Thursday, February 19, 2009

One-Straw - Intro


Near a small village on the island of Shikoku in southern Japan, Masanobu Fukuoka has been developing a method of natural farming which could help to reverse the degenerative momentum of modern agriculture. Natural farming requires no machines, no chemicals, and very little weeding. Mr. Fukuoka does not plow the soil or use prepared compost. He does not hold water in his rice fields throughout the growing season as farmers have done for centuries in the Orient and around the world. The soil of his fields has been left unplowed for over twenty-five years, yet their yields compare favorably with those of the most productive Japanese farms. His method of farming requires less labor than any other. It creates no pollution and does not require the use of fossil fuels.

When I first heard stories about Mr. Fukuoka, I was skeptical. How could it be possible to grow high-yielding crops of rice and winter grains each year simply by scattering seed onto the surface of an unplowed field? There had to be more to it than that.

For several years I had been living with a group of friends on a farm in the mountains north of Kyoto. We used the traditional methods of Japanese agriculture to grow rice, rye, barley, soybeans, and various garden vegetables. Visitors to our farm often spoke of the work of Mr. Fukuoka. None of these people had stayed long enough at his farm to learn the details of his technique, but their talk excited my curiosity.

Whenever there was a lull in our work schedule, I travelled to other parts of the country, stopping at farms and communes, working part-time along the way. On one of these excursions I paid a visit to Mr. Fukuoka's farm to learn about this man's work for myself.

I am not quite sure what I expected him to be like, but after having heard so much about this great teacher, I was somewhat surprised to see that he was dressed in the boots and the work clothes of the average Japanese farmer. Yet his white wispy beard and alert, self-assured manner gave him the presence of a most unusual person.

I stayed at Mr. Fukuoka's farm for several months on that first visit, working in the fields and in the citrus orchard. There, and in the mudwalled huts in evening discussions with other student farmworkers, the details of Mr. Fukuoka's method and its underlying philosophy gradually became clear to me.

Mr. Fukuoka's orchard is located on the hillsides overlooking Matsuyama Bay. This is "the mountain" where his students live and work. Most of them arrive as I did, with a knapsack on their backs, not knowing what to expect. They stay for a few days or a few weeks, and disappear down the mountain again. But there is usually a core group of four or five who have been there for a year or so. Over the years many people, both women and men, have come to stay and work.

There are no modern conveniences. Drinking water is carried in buckets from the spring, meals are cooked at a wood-burning fireplace, and light is provided by candles and kerosene lamps. The mountain is rich with wild herbs and vegetables. Fish and shellfish can be gathered in nearby streams, and sea vegetables from the Inland Sea a few miles away.

Jobs vary with the weather and the season. The workday begins at about eight; there is an hour for lunch (two or three hours during the heat of midsummer); the students return to the huts from their work just before dusk. Besides the agricultural jobs, there are the daily chores of carrying water, cutting firewood, cooking, preparing the hot bath, taking care of the goats, feeding the chickens and collecting their eggs, minding the bee hives, repairing and occasionally constructing new huts, and preparing miso (soybean paste) and tofu (soybean curd).

Mr. Fukuoka provides 10,000 yen (about $35) a month for the living expenses of the whole community. Most of it is used to buy soy sauce, vegetable oil, and other necessities which are impractical to produce on a small scale. For the rest of their needs, the students must rely entirely on the crops they grow, the resources of the area, and on their own ingenuity. Mr. Fukuoka purposely has his students live in this semi-primitive manner, as he himself has lived for many years, because he believes that this way of life develops the sensitivity necessary to farm by his natural method.

In the area of Shikoku where Mr. Fukuoka lives, rice is grown on the coastal plains and citrus on the surrounding hillsides. Mr. Fukuoka's farm consists of one and a quarter acres of rice fields and twelve and a half acres of mandarin orange orchards. This may not seem like much to a Western farmer, but because all the work is done with the traditional Japanese hand tools, it requires a lot of labor to maintain even so small an acreage.

