An exemplar of natural farming in the world
Masanobu Fukuoka died on August 16, 2008, aged 95. He was a Japanese agriculturalist and philosopher who pioneered the concept of “natural farming”. He strove “to dispense with artificial fertilizers and conventional plowing”, seeking instead “to replicate the natural conditions of plant growth as precisely as possible” (Times, 4 Sept 2008). Though designed with Japanese agriculture in mind, the Fukuoka method has been exported to countries such as India.
Fukuoka’s procedures involved four negative principles: no tilling, no weeding, no pesticides, and no fertilizers. Instead of plowing, he allowed plant roots and earthworms to penetrate and cultivate the soil, and sowed seeds on its surface, where they germinated in the same way as wild plants. Weeds were controlled through occasional trimming, temporary flooding and the use of straw mulch. In place of pesticides, Fukuoka relied on natural predators to control insects and other pests. Instead of chemical fertilisers, white clover was used to fix nitrogen, while crop rotation also helped to keep the soil fertile. Fukuoka grew rice in summer, and sowed winter crops such as rye and barley in autumn, before the rice had been harvested, so that the earth always remained covered. These were his main crops, but he also cultivated citrus fruit and vegetables on the hillsides surrounding his farm.
Fukuoka claimed to achieve yields equalling or even surpassing those attained by modern scientific methods. He published his ideas in books such as The One-Straw Revolution and The Natural Way of Farming, gaining an international following. He differentiated “natural farming” from both modern scientific agriculture and from organic farming, since “the latter two were both basically scientific in approach.” His own method was “as much mystical as scientific in inspiration”; his principle that “giving up your ego is the shortest way to unification with nature” drew on oriental religious traditions, particularly those of Buddhism.
Fukuoka considered himself enlightened at the age of 25, after a life-threatening bout of pneumonia, which had convinced him of the futility of human efforts at controlling the world. Instead, he resolved to work in harmony with nature. Until his enlightenment he had been committed to modern agricultural methods, studying microbiology and plant pathology and working as a quarantine officer at the Agricultural Customs Office. He subsequently returned to his native village on Shikoku, the smallest and most rural of Japan’s four main islands, and he began to farm on his father’s land. After WW2, land reform led to the confiscation of much of the family holdings, leaving Fukuoka with “a tiny quarter-acre plot, which became the site of his experiments with natural farming methods.” He continued to farm on the island, refining and perfecting his method into old age. He continued to lecture on agriculture into his nineties.