An Interview with Larry Korn, Author of One-Straw Revolutionary
May 4th 2016
By: David Pike
Since The One-Straw Revolution was published in 1978 it has been translated into more than 25 languages and sold over one million copies worldwide. In “One-Straw” as the book has been dubbed, Mr. Masanobu Fukuoka presented an entirely new approach to agriculture which he called “natural farming.” After 25 years of research and trials he demonstrated he could achieve yields that were equal to or greater than his neighbors, but without plowing, flooding his rice fields, weeding, or using agricultural chemicals. All he did was sow the seeds, spread a straw mulch, and keep a continuous ground cover of white clover growing on the surface of the soil. His method requires less energy than any other, needs no fossil fuels and creates no pollution, and yet the fertility of his soil improved with each passing season.
Although “One-Straw” includes much information on his agricultural techniques, it is primarily referred to as a philosophical text. The core of Mr. Fukuoka’s philosophy revolves around the necessity for humans to return to nature, but one of Mr. Fukuoka’s assertions was that scientific understanding and intellectual knowledge were useless! Such audacious and unconventional concepts were considered preposterous by many as they went against the most basic values and assumptions of modern society. There were those who were offended by his critical views of science but others were intrigued and inspired. Many people, (myself included) have proclaimed that reading The One-Straw Revolution changed their lives forever.
Larry Korn, editor for the English language edition of The One-Straw Revolution, lived in one of the mud-walled huts in Mr. Fukuoka’s citrus orchard for more than two years in the early 1970s with other student workers learning the philosophy and techniques of natural farming. He also traveled with Mr. Fukuoka during his visits to the United States in 1979 and 1986. Larry edited a second book by Masanobu Fukuoka, Sowing Seeds in the Desert (Chelsea Green, 2012) in which Mr. Fukuoka discusses his travels to The United States, Africa, India, and Southeast Asia and his ideas about how natural farming could be used to rehabilitate the human-caused deserts of the world using broad-scale aerial seeding of clay pellets filled with seeds.
Larry has published his own book about his experience living on Mr. Fukuoka’s farm and traveling with him in the United States (One-Straw Revolutionary, Chelsea Green, 2015). He also explores the differences between natural farming and Indigenous ways, traditional Japanese farming, organic farming, and permaculture. HIs ultimate aspirations however are the same as those of Masanobu Fukuoka: helping to show us ways to be closer to nature, and ways we can use natural farming to enrich our lives whether we are farmers, or not.
I had the fortunate opportunity to talk with Larry on a beautiful spring afternoon by the shores of Lake Whatcom in Bellingham, Washington. I told him how I wished I could have met Mr. Fukuoka in person (he passed away in 2008 at the age of 95). Larry said that he felt fortunate to have known him and not that many people had the opportunity.
“That’s one of the reasons I wrote this book,” he said. “I wanted give readers an idea of who Fukuoka-sensei was as a person. His message to the world is quite serious and he could be stern at times, but he had a delightful sense of humor, too. All he wanted to do was live freely and enjoy life. That was also an important part of his teaching.”
David Pike: Why did you feel we needed One-Straw Revolutionary?
Larry Korn: Many people still have a hard time understanding what natural farming actually is. Over the years I have heard similar questions and misconceptions come up again and again so I thought I would try to explain it in a way that would be easier for Westerners to understand.
One of the obstacles is the cultural differences between East and West. A more significant issue, however, is the difference between Indigenous understanding and the way we see and experience the world in our modern culture. When I first saw the connection between Mr. Fukuoka’s philosophy and the way he interacted with the landscape and what tribal people were doing all over the world until just 6,000 or 8,000 years ago everything fell into place for me, so I wanted to share that insight. While I was at it, I decided to go on by comparing Mr. Fukuoka’s natural farming with traditional Japanese agriculture, organic farming, and permaculture.
Another reason I wrote the book was to tell stories about my time hitch hiking from one back-to-the-land commune to another in the early 1970s, living with the other student workers in Fukuoka-san’s orchard, and traveling with him in the United States. Many of the stories are instructive in that they shed light on his thinking and farming techniques and some of them are just plain fun. My idea was to bring the reader with me to those places so they could see them as if they were there themselves, like the day I came to Fukuoka-san’s farm for the first time or when we visited a grove of Giant Sequoias in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. I was lucky to have known Fukuoka-san personally and I wanted to share what he was like as a person.
David: In your book you explore the similarities and differences natural farming has with scientific agriculture, organic farming, and permaculture. Do you believe natural farming has advantages over other systems of agriculture?