Mr. Fukuoka works with the students in the fields and in the orchard, but no one knows exactly when he will visit the job site. He seems to have a knack for appearing at times when the students least expect him. He is an energetic man, always chattering about one thing or another. Sometimes he calls the students together to discuss the work they are doing, often pointing out ways in which the job could be accomplished more easily and quickly. At other times he talks about the life cycle of a weed or disease fungus in the orchard, and occasionally he pauses to recall and reflect upon his farming experiences. Besides explaining his techniques, Mr. Fukuoka also teaches the fundamental skills of agriculture. He emphasizes the importance of caring properly for tools and never tires of demonstrating their usefulness.

If the newcomer expected "natural farming" to mean that nature would farm while he sat and watched, Mr. Fukuoka soon taught him that there was a great deal he had to know and do. Strictly speaking, the only "natural" farming is hunting and gathering. Raising agricultural crops is a cultural innovation which requires knowledge and persistent effort. The fundamental distinction is that Mr. Fukuoka farms by cooperating with nature rather than trying to "improve" upon nature by conquest.

Many visitors come to spend only an afternoon, and Mr. Fukuoka patiently shows them around his farm. It is not uncommon to see him striding up the mountain path with a group of ten or fifteen visitors puffing behind. There have not always been so many visitors, however. For years, while he was developing his method, Mr. Fukuoka had little contact with anyone outside his village.

As a young man, Mr. Fukuoka left his rural home and travelled to Yokohama to pursue a career as a microbiologist. He became a specialist in plant diseases and worked for some years in a laboratory as an "agricultural customs inspector. It was at that time, while still a young man of twenty-five, that Mr. Fukuoka experienced the realization which was to form the basis of his life's work and which was to be the theme of this book, The One-Straw Revolution. He left his job and returned to his native village to test the soundness of his ideas by applying them in his own fields.

The basic idea came to him one day as he happened to pass an old field which had been left unused and unplowed for many years. There he saw healthy rice seedlings sprouting through a tangle of grasses and weeds. From that time on, he stopped flooding his field in order to grow rice. He stopped sowing rice seed in the spring and, instead, put the seed out in the autumn, sowing it directly onto the surface of the field when it would naturally have fallen to the ground. Instead of plowing the soil to get rid of weeds, he learned to control them by a more or less permanent ground cover of white clover and a mulch of rice and barley straw. Once he has seen to it that conditions have been tilted in favor of his crops, Mr. Fukuoka interferes as little as possible with the plant and animal communities in his fields.

Since many Westerners, even farmers, are not familiar with the rotation of rice and winter grain, and because Mr. Fukuoka makes many references to rice-growing in The One-Straw Revolution, it may be helpful to say a few words about traditional Japanese agriculture.

Originally rice seed was cast directly onto the flooded river plain during the monsoon season. Eventually the bottomlands were terraced to hold irrigation water even after the seasonal flooding had subsided.

By the traditional method, used in Japan until the end of the Second World War, rice seed is sown onto a carefully prepared starter bed. Compost and manure are distributed over the field, which is then flooded and plowed to a pea-soup consistency. When the seedlings are about eight inches tall, they are transplanted by hand to the field. Working steadily, an experienced farmer can transplant about one-third of an acre in a day, but the job is almost always done by many people working together.

Once the rice has been transplanted, the field is lightly cultivated between the rows. It is then hand-weeded, and often mulched. For three months the field stays flooded, the water standing an inch or more above the surface of the ground. Harvesting is done with a hand sickle. The rice is bundled and hung on wooden or bamboo racks for a few weeks to dry before threshing. From transplanting to harvest, every inch of the field is gone over at least four times by hand.

As soon as the rice harvest is completed, the field is plowed and the soil is shaped into flattened ridges about a foot wide divided by drainage furrows. The seeds of rye or barley are scattered on top of the hills and covered with soil. This rotation was made possible by a well-timed planting schedule and care to keep the fields well supplied with organic matter and essential nutrients. It is remarkable that, using the traditional method, Japanese farmers grew a crop of rice and a winter grain crop each year in the same field for centuries without reducing the fertility of the soil.

