CALIFORNIA’S CENTRAL VALLEY
Hundreds of miles of dry, dead-looking land surrounding me as my little rental car makes its way up Interstate Highway 5 through California’s Central Valley towards Oregon.
This area is one of the biggest agricultural production zones in the United States, and was once an amazingly fertile valley, one of the most ecologically diverse grasslands in North America. Historical accounts of the region note that evergreen forests once covered the mountain ranges on either side of where the Interstate Highway now sits. To the West were towering California redwoods, the world’s tallest trees, filling the moisture-dense valleys between here and the Pacific Ocean. On the opposite side were equally impressive sequoia pines, some of the world’s oldest trees, rising up and into the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Down towards the foothills, nearer the valley floor, these thick evergreen forests slowly gave way to deciduous trees, willow, sycamore, wrinkled twisting California oaks, and finally, to mixed grasslands. It’s quite possible that nowhere on earth could you find such diversity of species and climates in a single region, as existed here just 200 years ago.
Today, all I see around me is brown.
The hills to the West, once covered by majestic oak, pine, and redwood are now barren. Brown.
To the East? The oaks, sequoia pines? All of it is gone. I see dead grasses, brown rolling hills.
The grasslands, and the oaks? All converted to modern agriculture. Freshly plowed, exposed soil. Even the flocks of birds that used to follow the plows to catch the worms and grubs coming up from the soil don’t even bother today. They know there’s no meal in that soil for them anymore.
Brown. Dry. This is all I see on the six hour drive through the Central Valley.
Yet, surprisingly, this is where we grow most of our food in California. This dead, dry, lifeless valley, once one of the most diverse and thriving ecosystems on earth, is now nothing more than an open-air factory for producing mono-cropped, chemical-industrial foods.
I take time to stop and set up the camera to film a plow slowly running down one of the seemingly endless rows of light brown soil. It tills and tills and clouds of dust float up behind it. Outside around me is soil, but it may as well be concrete.
“How could natural farming work in a place that seems so dry and dead?” I flesh out such new questions in my head for tomorrow’s interview. The weight of this scene is certainly not light on my shoulders as I continue to drive north, making my way to meet with Larry Korn.
Arriving in Ashland, Oregon just around nightfall, I check into a cheap motel and get some rest before meeting Larry for the interview the next morning.
Of the Western thinkers alive today, Larry is probably the one who most deeply understands the natural farming mindset and so, myself being a person who grew up in the United States, I am most excited to learn from him. By default of us being products of the American schooling and social system, I feel like his communication style might offer more clear insights into what exactly natural farming is and how it might fit into the overtly capitalistic way of operating that we both grew up in.
Back in the 1970s, Larry spent many years living and working on farms and in alternative communities in Japan, and during his last two years there, he was living with and learning from Masanobu Fukuoka. When Fukuoka’s book “One Straw Revolution” came out, Larry took it upon himself to bring it back to the United States, translate and edit it, and get it published and was met with a cadre of helpful characters including poet, farmer, and philosopher Wendell Barry. Thanks to Larry’s efforts and understanding in translating “One Straw Revolution” helped the book to become a cornerstone of ecological farming and thinking. It has sold over 1 million copies and today is available in 45 languages.
Staying in the Western United States, Larry continued to be closely involved with Fukuoka, arranging two tours of the United States where Fukuoka lectured to and worked with the growing groups of people who were interested in using his farming and philosophy to improve social and ecological conditions where they lived.
It is already shaping up to be a warm day when I arrive at 9am and Larry welcomes me into his home. We immediately strike up a familiar conversation about Japan and I am surprised to find that he has not returned there since the 1970s. He’s extra interested in what developments are taking place both on the farms and in Japanese society. After chatting about the travels and sharing stories about the people Suhee and I had met in Japan and Korea thus far, we move outdoors to his back yard for the interview.
Worlds away from the dry and barren landscape I had driven through to get here, Larry’s home is surrounded by forest, and even a few redwood trees. Breathing a bit easier, I feel a deep calm here with Larry and the trees. Our interview takes place in good company.