Abandoned tractor in California's Central Valley (photo: P.M. Lydon, Final Straw)

Masanobu Fukuoka and Natural Farming

In the 1970s, Larry Korn spent two years living in a small mud-walled hut in Japan, working with and learning from a man named Masanobu Fukuoka, who today is seen as the father of modern day natural farming. On his return to the United States, Larry led the effort to translate Fukuoka’s book, One Straw Revolution into English. The book was published in English in 1978 and went on to be a best-seller — many call it the ‘bible’ of natural farming — that is celebrated by a host of ‘good food’ luminaries from Frances Moore Lappé to Michael Pollan. 

Please enjoy the following excerpts from our interview with Larry during the filming of Final Straw: Food, Earth, Happiness. We hope they give an insight into what Natural Farming is about and why the ideas behind it could very well be keys to a more sane, happy, sustainable world.

Excerpts from an Interview with Larry Korn
2012 September 5 | Ashland, Oregon (USA)

Fukuoka’s Beginnings

Masanobu Fukuoka initially studied plant pathology. His first job out of college was inspecting plants that were going out of Japan and came into Japan. He lived in Yokohama, and spent his days appreciating nature as shown through the eyepiece of a microscope.

He caught pneumonia and became so sick he almost died, but he survived. It was an experience that caused him to start thinking about larger issues of life and death. He saw that nature was completely interconnected, that is was operating perfectly, it was just ideal. What people were doing was taking this interconnected reality and dividing it up into bits and pieces, and in their discriminating mind, creating North and South, separating the tree from the bush from the stones from the plants from the animals. Humans were adding values like good and bad, beneficial insects and pests, and all of these things. Then creating all of these ideas about how life came about, how did nature come about. Creating a discrimination which doesn’t exist in the world of nature, this is only the world of human thinking.

Yet because of the limited understanding that people have, they can only get in the way. When an unintended consequence [of human actions] occurs, people deal with that consequence with the same limited way of thinking that they did [when they created the first problem], which creates another consequence, each one getting larger and larger.

Until today, where pretty much all we’re doing just about is mitigating the unintended consequences of the things we’ve been doing in the past.

So he thought this idea, this understanding would be of great benefit to those of the world, so he tried to explain it to his co-workers and even to people on the streets, and they… well they didn’t get it. They were living within the world of human thought completely, and to them it seemed like what he was talking about was going back, back to an earlier time, and now science and technology — this was in the 1930s — and science and technology was about to bring new abundance and leisure to the world and who would want to go back?

To Fukuoka, this was not about going back, it was about reality. He referred to it as nature very often, sometimes god, sometimes god/nature, but most often — and what I think is the most expressive — is that he referred to it as reality. It’s just this place, that we find ourselves in, we don’t know why, how it came about, it just ‘is’ with no values or separation.

So what he decided to do is go back to his farm and apply this understanding to agriculture, and thereby show its benefit to humanity.

But he had no idea how to go about doing that, and nobody had ever tried it before.

The Art of Doing Nothing

So the usual approach to developing a system is to say how about trying this and how about trying that — he decided to go the opposite direction, how about not doing this and how about not doing that.

So he looked at all of these agricultural practices and he said: do we really need to be doing this? Or is this something we’re doing just because we caused a problem, and now we’re doing this, and we caused another problem and now we’re doing that?

Eventually he decided there was no need to plow the fields, I mean basic stuff, no need to plow the fields, no need to do weeding, no need to make compost, no need to flood the rice fields like ever other farmer in Japan did at the time.

In fact by the time that I got to his farm, which was maybe 30 years after he had been farming this way, there was very little that he did do. All he did was scatter the seeds, sometimes in clay pellets, spread straw, had a ground cover of clover, and he waited for the harvest.