Though he recognizes many virtues of the traditional farming, Mr. Fukuoka feels that it involves work that is unnecessary. He speaks of his own methods as "do-nothing" farming and says that they make it possible even for a "Sunday farmer" to grow enough food for the whole family. He does not mean, however, that his sort of farming can be done entirely without effort. His farm is maintained by a regular schedule of field chores. What is done must be done properly and with sensitivity. Once the farmer has determined that a plot of land should grow rice or vegetables and has cast the seed, he must assume responsibility for maintaining that plot. To disrupt nature and then to abandon her is harmful and irresponsible.

In the fall Mr. Fukuoka sows the seeds of rice, white clover, and winter grain onto the same fields and covers them with a thick layer of rice straw. The barley or rye and the clover sprout up right away; the rice seeds lie dormant until spring.

While the winter grain is growing and ripening in the lower fields, the orchard hillsides become the center of activity. The citrus harvest lasts from mid-November to April.

The rye and barley are harvested in May and spread to dry on the field for a week or ten days. They are then threshed, winnowed, and put into sacks for storage. All of the straw is scattered unshredded across the field as mulch. Water is then held in the field for a short time during the monsoon rains in June to weaken the clover and weeds and to give the rice a chance to sprout through the ground cover. Once the field is drained, the clover recovers and spreads beneath the growing rice plants. From then until harvest, a time of heavy labor for the traditional farmer, the only jobs in Mr. Fukuoka's rice fields are those of maintaining the drainage channels and mowing the narrow walkways between the fields.

The rice is harvested in October. The grain is hung to dry and then threshed. Autumn seeding is completed just as the early varieties of mandarin oranges are becoming ripe and ready for harvest.

Mr. Fukuoka harvests between 18 and 22 bushels (1,100 to 1,300 pounds) of rice per quarter acre. This yield is approximately the same as is produced by either the chemical or the traditional method in his area. The yield of his winter grain crop is often higher than that of either the traditional farmer or the chemical farmer who both use the ridge and furrow method of cultivation.

All three methods (natural, traditional, and chemical) yield comparable harvests, but differ markedly in their effect on the soil. The soil in Mr. Fukuoka's fields improves with each season. Over the past twenty-five years, since he stopped plowing, his fields have improved in fertility, structure, and in their ability to retain water. By the traditional method the condition of the soil over the years remains about the same. The farmer takes yields in direct proportion to the amount of compost and manure he puts in. The soil in the fields of the chemical farmer becomes lifeless and depleted of its native fertility in a short time.

One of the greatest advantages of Mr. Fukuoka's method is that rice can be grown without flooding the field throughout the growing season. Few people have ever thought this possible. It is possible, and Mr. Fukuoka maintains that rice grows better this way. His rice plants are strong-stemmed and deeply rooted. The old variety of glutinous rice that he grows has between 250 and 300 grains per head.-

The use of mulch increases the soil's ability to retain water. In many places natural farming can completely eliminate the need for irrigation. Rice and other high-yielding crops can therefore be grown in areas not previously thought suitable. Steep and otherwise marginal land can be brought into production without danger of erosion. By means of natural farming, soils already damaged by careless agricultural practices or by chemicals can be effectively rehabilitated.

Plant diseases and insects are present in the fields and in the orchard, but the crops are never devastated. The damage affects only the weakest plants. Mr. Fukuoka insists that the best disease and insect control is to grow crops in a healthy environment.

The fruit trees of Mr. Fukuoka's orchard are not pruned low and wide for easy harvesting, but are allowed to grow into their distinctive natural shapes. Vegetables and herbs are grown on the orchard slopes with a minimum of soil preparation. During the spring, seeds of burdock, cabbage, radish, soybeans, mustard, turnips, carrots and other vegetables are mixed together and tossed out to germinate in an open area among the trees before one of the long spring rains. This sort of planting obviously would not work everywhere. It works well in Japan where there is a humid climate with rain dependably falling throughout the spring months. The texture of the soil of Mr. Fukuoka's orchard is clayey. The surface layer is rich in organic matter, friable, and retains water well. This is the result of the cover of weeds and clover that has grown in the orchard continuously for many years.

