When Masanobu Fukuoka was 24 years old, he had an epiphany that would set his life on a completely new track and ultimately change the world. This was in 1937, and Masanobu, who had trained as an agricultural scientist, was working as an agricultural customs inspector when he was struck down by pneumonia. Lying in his hospital bed, unable to escape thoughts of his own death, an existential crisis took hold of him which would not abate even after the illness had passed. He could barely work and spent his nights wandering aimlessly, deeply depressed. Then, one early morning on the bluffs above Yokohama Harbour, revelation struck. All striving was without purpose, he saw, all intellectual understanding a chimera. In his 1978 classic on natural farming, The One-Straw Revolution, he wrote: “I could see that all the concepts to which I had been clinging, the very notion of existence itself, were empty fabrications. My spirit became light and clear. I was dancing wildly for joy.”
He immediately quit his job, and soon returned to the family farm where his father set him to work looking after the mandarin orchard. The essence of Masanobu’s insight was the emptiness of human knowledge and effort. Thus, as he applied himself to the task of tending the fruit trees, he questioned every aspect of conventional agricultural practice. His approach was not to ask himself what more he could do to improve the yield of his trees, but rather what practices he could dispense with. Nature, he believed, was a complete and unified whole, with all the resources it needed to thrive on its own without the intervention of human “cleverness.”
It is no exaggeration to say that from that starting point, throwing out the rule book and basing everything on the principle of following rather than fighting nature, Masanobu single-handedly reinvented farming. He would come to refer to his method as “do-nothing” farming, a methodology that dispensed with pruning, ploughing, fertilising, composting and most weeding, and yet which yielded harvests equal in quantity to traditional and modern approaches, with superior nutritional quality.
If you grow food, either for your own kitchen or commercially, this probably sounds preposterous. It certainly did to me when I first read about Masanobu’s work. I grew up on a two-acre block in Templestowe, Victoria, which my grandmother had bought after the war when the area was still semi-rural. The streets which now are dense with McMansions and shopping malls were then fields covered in orchards. She planted fruit trees of every sort: cherries, apples, oranges, plums, apricots and nectarines as well as more exotic varieties: tamarillo, persimmon, guava and loquat. The memory of summer harvests, the burst of red juice from a sun-hot plum onto my chin, remains one of the strongest and most pleasurable of my childhood. There was, and still is for me, a sense of the miraculous in this abundance, the magical transformation of earth, sun and wind into delicious and life-sustaining fruit.
Yet, do nothing? No fertilisers? No compost? How can this possibly work? And no ploughing? The plough is one of humankind’s earliest and most successful inventions, inextricable from the agricultural revolution itself which transformed human society. After many years living in the inner city, frequently in apartments with little or no green space at all, I recently moved to the Dandenong Ranges, where I was thrilled to finally be able to plant my own fruit trees and establish a vegetable garden. What has rapidly become clear, however, is that “doing nothing”—after all, my naturally preferred style—won’t do at all! My peaches and nectarines have leaf curl, my cherry has black aphids, my apple trees brown scab. My broccoli got eaten by possums, a mob of cockatoos ringbarked my lemon sapling, and my lettuces are failing to thrive. It would seem that only the liberal application of fungicide, insecticide, compost and fertiliser, not to mention polyester netting, can save the day. Do nothing? That’s what got me into this mess!
Yet reading Masanobu’s work, it is clear that “do-nothing” is a rhetorical device rather than a literal prescription. It refers to a philosophy of minimal intervention. When he first experimented with not pruning his mandarin trees, the result was disaster. The trees’ branches became tangled, insects attacked them, and two acres of mandarins perished. Yet after careful observation, it became clear to him that the failure was due to previous pruning which had disrupted the plants’ natural growth pattern. This was a situation he observed repeatedly: human action disturbed natural relationships, causing problems which in turn called for more intervention. Soon the farmer was caught in a perpetual and exhausting cycle of remedial action. Spraying pests also kills spiders, which naturally control insect populations, resulting in plagues which must be met with even harsher chemical spraying regimes. Ploughing disrupts the natural balance of the soil, stripping it of its fertility and resulting in the need for fertilisers which further degrade the soil’s quality.
Human action is clearly still required in order to produce food, but Masanobu was successful in demonstrating that it was possible to adopt an approach that was in harmony with natural processes and relationships and produced food of better nutritional value for far less work on the part of the farmer. Rather than ploughing, Masanobu grew barley and rice by simply scattering the seeds on the ground, protecting them from birds by rolling them in clay first. He used a ground cover of clover to control weeds, and mulched the fields with straw from the previous grain harvest. These simple, minimalist methods resulted in topsoil that increased in fertility year on year. He is now considered the world’s most influential practitioner and exponent of natural farming.
Masanobu was without doubt a remarkable man with exceptional powers of observation, whose deceptively simple methods were in fact the outcome of decades of painstaking trial and error. He developed a profound understanding of the ecosystem he worked in and, like an aikido master, learned to flow with its natural tendencies rather than opposing them.
It is this very profundity that can make Masanobu’s example hard to follow, especially for a city-slicker- turned-garden-potterer like myself. From my window I look out on a landscape that is a strange hybrid of European and native flora. Beautiful native ferns and myrtle jostle with introduced birch, elm and maple trees. The road fringes teem with imported species that have escaped the confines of tended European-style gardens: wandering jew, morning glory, forget-me-not, lily, blackberry, wild strawberry and buttercup. This is an environment totally transformed by humans, and probably still not in stable equilibrium. Masanobu’s methods can’t simply be transplanted to this location— they would need to be reinvented.
What would natural food cultivation look like in such an ecosystem? I’m not sure yet, but if nothing else, Masanobu has opened my eyes to a new way of seeing. And already I’ve made small changes to my way of gardening: instead of throwing weeds into a big pile, I lay them on top of the mulch to break down and contribute to the soil. I’ve put away the chemicals in order to take the time to understand the network of relationships in the natural world around me. I’ve become a student of the plants that feed me.