Masanobu Fukuoka – A Natural Farmer
By David Pike, April 2010
On Masanobu Fukuoka’s natural farm, healthy rice grows in harmony with white clover and a diversity of other plants. Birds, insects, and other wildlife have free access to the lands. In the orchards, clover and herbs, and many kinds of vegetables are grown in a semi-wild manner between the citrus trees.
Masanobu Fukuoka was born in 1913 on the island of Shikoku in Japan where his family has lived and farmed for the last 1,400 years. His formal education at Gifu Agricultural College trained him in microbiology, soil science and plant pathology. Out of college he landed a job in the Yokohama Customs Bureau in the plant inspection station researching diseases, fungi, and pests found on imported fruits and plants. However; at age 25 he contracted acute pneumonia and had a close brush with death. Following his recovery he underwent a time of introspection and eventually arrived at a pertinent realization which drastically changed his life. He specifically describes the moment of revelation: “One night as I wandered, I collapsed in exhaustion on a hill overlooking the harbor, finally dozing against the trunk of a large tree. I lay there, neither asleep nor awake, until dawn. In a daze I watched the harbor grow light…As the breeze blew up from below the bluff, the morning mist suddenly disappeared. Just at that moment a heron appeared, gave a sharp cry, and flew away into the distance. I could hear the flapping of its wings. In an instant all my doubts and the gloomy mist of my confusion vanished. Everything I had held in firm conviction was swept away with the wind. I felt that I understood just one thing. Without my thinking about them, words came from my mouth: In this world there is nothing at all. There was no reason to worry about life. All the concepts to which I had been clinging were empty fabrications. My spirit became light and clear. I was dancing for joy. All my agonies disappeared like dreams and illusions, and something one might call 'true nature' stood revealed.”
The next day he resigned from his job and began roaming Japan, earnestly trying to teach his revelation that “everything is meaningless” to anyone who would listen, but he found that most were uninterested and many dismissed him as an eccentric. Eventually he rambled back home to a simple hut on the mountainside of his father’s farm. He was entrusted with one of his father’s bountiful citrus groves, and to test his philosophy of “there is nothing at all” he did nothing to the citrus trees. The trees soon outgrew their carefully pruned shape and the branches became crossed and entangled. Disease spread throughout the orchard, and many of the trees perished. His father was shocked at the result of this negligence, and insisted that he take another job.
Fukuoka was soon hired as head researcher of disease and insect control for Kochi Prefecture, however throughout this time he was reflecting on his ideas of natural farming. He thought that crops should grow themselves, with little or no outside help; it is nature which grows crops, not people. “The question which was always in the back of my mind was whether or not natural farming could stand up against modern scientific agriculture.” After 8 years at his job, he returned to his home to take up farming once again.
After many more trials and losses in the citrus orchards he realized that trees which have been pruned cannot immediately be given back to nature. “This is abandonment, not natural farming.” He discovered that pruning a tree even once, or even cutting a single bud from a branch alters its shape and makes it forever dependant on people. Eventually he had great success with the citrus orchards by developing the trees through selective pruning into a “natural form” – which is the shape he determined that they would take if grown in the wild. But he insists; “to allow a tree to follow its natural form from the beginning is best. The tree will bear fruit every year and there is no need to prune.”
Although he earned most of his modest income through selling citrus fruits, Fukuoka did not find his passion in working with the citrus orchards - but with the cultivation of rice. His success with rice through his natural farming methods started with similar results to his initial attempts at growing citrus fruit – there were many failures. He notes; “The usual way to go about developing a method is: How about trying this? How about trying that? Bringing in a variety of techniques one upon the other. This is modern agriculture and it only results in making the farmer busier. My way was opposite. I was aiming at a pleasant, natural way of farming which results in making the work easier instead of harder. How about not doing this? How about not doing that?” The idea came to him while he was walking past a rice field which had not been used for many years. There he saw healthy, robust rice seedlings sprouting up between the straw and weeds, and so he began the process of emulating the way he had seen rice growing naturally.
He wondered what his neighbors must have thought; “As the farmer next door walks by on the way to his field, he takes a sidelong glance at my field, notices that its always full of weeds, that its bumpy and uneven with high and low spots, that sometimes it’s flooded and sometimes its not. To him it looks like a mess – no order at all. There is no denying that I’ve had bad or irregular harvests, my neighbors, feeling sorry for me, just pass by, trying not to look at such a sorry sight. There is no one as unbending or methodical as the [traditional] farmer. As for me, I have done just the reverse by trying every possible type of irregular cropping under the sun.”
Natural farming emphasizes the principles of no cultivation, no chemical fertilizers, and no chemical pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides. “When you get right down to it, there are few agricultural practices that are really necessary.” Much of his rice growing technique is very unusual in comparison to most of Japan’s traditional or conventional methods: He relies on the natural balance of a healthy ecosystem to control outbreaks of pests and diseases. When he noticed that his yields of rice began to rise after several years of not tilling the fields, he never tilled them again for the rest of his life.