The weeds must be cut back when the vegetable seedlings are young, but once the vegetables have established themselves they are left to grow up with the natural ground cover. Some vegetables go unharvested, the seeds fall, and after one or two generations, they revert to the growing habits of their strong and slightly bitter-tasting wild predecessors. Many of these vegetables grow up completely untended. Once, not long after I came to Mr. Fukuoka's farm, I was walking through a remote section of the orchard and unexpectedly kicked something hard in the tall grass. Stooping to look more closely, I found a cucumber, and nearby I found a squash nestled among the clover.

For years Mr. Fukuoka wrote about his method in books and magazines, and was interviewed on radio and television, but almost no one followed his example. At that time Japanese society was moving with determination in exactly the opposite direction.

After the Second World War, the Americans introduced modern chemical agriculture to Japan. This enabled the Japanese farmer to produce approximately the same yields as the traditional method, but the farmer's time and labor were reduced by more than half. This seemed a dream come true, and within one generation almost everyone had switched to chemical agriculture.

For centuries Japanese farmers had maintained organic matter in the soil by rotating crops, by adding compost and manure, and by growing cover crops. Once these practices were neglected and fast-acting chemical fertilizer was used instead, the humus was depleted in a single generation. The structure of the soil deteriorated; crops became weak and dependent on chemical nutrients. To make up for reduced human and animal labor, the new system mined the fertility reserves of the soil.

During the past forty years Mr. Fukuoka has witnessed with indignation the degeneration both of the land and of Japanese society. The Japanese followed singlemindedly the American model of economic and industrial development. The population shifted as farmers migrated from the countryside into the growing industrial centers. The rural village where Mr. Fukuoka was born and where the Fukuoka family has probably lived for 1,400 years or more now stands at the edge of the advancing suburbs of Matsuyama City. A national highway with its litter of sake bottles and trash passes through Mr. Fukuoka's rice fields.

Although he does not identify his philosophy with any particular religious sect or organization, Mr. Fukuoka's terminology and teaching methods are strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism and Taoism. He will sometimes also quote from the Bible and bring up points of Judeo-Christian philosophy and theology to illustrate what he is saying or to stimulate discussion.

Mr. Fukuoka believes that natural farming proceeds from the spiritual health of the individual. He considers the healing of the land and the purification of the human spirit to be one process, and he proposes a way of life and a way of farming in which this process can take place.

It is unrealistic to believe that, in his lifetime and within current conditions, Mr. Fukuoka could completely realize his vision in practice. Even after more than thirty years his techniques are still evolving. His great contribution is to demonstrate that the daily process of establishing spiritual health can bring about a practical and beneficial transformation of the world.

Today, the general recognition of the long-term dangers of chemical farming has renewed interest in alternative methods of agriculture. Mr. Fukuoka has emerged as a leading spokesman for agricultural revolution in Japan. Since the publication of The One-Straw Revolution in October, 1975, interest in natural farming has spread rapidly among the Japanese people.

During the year-and-a-half that I worked at Mr. Fukuoka's, I returned frequently to my farm in Kyoto. Everyone there was anxious to try the new method and gradually more and more of our land was converted to natural farming.

Besides rice and rye in the traditional rotation, we also grew wheat, buckwheat, potatoes, corn, and soybeans by Mr. Fukuoka's method. To plant corn and other row crops which germinate slowly, we poked a hole in the soil with a stick or a piece of bamboo and dropped a seed into each hole. We interplanted the corn with soybeans by the same method or by wrapping the seeds in clay pellets and scattering them onto the field. Then we mowed the ground cover of weeds and white clover, and covered the field with straw. The clover came back, but only after the corn and soybeans were well established.

Mr. Fukuoka was able to help by making some suggestions, but we had to adjust the method by trial and error to our various crops and local conditions. We knew from the start that it would take more than just a few seasons, both for the land and our own spirits, to change over to natural farming. The transition has become an ongoing process.

- Larry Korn

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