Long, long ago, hip folks in the Beatles era were jabbering about Masanobu Fukuoka’s book, The One-Straw Revolution. It explained how he grew healthy food via natural farming, a low budget, low impact approach. On his farm in Japan, Fukuoka was growing grain, fruit, and vegetables without plowing, cultivating, chemicals, compost, fertilizer, fossil energy, erosion, pruning, or regular weeding. He farmed like this for more than 25 years, and his yields were comparable to those at conventional farms.
The Japanese edition of his book was published in 1975, at a time when oil shocks had spurred interest in energy efficiency. When the English version was published in 1978, it was an international smash hit, and Fukuoka became a celebrity. Larry Korn was the book’s translator. He’s a California lad who worked on Fukuoka’s farm for more than two years. Now, in 2015, Korn has published One-Straw Revolutionary, which is the subject of this review. It describes Fukuoka the man, and his philosophy, with glowing praise.
Korn detests conventional industrial farming, because it has so many drawbacks. A bit less troublesome is organic farming done on an industrial scale. At the positive end of the spectrum, he sees Fukuoka’s natural farming as very close to the ideal, both environmentally and philosophically. A bit less wonderful than natural farming are permaculture and old-fashioned small-scale organic farming.
The ideal is something like the California Indians that were fondly described in M. Kat Anderson’s book, Tending the Wild. They were wild hunter-gatherers who included wild plant seeds in their diet. They devoted special care to the wild plant species that were important to their way of life. Most folks would consider this to be mindful foraging — tending, not farming.
These Indians did not till the soil, and were not warlike. Nobody owned the land. There were no masters or servants. There was no market system or tax collectors. They had a time-proven method for living, and this knowledge was carefully passed from generation to generation. The Indians were wild, free, and living sustainably — in the original meaning of the word. When the Spanish invaders arrived, they saw these Indians as lazy, because they worked so little.
Fukuoka, on the other hand, resided in a densely populated industrial civilization, which was eagerly adapting American style industrial agriculture. While the Indians foraged in a healthy wild ecosystem, Fukuoka worked on an ecosystem that had been heavily altered by centuries of agriculture. He raised domesticated plants and animals. Fukuoka was experimenting with radically unconventional methods, and had no traditions or mentors to guide him.
He practiced natural farming on one acre (0.4 ha) of grain field, and ten acres (4 ha) devoted to a mix of fruit trees and vegetables. When Korn arrived in 1974, Fukuoka was assisted by five apprentices, who were not at all lazy, and rarely had a day off. Cash had to be generated to purchase necessities and pay taxes, so surplus food had to be produced. Food shipped off to cities carried away phosphorus, potassium, and other minerals that never returned to the farm’s soil. Thus, his natural farming was quite different from California tending.
On the plus side, Fukuoka’s experiment benefitted from rich soil and generous rainfall — especially during the growing season. Vegetables could be grown year round in the mild climate, and two crops of grain could be harvested each year. On the down side, few succeeded in duplicating his success, even in Japan. It took years to get the operation working, requiring extra servings of intuition and good luck. Korn warned, “In most parts of North America and the world the specific method Mr. Fukuoka uses would be impractical.”
In the natural farming mindset, the strategy should not be guided by intellect; nature should run the show. Fukuoka talked to plants, asking them for guidance. When he planted the orchard, he added a mixture of 100 types of seeds to wet clay, made seed balls, and tossed the balls on the land. Seeds included grains, vegetables, flowers, clover, shrubs, and trees. Nature decided what thrived and what didn’t. Within a few years, a jungle of dense growth sorted itself out. But sometimes nature gave him a dope slap. In the early days, Fukuoka allowed nature to manage an existing orchard, and he was horrified to watch 400 trees die from insects and disease.
My work focuses on ecological sustainability, at a time when the original meaning of sustainability has largely been abandoned, and replaced by sparkly marketing hype. I go on full alert when I see “sustainable agriculture.” In my book, What is Sustainable, I took a look at what Korn calls “indigenous agriculture,” which is often imagined to be sustainable.
California tending was far different from the intensive corn farming on the other side of the Rockies, which led to soil depletion, erosion, population growth, health problems, warfare, and temporary civilizations like Cahokia. In his book Indians of North America, Harold E. Driver estimated that less than half of North America was inhabited by farmers, but 90 to 95 percent of Native Americans ate crop foods, indicating that farm country was densely populated. In corn country, defensive palisades surrounded many villages.
In 2015, humankind is temporarily in extreme overshoot, as the cheap energy bubble glides toward its sunset years, and the climate change storms are moving in. Obviously, feeding seven billion sustainably is impossible. At the same time, highly unsustainable industrial farming cannot continue feeding billions indefinitely. It’s essential that young folks have a good understanding of ecological sustainability, and our education system is doing a terrible job of informing them.
The California Indians provide an important example of a vital truth. When voluntary self-restraint was used to keep population below carrying capacity, people could live sustainably in a wild ecosystem via nothing more complex than hunting and foraging. They had no need for farming, with its many headaches, backaches, and heartaches.
Korn’s book got exciting near the end. Farming was just one facet of Fukuoka’s dream. As a young man, he attended an agriculture college, and then endured a dreary job as a plant inspector. His mind overloaded, his health fell apart, and he nearly died. In 1937, he had a beautiful vision, quit his job, and went back home to the farm.
In his vision, he suddenly realized that all life was one, and sacred. Nature was whole, healthy, and perfect — and nothing our ambitious intellects imagined could improve this harmonious unity in any way. Humans do not exist in a realm outside of nature, no matter what our teachers tell us. Heaven is where your feet are standing.
The world of 1937 was a filthy, crazy, overpopulated train wreck, and this was largely thanks to science, dogmas, and philosophies. Intellect alienated us from our “big life” home. Civilization had created a dysfunctional world that was far too complex. The lives of most people were no longer intimately connected to the natural world.
In agriculture, the herd of experts insisted that plowing, pruning, cultivating, chemicals, and weeding were mandatory for success. One after another, Fukuoka abandoned these required tasks, made some needed adjustments, and didn’t crash. His farm got simpler and healthier.
No other animals harm themselves by pursuing science. Fukuoka realized that people should be like birds. “Birds don’t run around carefully preparing fields, planting seeds, and harvesting food. They don’t create anything… they just receive what is there for them with a humble and grateful heart.” Bingo!
How can we reorient to nature? “For most of us, that process begins by unlearning most of the things we were taught when we were young.” The healing process requires abandoning many, many beliefs and behaviors that our culture encourages. We need to waste less, spend less, and earn less, take only what we need, and nothing more. “Wearing simple clothing, eating simple food, and living a humble, ordinary life elevates the human spirit by bringing us closer to the source of life.”
Korn, Larry, One-Straw Revolutionary, Chelsea Green, White River Junction, Vermont, 2015.