Larry: Natural farming is fundamentally different from the other agricultural systems you mentioned because it is based on the understanding of a human culture that evolved while it was still in direct contact with nature rather than the attitudes of our modern society. Human beings have been on the earth for several million years and with cognitive ability for around 150,000 years. Over thousands of generations of interacting with the landscape and carefully observing nature’s response they learned to make their lives easier and more secure. They lived harmoniously with other species and they learned from them directly. This knowledge was passed down in an unbroken chain from the beginning of human history. The proof of the effectiveness of their practices and understanding is in the simple fact that they survived for all that time. They could only do that by living within natural law and protecting nature’s ability to continue to provide the things they needed to live. In most cases what they did actually increased abundance and diversity for all species.
Then, for some reason, humanity decided that we were creatures of special value, that the world was created for people alone, and that natural law no longer applied to us. By doing that we separated ourselves from nature and came to live in opposition to it. Instead living to serve nature we came plunder it strictly for the benefit of human beings. Instead of simply serving nature, we came to use nature to satisfy our insatiable desires.
As Fukuoka-san explained it, scientific agriculture is the left hand and organic agriculture is the right hand. Both begin with the question “What can I get from nature?” The scientific farmer believes that using chemicals is the best method while the organic farmer believes that using compost and organic sprays is the most effective.
Permaculture is sometimes referred to as a form of ecological agriculture because it emphasizes the interrelationships among the various elements in nature, but it is still based on human control and getting nature to perform for us. Although permaculture claims to pattern itself after nature, it is still based on intellectual understanding and the imposition of human will. It relies on people do the design instead of nature itself.
David: Many farmers these days are having tough times making ends meet financially. Even Fukuoka-san had to earn a living from his citrus and grain harvests. Do you think natural farming can help farmers earn a viable income? Can it find a place amidst capitalism?
Larry: Natural farmers face the same obstacles diversified organic farmers of all kinds face today: an unfair economic system that undervalues them, their work, their way of life, and the products they produce. It is hard for any small-scale organic farmer to pay the bills each month let alone make a profit. This will continue as long as the prevailing culture continues to value yields above all else and continues to see food only as a commodity.
Natural farmers face additional challenges especially when they are expected to get high yields right away. The land needs to be rehabilitated before production increases and that takes time. Also, natural farming is at its best when it is used to produce food for local consumption on a village scale. That’s not to say that earning a living with natural farming cannot be done, it’s just not the best use for it.
Besides yield and economic gain, natural farming should also be evaluated philosophically since its products also include things like emotional wellbeing, community cohesion, and the health of the environment. Until society acknowledges benefits like these, which are difficult to measure mathematically or economically, and does not recognize the connection between agriculture and culture, I think natural farming’s value as an agricultural system will mainly be as an ideal.
David: Throughout the book we find the philosophy of Masanobu Fukuoka embedded within his teachings of natural farming. The last chapter is titled “Without Natural People, There Can Be No Natural Farming.” What are the implications of promoting a way of farming that is simultaneously a spiritual pursuit?
Larry: Although most people see natural farming primarily as an agricultural technique the farming practice is merely an example of a philosophy, or a way of seeing the world. Fukuoka-san had an insight when he was 25 years-old in which he saw “true nature revealed.” At the same time he saw a better way people could interact with nature in which both benefitted. He tried to explain that understanding to others, but when they couldn’t understand he returned to his family farm to create a physical example of what he was talking about.
The link between the philosophy and the practice is in the mind of the farmer. As the land gradually returns to its natural condition the farmer returns to his or her original state of mind. Fukuoka-san defined original mind in two ways: as the mind of an infant that sees the world without judgment or discrimination of any kind; and, as the mind before it becomes aware of itself.
In any case, the personal development of the farmer is at the center of the practice of natural farming. The goal is to heal our separation from nature so we can live freely, joyously, and responsibly in the world again.
David: Have you had any difficulty in translating particular concepts of Fukuoka-san’s philosophy for Westerners? Which of his concepts are the most challenging for Westerners to grasp?
Larry: The most difficult are the group of expressions that refer to the lack of something, like no-mind, original mind, non-discriminating understanding, and especially do-nothing, as in “do-nothing farming.” These concepts are familiar to Japanese readers but they are all but incomprehensible to Westerners. For us, emptiness, or no mind, is simply a void with no value.
We tend to focus on the material things can be analyzed empirically through scientific investigation, and intellectual thoughts that can be analyzed through classical philosophy. For Asian spiritualists the material forms are limiting and actually serve to block our connection to universal understanding. When the various forms are seen as one interrelated whole it allows an entirely new reality to pour into our consciousness without effort on our part. Far from being a void, this is a universe that is filled with infinite possibilities. They see it as a perspective that is more in line with the world as it actually exists.
