “best thing” about humanity. It is very useful, and it is a natural part of our being. But it must be brought back to an equal footing with intuitive understanding. If the rational intellect is the analysis part of the human mind, then intuitive awareness/understanding are the synthesis parts of the human mind. The latter needs to be brought to the fore and given equal footing with rational intellect in our cognition. Both parts should be in balance and working in harmony. Only then can we hope to find a sustainable path forward – for all beings.
Natural farming can be the practice to bring these change about. Hence the most popular quotation of Fukuoka-san in English:
“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”5
Notes: (Apologies for not having exact page numbers for One-Straw)
1 – All three quotes are from The One-Straw Revolution, Masanobu Fukuoka, Rodale Press 1978, Section 1: “Nothing at All” beginning on p.4
2 – Ibid. Both quotes from Section 1: “Returning to the Country” beginning on p.11
3 – https://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/focus-areas/what-is-dark-energy
4 – https://www.space.com/11642-dark-matter-dark-energy-4-percent-universe-panek.html
5 – The One-Straw Revolution, Masanobu Fukuoka, Rodale Press 1978, Section 3: “Various Schools of Natural Farming” I think on p.122