Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.
The Beginnings of Natural Agriculture
Because permaculture aims at growing food with minimum impact on ecosystems, the ideal of natural agriculture seems embedded within its philosophical roots. Indeed, Japanese farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka, promoter of natural farming, was a great source of inspiration to permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison. Fukuoka-sensei promoted a form of agriculture where Nature is the farmer’s partner and not simply matter to be controlled. As permaculture leader in the United States and former disciple of Fukuoka, Larry Korn puts it: “People generally think of natural farming as a technique first and a worldview, as secondary. That is exactly backwards.” A Buddhist teaching reminds us that we are similar to beggars sitting on treasures because everything we need is already available to us. Natural farming is a practical demonstration of that vision.
Fukuoka-sensei was not the sole pioneer of Natural Farming. Another Japanese intellectual, Mokichi Okada (1882-1955), a naturalist, art connoisseur, philosopher, and former member of the Oomoto sect advocated the practice of Natural Agriculture as a cure for humanity along with the practice of Jyorei – an energy healing technique – and the appreciation of beauty in Nature and the Arts. Today, Shumei International is a spiritual organization dedicated at transmitting Okada’s message, whose several farms worldwide grow food in the spirit of Meishusama, the “master of light,” with the firm intention to feed and heal the world. As an environmental history student, I became interested in Okada’s teachings and decided to experience Natural Agriculture while taking advantage of the mild coastal California climate, WWOOFing at Santa Cruz Shumei farm.
Natural Agriculture’s Guiding Principles
From our realization of our fundamental oneness with all things arise Love, Gratitude and respect for Nature, which lay at the foundation of the Natural Agriculture (NA) movement. Since the soil is perceived as a living organism responding to the farmer’s feelings, NA encourages farmers to adopt a loving attitude. Okada outlined the main guidelines of NA in 1935, which he believed he received as a revelation from God although subsequent observations support his teachings. He deemed the tendency to control and suppress illness in the human body, or insects and disease in plants, as contrary to the principles of Nature. Hence, the first guideline of NA prohibits the use of any chemicals, fertilizers, or manure. Natural compost made of grasses is used in order to keep the soil warm and moist, not with the intention to add nutrients. Endowed with natural energy, the soil is empowered to grow plants without additional inputs.
The second guideline is about using pure seed lines. Because quality seeds will produce healthy plants, farmers are encouraged to save seeds of locally grown varieties in order to increase their purity and connection to site-specific environmental conditions.
NA’s third guideline, continuous cropping, dictates that the same type of crops should be grown in the same location from year to year because the plants will continue to adapt to that location over time. Following those three main guidelines will consequently help decrease the amount of harmful insects or undesirable weeds. Nature sets the balance between insects harming plants and those benefiting plants through pollination or predation on harmful insects. It simply does not make any sense to use pesticides considering pests’ natural self-regulation. Eliminating fertilizers – which constitute an attractive diet for insect pests – also helps regulating pests. Besides, a healthy plant has the capacity to overcome insects.
As for weeds, they are merely a part of agricultural ecosystems. Okada stated that eliminating fertilizers will make plants for human consumption more competitive than others since the soil characteristics will change and native plants grow differently. Learning about weeds’ characteristics, the Natural Agriculture farmer can also make use of them since they provide an indication of the soil conditions, and in many cases enjoy the edible, nutritious so-called “weeds.”
Needless to mention to permaculturists, weeds can also be used to improve soil conditions by loosening the soil and provide organic matter and nutrients cycling from decaying roots systems. As explained by Dr. Diana Jerkins of the USDA who has significantly researched Shumei, if weeds are used as ground cover or green mulch they reduce soil loss, regulate soil surface temperature and allow water to be more readily absorbed into the soil surface. Besides, deep-rooted weed plants will cause the soil to be less compacted and bring up nutrients from the subsoil area for crop plant use. If weeds remain a major problem, a smother crop can be planted prior to crop planting. The idea is to act with the intention to respect Nature’s balance.
“Learning to apply this natural balance is where farming becomes more of an art than a science,” says Jerkins. Irrigation, for example, is not perceived as always necessary and is meant to water the soil, not the plants, and tilling is allowed but shall remain shallow. In Shumei’s philosophy, the management techniques’ ultimate goal is to enable natural processes to progressively replace human’s intendance. Isn’t gardening about creating while partnering with Nature’s genius?
Connecting With Nature through Agricultural Ecosystems
Shumei’s veggies are surprisingly strong and tasty —NA seeks to produce food that contains a powerful spiritual essence and life force and in that sense redesigns the relationship between farmers and consumers as well. Energy is believed to flow from the farmer to the soil and plants and is transferred to the consumer through the consumption of the farmer’s crops. As in a virtuous circle, consumers’ health improves, enabling them to reach a sounder relationship to their bodies and, because they are part of Nature, a better connection with our bodies fosters our relationship with Nature. A beautiful philosophy for sure, but which can turn into dystopia when its members apply the guidelines too religiously, forgetting about the bigger picture and limiting themselves to the teachings of one single guru.
