When a friend lent me his copy of Masanobu Fukuoka’s The One-Straw Revolution (republished last year by the New York Review of Books), I was struck by one sentence in particular. Somewhere in the middle of this charming, eccentric book, one of the founding texts of natural, non-interventionist farming, Fukuoka asserts that “the one-acre farmer of long ago spent January, February and March hunting rabbits in the hills”. Later on, he says that while cleaning his village shrine he found dozens of haikus, composed by local people, on hanging plaques; but “there is no time in modern agriculture for a farmer to write a poem or compose a song”.
Only the ignorant could write off Fukuoka, who died two years ago at the age of 95, as a deluded or nostalgic dreamer. He knew whereof he spoke because he spent his life putting the one-straw revolution into practice, on his own small farm on the island of Shikoku in Japan. To be sure, Fukuoka did not start life as the kind of uneducated peasant he prized above modern educated man. His father was a wealthy landowner and cultivated mandarin oranges.
The young Fukuoka was sent to agricultural college to learn the latest scientific farming techniques. He specialised in plant pathology and, after graduating, got a job as a plant inspector at the Yokohama customs office. Later, when the war broke out, he took a post overseeing disease and insect control at Kochi prefecture’s agriculture experiment station, which was charged with boosting wartime food production.
But beneath the surface of his seemingly conventional career, Fukuoka developed ideas that went against the conventional grain. While working at the Kochi station, he conducted experiments comparing the yield of farm plots that used chemical fertilisers and pesticides with that of traditionally worked land. His conclusion was that although chemical fertilisers and pesticides produced somewhat higher yields, they were not really necessary: they did not justify the extra expense.
In the land reforms that followed the end of the war, Fukuoka’s father was left with three-eighths of an acre of rice land and the citrus orchards. It was on these that he practised the non-interventionist farming that was his life’s work and his philosophy.
All four principles of natural farming are negative: no ploughing or turning of the soil (because the earth cultivates itself); no use of artificial fertiliser (natural plant decay provides enough nourishment); no weeding; no use of pesticides. They can be related to the Taoist notion of Wu wei, usually translated as “do nothing”. But far from denoting a lazy passivity, it might be better translated as “assisting in the unfolding of things in their own, natural way”.
When Fukuoka first took over his father’s citrus orchards before the war, he found his non-interventionist methods led to disaster; the trees were attacked by insects and their branches became a tangled mess. He realised that it takes time and careful preparation to convert from a highly interventionist way of farming to a non-interventionist one.
At this point any questioning person will ask whether Fukuoka’s methods actually work. His unploughed straw-covered grain field, growing rice and winter grain, regularly produces yields comparable to those of intensively farmed fields, as he repeatedly asserted and published in agricultural journals. From his 10 acres of citrus orchards, Fukuoka used to send 6,000 33lb crates of oranges to market in Tokyo.
Fukuoka’s practice remained resolutely local, but his philosophical vision, disseminated in books such as The One-Straw Revolution and The Natural Way of Farming, was global. In 1979 he travelled to the US and was “astounded by what [he] saw”, especially in the Central Valley of California: the development of a modern agriculture totally reliant on petroleum energy. Long before the American Michael Pollan, he was making the connections between intensive agriculture, unhealthy eating habits and a whole destructive economy based on oil.
Fukuoka’s vision, and prescription, are far more radical than the nostrums of organic farming. He was scathing about organic agriculture, calling it just another scientific method in disguise; perhaps unduly scathing, given that he shared with the founders of the organic movement an overriding concern with the quality of the soil. However, you can see his point when you consider the kind of organic farming that merely ticks boxes while perpetuating ecologically unsustainable monocultures.
An implication of Fukuoka’s vision is that many more of us would have to become farmers – but not farmers according to the model chillingly described in Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, perched in computerised towers in Iowa, operating fertiliser systems by remote control. Fukuoka reckoned that one-and-a-quarter acres of arable land, farmed naturally, was enough to feed a family in Japan, and to leave “plenty of time for leisure and social activities within the village community”.
More columns at www.ft.com/eyres