Natural Farming — Part 1

It may be that when we no longer know what to do, 
we have come to our real work
and when we no longer know which way to go, 
we have begun our real journey. 
            —Wendell Berry, Farmer, Poet, and Writer

In 2006, the once abandoned orchard at Old Frog Pond Farm received organic certification. But that didn’t mean I understood what I was doing as an orchardist. An experienced farmer tends the earth for years, season after season, noticing, altering her approach, and trying new ideas. I was following an instruction sheet that I only partially understood. In my search to improve my orchard practices, I came upon the writings of Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008), a Japanese rice and citrus grower, who discovered a way to farm that was in harmony with nature. His book, One Straw Revolution, published in English in 1978, became an underground manifesto for a new approach to agriculture: one that did no harm, that did not depend on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or mountains of compost — one that emphasized ease.  

As a young man, Fukuoka worked for the Customs Bureau’s Plant Inspection Division, having studied plant pathology at the university. His long hours led to a bout of acute pneumonia and hospitalization. He lay for days in his hospital room where a broken window let in cold and snow. He recounts that a nurse checked his temperature from time to time, but that was all. In the midst of this icy solitude, he started to fear death approaching. When he was finally released from the hospital, he fell into a terrible depression. The work that had fascinated him seemed useless. He could not sleep or focus on anything. One night on a hill overlooking the harbor, he collapsed with exhaustion. He woke the next morning at dawn, gazing over the water.  “Everything I had held in firm conviction,” he wrote, “everything upon which I had ordinarily relied, was swept away with the wind. I felt that I understood nothing.” The next day he handed in his resignation and began wandering, trying to explain to people he met what he had experienced. “I challenged a lot of people with my conviction that everything is meaningless and of no value, that everything returns to nothingness. But this was too much, or too little, for the everyday world to conceive.” He returned to his father’s farm resolved to live a simple life.  

I settled myself on the mountain and everything went well up until the time my father entrusted me with the richly bearing trees in the orchard. . . . My conviction was that crops grow themselves and should not have to be grown. I had acted in the belief that everything should be left to take its natural course, but I found that if you apply that way of thinking all at once, before long things do not go so well.

Fukuoka ruined the citrus crop and his father insisted that he leave and get a job and come back when his mind was right. Fukuoka left, and found a job as Head Researcher at a nearby agricultural research center. It was just when Japan was preparing for war and for the next eight years Fukuoka did research devoted to increasing the wartime food supply. Throughout this time, he was always pondering the idea of a natural approach to farming.  

Fukuoka returned to his father’s farm, convinced that a grower could trust nature and not use any chemicals. On a clay hillside above the farm, he decided he would grow an orchard of mikan, a Japanese clementine. “The red clay was so hard you could not stick a shovel into it,” he wrote. People had previously grown potatoes there, exhausted the soil, and abandoned the fields. His father thought he was crazy.

To improve the soil, Fukuoka first tried digging holes in the compacted soil and adding organic matter, a physically demanding effort that led nowhere. Then he tried burying straw and ferns that he had carried on his back from higher up on the mountain. But hauling ninety pound loads and digging trenches was exhausting. The trenches eventually caved in, and there was barely any organic matter. He thought of building organic matter in the soil with decomposed wood, but it wasn’t available nearby. This was his “aha” moment — he could grow the wood himself.

Among his citrus trees, he planted pine, cedar, pear, loquats, cherries, and other native trees. On the bare ground under them, he sowed white clover and alfalfa. After several years, the clover grew and blanketed the hillside. He planted daikon, the large white Japanese radish. With its deep taproot, the daikon opened the way for water and air to circulate through the dense clay.  The radish reseeded, softening the hard clay soil, and, after a few seasons, Fukuoka could plant root crops like potatoes and eventually more tender vegetables. He continued to sow clover, a nitrogen-fixing plant that returned more nitrogen to the soil than it used. The orchard soil became rich and dark, and the tall trees provided a windbreak protecting the smaller citrus trees. With the ground cover of nitrogen-producing plants, the orchard naturally had all the fertilizer necessary. With the diversity of plants and trees, insect pressure decreased, and he had no need for pesticides. 

In Japan, after World War II, there was a great rush to emulate the West and use modern methods, specifically chemicals for farming. At first these new introductions from the West meant less work for the farmers, but it took only one generation before the minerals in the soil were depleted and the crops became dependent on chemical nutrients. Fukuoka knew intuitively that there must be another way.  

Over the over the next decades, Fukuoka refined his approach to agriculture and called it natural farming (different from 'do-nothing' farming that had destroyed his father's citrus crop). He believed that farming should be pleasurable and in harmony with nature, not such oppressively hard work that the farmer is left with no time for other pursuits. “There is no time in modern agriculture for a farmer to write a poem or compose a song,” he would grumble. Fukuoka always sold his crops for less than chemically treated produce, because he felt natural food should be less expensive. “After all, natural food [is] easier to grow, even though it [is] more nutritious and tasty.” When Fukuoka learned that a distributor in Tokyo was selling his mikan for a high price, he immediately stopped selling to him.

The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.                      —Masanobu Fukuoka

The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.  
                   —Masanobu Fukuoka

I aspired to Fukuoka’s ease and trust of nature. Having no idea what I would do, for several weeks, I carried around his book, as if the spirit contained within it would infuse the farm. My first real step was to plant comfrey throughout the orchard, a plant that also has a long taproot. People told me that I was really foolish, because comfrey spreads its seeds and will take over gardens, fields, and even orchards. The comfrey didn’t turn out to be a problem, because the deer kept it in check. But what happened next in my desire to create a natural orchard in the spirit of Fukuoka was devastating.

                                               Natural Farming: Part 2 will follow next Sunday.