Rice planting at Seonghyun Choi's farm in Hongcheon, South Korea

What is Natural Farming

Popularly known as “do nothing” farming, natural farming (自然農法 / shizen nōhō, in Japanese) is an environmentally sustainable way of growing food founded not on a technique, but on a principal of building communion and kinship between farmer and nature. As a result, individual methods and techniques between natural farmers vary widely.

The most widely known practitioner of Natural Farming, Masanobu Fukuoka was a Japanese plant biologist who, in the late 1930s gave up his career of “examining nature through a microscope” to start field trials in natural farming on his family farm. His methods were popularized from the 1970s onward, through the publication of several books, one of which, One Straw Revolution, was a best-selling title that is often cited as a founding document of the alternative food movement.

The fact that technique is subservient to principal makes it frustratingly difficult, particularly for a Western audience, to come to terms with what natural farming is. As author and natural farming educator Larry Korn explains, natural farming is something best learned through the experience of putting ourselves within nature.

“… enter into nature and participate from the inside, instead of as a visitor from the outside, then you’ll know exactly what to do … you try something and see how nature responds, and that helps you to move along to figure out what to do.”

Larry Korn
Author of “One Straw Revolutionary”

Although there are no strictly defined techniques or methods, there are several generally-followed basic principals, all of which stem again, from the desire to cultivate a respectful relationship with nature.

Natural Farming in Principal

In general, these principals are:

  • There is no need to till the field
    Based on the biological understanding that there are millions of living things making their homes in each small clump of soil, and that all of these living things contribute to the health of the soil in some way. When we till the soil, we harm these lives, deplete the soil’s fertility, and we create the conditions where fertilizer and herbicides become necessary in order to grow anything.
  • Bugs and weeds are not enemies
    All creatures and plants must be respected. This does not mean ‘never cut a weed’ or ‘never take actions to keep bugs off plants’ but it does mean that we should work to respect their lives and their roles as parts of this living nature.
  • There is no need for external inputs into your farm
    Biologically speaking, nature is very adept at knowing how to heal the land by itself. In nearly all situations, the land has the power to grow and regenerate itself, making it unnecessary to bring in fertilizers, pesticides, or literally anything else from outside your farm area.
  • Let nature decide what grows
    Rather than planning around your own desires, or forcing things to grow that are not fit for your climate or area, let nature show you what should grow where

The Aims of a Natural Farmer

Natural farming is both a ‘regenerative’ and ‘biodiverse’ way of growing food, in that it results in an increased biological diversity and well-being of the field as it is farmed, rather than depleting the biological health and diversity, as do most forms of industrial farming, and many kinds of organic farming.

Modern Farming v Natural Farming (CC BY-NC-SA, Patrick Lydon | The Final Straw)

However, one should not confuse the result of biological regeneration with an aim.

Natural farming practitioners stress that the aim of natural farming is not to regenerate the health of the soil, but simply to cultivate a good relationship between human beings and nature, and to allow nature to decide how how best to grow crops. The result of this is that nature is allowed to enact its biological regenerative abilities, with limited help or interference from human beings.

This is an important distinction to be understood, because most natural farmers work with the belief that once you purposefully aim to restore the health of the soil through your own human logic (eg: without proper input and direction from nature itself) you have already begun on a path to destroying the health of the environment.

Is Natural Farming Realistic?

If we’re speaking about being realistic, let’s first question the way we currently produce food on an industrial basis.

Is industrial farming realistic? The answer to this is an unequivocal no. No production system can afford to continuously extract non-renewable resources on a planet with finite availability of such resources. It seems like common sense, and yet somehow we still need the nation’s brightest scientists to spell it out for us. Recently, they have, giving us decades of studies, reports, and independent agricultural research that highlights the impossibility of industrial agriculture. Today, The Myth that We Need Industrial Agriculture has been debunked, and the only ones who are holding onto this myth, are the industry giants who helped create it.

There is a general agreement by most farmers and researchers who are studying how to feed the population of this growing planet, that the only way to feed the world well into the future is to convert to ways of growing food that are:

1. Predominantly Small-Scale / Local / Regional
2. Biodiverse in nature, incorporating many kinds and varieties of plants
3. Not reliant on external inputs and petroleum-based chemicals
4. Regenerative for the environment instead of extractive (destructive)
5. Based more on local and seasonal growing and consumer habits

Natural farming meets these requirements (indeed, natural farming helped bring these very ideas into the Western narrative on food production in the first place). When approached properly, natural farming is capable of producing many times more food per acre of land than even the best managed industrial-scale farm; not to mention, natural farming does all of this while increasing the health of the environment instead of degrading it!

Natural farming (and other related ways of growing food such as permaclture, agroecology, and regenerative farming) rely variously on a connected sense, understanding, and relationship with the real world that we live in. They are based in reality.

In essence, the only realistic way forward for humanity, the only way whereby we can ensure ecological well being while supporting a human population, is to engage in ways of producing food (and for that matter, of producing anything) that inherently re-connect human beings to the environment and the nature which supports both our production needs, and our very lives.

In the end, this ‘way of seeing’ based in building kinship between farmers, consumers, and nature, offers not only a way to feed humanity, but a way to bring about creative, local, diverse sets of solutions that help people live more happily, peacefully, and sustainably, no matter what we choose to do for a living.

More Resources

For the interested — or skeptical — there is a lot to learn and importantly, to experience. Here are a few resources to get you started: