Natural Farming

Saturday, May 29th, 2010

I had heard of permaculture but not of natural farming until I read Nathan Lewis’s description from his piece on the future of farming:

Natural Farming is a name applied to the farming methods of Masanobu Fukuoka of Japan, who embarked on a multi-decade project to find out how to grow food while letting nature do as much of the work as possible. While Permaculture “imitates” nature, I would suggest that Natural Farming is nature itself, or a sort of dance with nature in which the farmer guides natural energies toward the desired outcome. Fukuoka jokes that his Natural Farming techniques can support a person with three days a year of work. Fukuoka has also consistently produced the highest yields-per-acre of rice in Japan, and quite possibly the highest yields in the world, with continuous cultivation (no fallow periods) and no fertilizers, natural or artificial. There is no tilling of soil, minimal weeding, minimal pest control, no irrigation, and not much else being done either.

Oddly enough, there are not a lot of books about Natural Farming out there, perhaps because it is a plan that emphasizes “not doing” instead of “doing.” The heart of the technique is seedballs. “Just make seedballs” is Fukuoka’s advice. A seedball is a small ball (about 2cm) of clay and humus mixed with seeds. The “dirt” protects the seeds from birds and other seed-eaters, and when the seedball is “activated” by rainfall the seed is already slightly “buried” because it is surrounded by a bit of dirt. One can use a single type of seed, as might be typical of a rice field, or a mixture of dozens or even hundreds of seeds, as might be used for a vegetable garden. You just throw the seedballs out and let nature do the rest. This will create a natural mixture of vegetables growing together. They just grow like weeds. Whatever tends to grow best in a particular microlocation, with its mixture of sun exposure, soil qualities, water exposure, etc, will multiply while less appropriate species fade away. By mixing hundreds of seeds together, you give nature hundreds of options for what to grow there. That’s about all you need to know. “Just make seedballs.” Everything else can be learned, apparently, from personal experimentation based on this foundation.

Seedballs can be used for many things besides vegetable gardens. Fukuoka has suggested that deforested areas could be reforested by making seedballs of seeds of the natural plants found in a forest, and then dropping them from airplanes.

Larry Korn has much more to add:

The basic idea for his rice growing came to him one day when he happened to pass an old field
which had been left unused and unplowed for many years. There he saw healthy rice seedlings sprouting through a tangle of grasses and weeds. From that time on he stopped sowing rice seed in the spring and, instead, put the seed out in the fall when it would naturally have fallen to the ground. Instead of plowing to get rid of weeds he learned to control them with a ground cover of white clover and a mulch of barley straw. Once he has tilted the balance slightly in favor of his crops Fukuoka interferes as little as possible with the plant and animal communities in his fields.

This is not to say that Fukuoka did not experiment. For example, he tried more than twenty different ground covers before noticing that white clover was the only one which held back weeds effectively. It also fixes nitrogen so it improves the soil. He tried spreading the straw neatly over the fields but found the rice seeds could not make their way through. In one corner of the field, however, where the straw had scattered every which way, the seedlings emerged. The next year he scattered the straw across the entire field. There were years when his experiments resulted in almost a total crop loss, but in small areas things worked out well. He closely observed what was different in that part of the field and next year the results were better. The point is, he had no preconceived idea of what would work the best. He tried many things and took the direction nature revealed. As far as possible, Fukuoka was trying to take the human intellect out of the decision making process.

His vegetable growing also reflects this idea. He grows vegetables in the spaces between the citrus trees in the orchard. Instead of deciding which vegetables would do well in which locations he mixes all the seeds together and scatters them everywhere. He lets the vegetables find their own location, often in areas he would have least have expected. The vegetables reseed themselves and move around the orchard from year to year. Vegetables grown this way stronger and gradually revert to the form of their semi-wild ancestors.

I mentioned that Fukuoka’s farm is a fine model of permaculture design. In Zone 1, nearest his family home in the village, he and his family maintain a vegetable garden in the traditional Japanese style. Kitchen scraps are dug into the rows, are crops rotated and chickens run freely. This garden is really an extension of the home living area.

Zone 2 is his grain fields. He grows a crop of rice and one of barley every year. Because he returns the straw to the fields and has the ground cover of white clover the soil actually improves each year. The natural balance of insects and a healthy soil keep insect and disease infestations to a minimum. Until Bill Mollison read The One-Straw Revolution he said he had no idea of how to include grain growing in his permaculture designs. All the agricultural models involved plowing the soil, a practice he does not agree with. Now he includes Fukuoka’s no-tillage technique in his teaching.

Zone 3 is the orchard. The main tree crop is Mandarin oranges, but he also grows many other fruit trees, native shrubs and other native and ornamental trees. The upper story is tall trees, many of which fix nitrogen and so improve the soil deep down. The middle story is the citrus and other fruit trees. The ground is covered with a riotous mixture of weeds, vegetables, herbs and white clover. Chickens run freely. This multi-tiered orchard area came about through a natural evolution rather than conscious design. It still contains many of the basic permacultural design features. It has many different plant and species, maximizes surface area, contains solar sunlight “traps” and maintains a natural balance of insect populations.

Fukuoka invites visitors from Zone 4 anytime. Wild animals and birds come and go freely. The surrounding forest is the source of mushrooms, wild herbs and vegetables. It is also an inspiration. “To get an idea of the perfection and abundance of nature,” Fukuoka says, “take a walk into the forest sometime. There, the animals, tall trees and shrubs are living together in harmony. All of this came about without benefit of human ingenuity or intervention.”

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