One Straw Revolutionary: The Philosophy and Work of Masanobu Fukuoka
by Larry Korn
There are many approaches to farming—organic, biodynamic, permaculture, hydroponic, aquaponic, chemical factory farming, GMO, monocropping, and so forth. Masanobu Fukuoka calls his method “natural farming.” His approach doesn’t just apply to growing food but to an entire way of life. Modern agriculture seeks to maximize production whether it really needs to or not. Collateral damage to the soil, water and environment are someone else’s problem. Efficiency is the top priority.
One of the more memorable moments in the education of author Larry Korn was when a professor explained that plowing up a field does enormous damage to the quality and fertility of the soil. He asked the professor why we farm that way if it is so destructive. The answer: because we don’t know any other way.
Natural farming does not plow, does not use chemicals, does not damage the environment and may not be the most efficient way to farm, but Mr. Fukuoka’s farm out-produced neighboring conventional, more “efficient” farms in southern Japan. By using cover crops like white clover and planting different crops in certain sequences, he avoided a lot of the work required by conventional methods. He also used animals to do a lot of work for him, like ducks to eat snails in the rice paddies.
Rice is typically planted in starter beds, then transplanted, weeded, fertilized and basically swamped with water. Natural farming produces rice without doing any of that, and the yield is competitive with conventional practices.
There are no nice neat rows of crops with natural farming and that means you can’t efficiently ride your harvesting machine with comfortable, climate-controlled cockpit through the crops and let the machine do the work. You’re back to manual labor. Fukuoka doesn’t see working in the field as a curse or drudgery. He sees it as fulfillment. Our disconnection with nature has led to environmental destruction, chronic illness, social unrest, boredom, dissatisfaction and depression.
Mr. Fukuoka had little use for modern science that studies the world in a very fragmented way and learns nothing useful as a result. Studying a barley plant in a sterile, isolated environment tells you nothing about how that plant interacts with the real world in a natural setting. Studying vitamin A in isolation is equally uninformative. You learn nothing about how it interacts with other nutrients and affects complex human biology.
During his later years, this natural farmer traveled around the world to places like California and India. One of the things that impressed him about California was how human abuse was turning it into a desert. In India he met a farmer who was doing a better job than he. When he visited New York City and Harlem in particular he made a very interesting observation. He said, “. . . it was the African Americans who were able to laugh from the heart. . . but when I looked at the faces of the [supposedly] smart and clever, those living affluent lives, none of them bore an expression of contentment. All had a tragic, cornered look on their faces.”
He had a common-sense economic point of view that appeals to me. He did not buy into the typical American view that the economy must continue to grow or we are doomed. That may be true of the current Ponzi economy but there are other, better ways to run an economy. Satisfaction is impossible with the “grow or die” outlook. On a finite planet with finite resources, that doesn’t make much sense. Why can’t we live with a more steady, sustainable economy? This book makes you think and I think my thumb is UP.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2016