When he got the orchard, it was eroded down to subsoil, so he enriched the soil using ground cover of clover and deep rooted plants like daikon and burdock and dandelion and so forth, and then he had radish and mustard and buckwheat and alfalfa and grains and perennials, and he planted many different types of trees, and over time, actually over a very short time using his method, the soil improved to the point that he didn’t have to fertilize.

At first, because there was no habitat for many of the insects, he had to make natural insecticide like pyrethrum which comes from chrysanthemum roots, and he had to spray that on his vegetables in order to keep things like cabbage worm and cabbage moths away. But after he established habitat for lots of different insects, the natural balance made it so he didn’t have to worry about insect control anymore.

You see, so one thing after the other that he didn’t have to do, that nature took over. In a way, it’s a kind of a ‘going back’ but only because society has gone away from it.

Wandering off the Path

Society has wandered off the path in several ways. One is the process that I described, where we separate ourselves from nature. I think anybody in the modern world does feel a separation from nature. We know there’s a separation and Fukuoka pinpoints how we separate ourselves by this process of thinking and discrimination and human values. We’re living in a separate world.

Another way is that somewhere along the line — and it seems to have been right about where agriculture came about, about 10 or 12 thousand years ago — people got the idea that humans are different from other species, that we’re better, we’re of more value, and that the world was given to us to do whatever we wanted, and that with our intellect and through science we could actually improve things for human beings and, well, not so important what happens to other species, ah, it’s just collateral damage. So by now we’ve pretty much taken over so much of the habitat that other species relied on and we’re using it for agriculture and for human settlements.

The practice of agriculture itself, with plowing and the logging and the irrigation and all of this agricultural management. It has not really been good for the environment. We’ve run down the richness that was given to us.

So for us to get back to our original place in nature and to take advantage of the original bounty, boy we’ve got a lot to do… but once we get into a proper way of thinking and a proper relationship to nature, then we will intuitively know how to make a living in the world. How to feed ourselves and give ourselves shelter in a way which also allows other forms of life to live and enriches the soil.

This is just a short term… I call it the nightmare of agriculture. It’s not an original idea, other people have also seen that we’ve been on this weird nightmarish track for the last 12 thousand years, but anyway, we need to reverse that.

It’s All in the View

An example that I often use, that’s maybe a little easier to understand for westerners, because Fukuoka kind of explains this stuff in a way that some of the terminology is difficult for westerners. He makes certain things … easy to understand, but the way that he says it obscures it a little bit for westerners.

People associate natural farming with a technique.

It’s not the technique, it’s the view.

Once you have that view … you enter into nature and participate from the inside instead of as a visitor from the outside, then you’ll know exactly what to do … a lot of it depends on trial and error, that you try something and see how nature responds, and that helps you to move along to figure out what to do.

He referred to it as ‘do nothing’ farming, but of course that doesn’t have to do with literally not doing anything, it is letting nature take care of the insect control, the fertilizing, the irrigation, all of these things.

So the farmer is really doing much less. He figured out how to eliminate unnecessary work. That was sort of a tipoff to him: if it took a lot of effort, there’s probably a better way to do it. You know, that was just one of the things that helped him decide which way to go, if it took a lot of work [it was] probably not right.

So most people, when they try to figure out a system, they try this and try that, but the other thing. They focus in on what didn’t work, and try to fix what didn’t work because they have a clear idea of what they want to do. Fukuoka again, took the opposite approach … he kind of went with the flow of what nature was showing him.

And what didn’t work, he ignored, he just didn’t go that way.

Fukuoka’s Rice Field Experiments

Here’s an example of that: He knew he wanted to spread the straw of the previous crop — he grew rice during the summer and barley during the winter on the same field every year — and after it was harvested and threshed, he spread the rice straw back to mulch the barley field and the barley straw to mulch the rice field. He also thought the straw would be effective for weed control.