The term “do-nothing” presents its own set of problems especially when it is used in the context of agriculture because it implies that one can farm successfully without doing any physical work. That’s not what Fukuoka-san was referring to, of course. Farming an acre of rice fields and a 14-acre orchard using only hand tool requires a lot of work. What Fukuoka-san was referring to is unnecessary work. It’s all those unnecessary agricultural practices like plowing, pruning, fertilizing, flooding the rice fields, and making compost. Once you remove those things you are left with sowing seeds and spreading straw. Okay, it’s not exactly doing nothing, but very close to it.
David: Fukuoka-san did not view using non-native or even invasive species as a problem in restoration projects. He called plants such as Scotch broom “hard workers.” Do you agree with his view?
Larry: I do. Plant species move around the world by themselves all the time. Lately people have accelerated the process and it will continue for the foreseeable future. Plus, conditions have changed to the point where you cannot say for sure whether or not the plants that were once native to a particular area will still thrive there today. In most cases, plants like Scotch broom that seem to be a pest are actually repairing damage that people have caused themselves.
These plants can be extremely useful in rehabilitation. Fukuoka-san used many plants that are often considered overly aggressive to rebuild the soil in his orchard and he recommended many “hard working” species for rehabilitating human-caused deserts in places like India, Africa, and California. It’s easy to see these plants as invaders and go to war with them by chopping them up, plowing them up, cutting them down, or spraying chemicals all over them. It’s a reflection of our alienation and our antagonistic relationship with nature. We see nature primarily as a threat.
A better approach, I think, would be to accept these new residents and learn to live harmoniously with them. We can use them to rebuild damaged soil, for construction, food, medicine, clothing and other things we need. It’s turning what we first considered a problem into the solution. This more positive approach, which Tao Orion refers to as “embracing rampancy,” is nicely explained in her recently published book, Beyond the War on Invasive Species.
David: What are your hopes for the future of natural farming?
Larry: My hope is that natural farming will be adopted as the worldwide standard for establishing what Fukuoka-san referred to as “natural culture and community.” In this new society the values of the current culture, power, control, limitless expansion, and greed would be replaced by cooperation, tolerance, contraction, and simplicity. People would rely on practical, intuitive understanding, rather than scientific knowledge, and they would use simpler and easier methods of farming that would connect them directly with the food they eat. People would not consider themselves any more, or less, special than other forms of life and they would accept and live within the limitations of natural law.
To create this new worldwide community the population would have to be redistributed across the land into small, self-reliant communities where people directly produced what they needed to live. As more and more people grew their own food by natural farming they would be less dependent on fossil fuels and would rely more on human and animal labor and small-scale technology using wind, water, and the sun. The value of crops would be freed from the currency-based economy. Eventually there would be no need for a centralized government anymore and people would be free to experience the wonder of just being alive again.
This is utopian, to be sure. But we need visions like this to remind us of what we are working toward. How we get from here to there is another question. When Mr. Fukuoka was asked how we could overcome the roadblocks to establishing this “free and generous society” he said, “I have no idea how to fix just one or a dozen of the many problems we face today. I can only show you how to fix them all, all at once.” It can happen but only if society decides that this is the direction we want to go. No single person can make this happen all by themselves but we can each work towards it in our own lives.
January 18th, 2020
I am so grateful to have had this opportunity to meet with Larry Korn and have been saddened by Larry’s departure from this world. In reflecting back upon this interview and the time I spent with him I remember that every time I asked him questions about specific natural farming techniques for the Pacific Northwest he brushed the questions aside casually like an Aikido master. When I pried him for answers he finally explained that applying Natural Farming is all about being aware of your environment, being an evolutionary piece of the nature around you and working with it to help it become abundant. His outlook was that he was not concerned with specific techniques because those change depending on every different place on the planet, even if they are adjacent fields! What I remember most clearly from Larry was this:
“I am not a farmer, I am a messenger. My job is to pass on the teachings of Fukuoka-san. I don’t know how everyone can apply the techniques of natural farming on their farms, but I do know how to teach the ways we can discern that knowledge. What Fukuoka-san was always insisting was that we are not going to change this planet for the better by just changing our farming techniques, we can only turn things around by returning closer to nature, and we can only do that by changing who we are - we need to become Natural People.”
My favorite memory of Larry, and a moment which I think sums up his goal in life, was when I first began the interview and I had asked him a mundane question about how we deal with the rampant buttercup (Ranunculus) infesting the fields and gardens of the Pacific Northwest. He smiled at me and turned to look over Lake Whatcom. The sunlight broke through the clouds and struck the trees on the mountainside across the lake -
“Look at that! It is so green! That’s beautiful! What a beautiful world we live in.”