Seeding the rice eventually evolved into a direct broadcast method. In the fall the rice is thrown into the winter crop of barley or wheat before it is harvested. The little seedlings germinate in the spring, and are walked on during the harvest of the winter wheat or barley, but they quickly recover. Clover is allowed to grow with the rice, and acts as a weed suppressor and nitrogen fixer. Fukuoka floods the rice field for about a week in the spring. The flooding coincides with the monsoon season when the rice fields would have been flooded naturally. The flooding kills the weeds and weakens the clover. When he lets the water out of the fields the clover comes back but only after the rice seedlings have sprouted through. He doesn't hold water in the fields for the rest of the season. He believes that rice grows better in a non-flooded field. He also employs ducks, which roam the fields at certain times to eat weeds, pests, and leave fertilizer.
Fukuoka estimates that his method of growing rice requires only one-tenth of the input of labor and energy that is commonly used in modern industrial rice growing, and uses no chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides. However, after many years of practicing natural farming, his rice yields relative to his acreage were some of the highest in all of Japan. Since Japan leads the world in rice production; his rice yields were among the best in the world.
Fukuoka visited the United States, Europe, Somalia, Tanzania, The Philippines, India, and China giving seminars on natural farming and discussing his philosophy. He was shocked to find how much of the world was undergoing desertification. He concluded that the cause of desertification was deforestation, over grazing, poor water management and other agricultural practices. The solution he proposed was revegetation of the deserts using any seeds that would grow there, and possibly even using airplanes to drop seeds over wide areas. One technique which could prove useful was one which Fukuoka practiced on his farm - an ancient seeding technique known as seed pellets, or seedballs (the Japanese script translates as ‘earth dumplings’. These are small balls of clay and compost (or manure) which contain seeds for direct broadcasting. By concealing the seed within a pellet, it is protected from being eaten by rodents and birds before it has a chance to germinate. The germination is initiated when rain begins to melt away the clay, and the compost or manure helps to fertilize the emerging seedlings. Fukuoka commonly used this technique on his farm, but today it is catching on not only with natural farmers, but also with environmentalists who are practicing guerilla gardening. By tossing ‘seedbombs’ into vacant lands and urban settings, one might find vegetables, native plants, and wildflowers growing where one might not expect.
In addition to being a natural farmer, Masanobu Fukuoka is renowned for his unique philosophy. His farming and philosophy are in fact inseparable, as is evident in his book “The One-Straw Revolution.” It is not just a book of natural farming techniques; it is also a philosophical text which has inspired many thousands of people to change their perspectives about science, nature, God, civilization, agriculture, and existence. (These are extensive topics on which I can barely scratch the surface of in this summary, if you have further interest, please read his books.)
The basis of his philosophy centers on a belief that humanity cannot understand nature; that we are in no position to ever arrive at any conclusions regarding nature because it is far more vast and incomprehensible than we can possibly imagine. This is combined with a view that fundamentally there is no value in human intellect - leading to an assertion that science has not uncovered anything about even the simplest aspects of nature. “Scientists are incapable even of knowing that they are in no position to understand the soul of a flower in the meadow.” His writings make it clear that he rejects the direction which science has taken us, and he cites its many inherent failures, “The irony is that science has served only to show how small human knowledge is.” Fukuoka believed that a philosophical change in the world to be paramount to the implementation of natural farming – that is to say that positive change in agriculture will not happen without a change in global awareness.
Although Fukuoka had many visitors who were interested in learning about his farming and philosophy, and many who actually stayed and lived in the mud huts on his land to study with him directly, he renounced his position as a philosophical leader; “Many people have come to live in my hilltop orchard, but I have not had the power to lead them, so I have not tried. I may have told them: go in this direction, but I have never said: believe me and do what I tell you and you will meet God. No means exist for describing nature and God, so I cannot possibly have disciples. I have never told anyone: follow me, I shall lead you. Perhaps I have said: search for nature as you practice natural farming.”
Fukuoka was trained to be a scientist, but refutes the myth of science by putting his faith in nature instead. His farming and his wisdom reveal to the world that science is not necessary to grow wholesome food and to live a good and simple life. He taught that even if we cannot know or understand nature, we can realize that modern science and technology are leading us away from it, we can realize that there is a better way. Ideas such as these could very well be the key to solving many of the world’s agricultural and environmental problems – if people were to only listen and learn from this teacher. Masanobu Fukuoka farmed into his late 80’s and lectured into his early 90’s, he passed away in 2008 at age 95.
“Natural farming is not just for growing crops, it is for the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”
The One-Straw Revolution
His most well known book. Both a practical guide for growing rice, wheat, barley and vegetables in a natural way, and an introduction to his philosophy.
The Natural Way of Farming -
The Theory and Practice of Green Philosophy
A more detailed how-to guide for natural farming and philosophizing.
Available for free in PDF format online at:
The Road Back to Nature –
Regaining the Paradise Lost
Details his insights into the troubles facing the lands he visited in his travels, as well as other global environmental, and philosophical concerns.
Currently out of print. It is rumored that it will be republished in Summer of 2010.