So when he first tried this, he took the barley and put it on the rice, but he kind of piled it on thickly, in clumps, just as it came off the thresher He piled it like that and it was very effective at weed control, but was also effective at controlling the rice, the rice couldn’t get through. So that year his rice yield was about 20 percent of normal, or 20 percent what his neighbors were getting. And they didn’t know what to make of him, and they said gee, growing rice is like the simplest thing in the world, and he’s doing this strange stuff…

But to him that was a successful year, because he saw in one corner right where he was taking the straw from the big pile and carrying it out to the field, in this one place the straw had just fallen here and there, you know, scattered instead of plopped. And there the rice did just fine and the weeds were not coming up. So he goes aha! That’s what he learned from that year.

So he scattered the rice every which way and he got the best of both worlds, he got the mulch on the surface that was keeping weeds down, and also the breaking down and enriching — it’s like a sheet composting system — and still the rice came through and the weeds, not so much.

Knowing the Land

It’s more getting to know the land, the place where you live, becoming a part of it.

Usually westerners refer to that as observation, but to me observation implies the viewpoint, it already implies the split, the separation because it’s the observer and the observed.

The idea of observation from the natural farming point of view, is more of an interaction. You are not observing, you are actually living in nature and you are getting to know your place. It’s similar to the natives [California] who had a profound sense of where they lived, they knew everything that was going on … and as you practice natural farming, that is what you are going for … you become so intimately connected with a place that it becomes an extension of yourself.

So it goes farther than observation. But yes, observation is important because you’re interacting with nature, you’re doing what Fukuoka did, trying things and seeing what the response is and then going that way.

Pretty soon you get so tuned in to following that trail that eventually you come to, home. And ‘home,’ is the state that Fukuoka refers to in a lot of different ways as Mu, as ‘do nothing,’ you get to the point in which you are connected, totally connected, right there. And the feeling, there’s not qualitative characteristic to that place, but he refers to it as great joy, and sometimes he refers to it as a state and upwelling of love. He really thought that love had an important role in our understanding and enjoyment of the world because it is really at the basis of everything.

Making a Personal Change

You know, Fukuoka. He loved farming. And he thought it would be great if everybody farmed, and everybody grew plants and supplied their own needs, plants and animals. But he didn’t believe that farming was necessarily the highest form, or was necessarily the only way that people could have this experience. He does call it natural ‘farming’ but lets say it’s the way of seeing nature directly, really.

If you’re a farmer it’s not that farming is intrinsically better than any other vocations, but with farming, you’re out in the fields all the time, you’re interacting with the plants and soil and the insects and the other creatures, so you’re right there. The chance of having this experience is so much greater when you’re in the natural world then when you’re, for example, sitting at a desk in a cubicle because all you see around you is the human things, the products of human thought, so it’s hard to imagine a world outside of that. That’s what he is saying, he believes it is easier to have this experience if you’re out living in the natural world, but it’s not the only way.

So, what are the benefits of natural farming? Well of course you learn to feed and clothe your family in a way in which the earth is enriched, you become partners again with the other forms of life and there’s this upwelling of great joy, what’s not to like, really? Except that you … you do pretty much have to give up the materialist toys, which really have no place in that world. So you really have to make a commitment.

In your personal life, how do you make this transition? Well, I’ve kind of found it useful to follow the same technique, how about if we’re not doing this or not doing that. In the form of, well of course in your personal life living as simply as possible, and there’s great freedom and joy in living simply. It’s called voluntary simplicity, and then there’s changing the lightbulbs in your house, and things… but it’s in the thoughts.

Essentially … Zen is trying get to the same point, where you’re living and you’re one with everything.

It’s the same as the people that teach poetry and the people that teach all of the arts in Japan, where it’s based on this idea that you come to the place where there’s no qualities and no thought and you’re one with everything, and if you’re studying pottery, of course it makes you a better person, it’s a good thing… with natural farming you become a better more joyful person, but you’re also providing for your own livelihood, you’re growing what you need to eat and you’re in partnership with other forms of life.

Interview and Editing, Patrick M. Lydon
Co-director of Final Straw: Food, Earth, Happiness

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