It’s easy to get trapped into a comfort zone and to forget that there’s always room for improvement. The explicit worship to Okada displayed by Shumei members can be quite disturbing. They put a lot of emphasis strictly following NA’s guidelines but they drive their car for a few meters, leave the lights on in daytime, and take long showers in a state afflicted by a severe drought. The way Shumei members live their lives might appear sectarian and a bit hypocrite as well when Sensei Alan Imai, director of Shumei America, proudly advertises the importation of Brazilian Natural Agriculture coffee beans to the U.S. and Japan. Worshipping a guru and relying on his teachings to spare oneself the strenuous effort of thinking does not appeal to me as a smart way of living life.
Spiritual Traditions Linked to Agriculture
There are many other traditions linking the practice of agriculture to the interpretation of Natural Law. Worth mentioning are the Shakers in America who aimed at creating Heaven on Earth through a lifestyle of hard work and communal living. The life of the ancient Druids of Scotland revolved around natural cycles led by celestial beings and has inspired the Findhorn community, growing crops on the harsh northern seacoast by tapping into the spiritual guardians of the plants and the land.
In the 1920s, Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner developed biodynamic agriculture relying on the cycles and rhythms of nature. All of these farming philosophies promote Nature as a teacher and guide. Indeed, the wilderness offers us a demonstration of a perfect co-existence between plants and soil such as in the example of centuries-old unmanaged forests in the Western US.
“Plants do not need to be raised, they grow of their own accord. The mountain forests are living proof that trees are not raised with fertilizers but grow by themselves,” says Fukuoka. A profound intelligence orchestrates the diverse elements within each of these ecosystems —nothing exists independently. In Food, Farming and Faith, Cornell University’s Professor Gary Fick outlines that the best systems will imitate the proven designs of wild nature. Thus, observation is the key. By observing natural patterns and actions, a farmer can ask the question of how Nature works and then let Nature provide the answer.
“It is about seeing the world as a child does, without judgments of any kind”, says Larry Korn. Okada taught that when practicing NA the farmer does not have to put great emphasis on the techniques, but just needs to practice common sense. Because NA seeks to develop methods where all plants, animals, insects and microbes in a field function as a whole unit, it differs from the modern mechanistic view of Nature.
Can Agriculture Truly be ‘Natural’?
Is there such a thing as Natural Agriculture, though? Even prior to the transition to a sedentary lifestyle about ten thousand years ago, humans have domesticated plants and animals and thus have influenced greatly on the Earth’s ecosystems. Calling agriculture “natural” might appear inconsistent. In Nature, strawberries don’t grow in rows, and Shumei’s use of heavy machineries for tilling and weeding does not have much to do with Nature’s way of cultivating itself. But in a world dominated by agribusiness’ harmful patterns, the practices advocated by Shumei and other spiritual-farming supporters provide solutions to minimize the impact on the planetary ecosystems and to bring health on our plates, even though they won’t bring us back to a pristine wilderness. Most Natural farming supporters would not deny that eating wild plants remains the best option, but I’m not sure we all want (or are even able) to implement this rough transition.
Nature is perhaps nothing more than a concept invented by humans, merely an intellectual construction. Chances are that the best way of protecting ecosystems from humans’ impact is to switch to a breatharian lifestyle, however until that we reach higher consciousness, cultivating loved and nourished plants will undoubtedly fosters greater respect for Life – soil’s life, plants’ lives, animals’ lives and consequently ours.
Incorporating Eastern Teachings into Western Agricultural Practices
I finally left Shumei Santa Cruz farm last week — I have had enough of the sectarianism of the place, and was seen as a troublemaker each time my mouth opened. Despite the extreme narrow-mindedness that left a bitter taste on my tongue, there are always some positive teachings to take away. I embrace the respect and love towards nature advocated by Okada for whom adding fertilizers and manure to the soil, even from organic origin, was a true offense to nature’s perfection. As an aspiring permaculturist, I am ready to incorporate some of the Shumei’s practices in my future gardening endeavors. Although the soil at the Santa Cruz Shumei farm looked extremely sandy and infertile, the abundant crops have inspired me to undertake the paradigm shift from organic to natural agriculture.
Integrating Eastern teachings to Western agricultural practices cannot be detrimental and would help us develop a more holistic form of agriculture, but a wide gap separates Masanobu Fukuoka from Mokichi Okada. The legacy of Fukuoka inspires us to embrace a peaceful relationship towards Nature that can take many incarnations. The core guideline is to follow one’s heart, not letting one’s mind steal mindfulness away, while remaining open for new ideas. Because reality is a creation, questioning is definitely part of it, even when it’s about natural agriculture.
• Spirit of the land: Shumei Natural Agriculture Philosophy and Practice, Shumei International Press, 2012, Diana Jerkins
• An Offering of Light: Healing with Jyorei, Natural Agriculture and Art, Shumei America Publication, 2006, Roy Gibbon, Atsushi Fujimaki & Gerard Rohlfing
• The One Straw Revolution, 1975, Masanobu Fukuoka
• The Natural Way of Farming, the Theory and Practice of Green Philosophy, India Press, 1985, Masanobu Fukuoka
• Food, Farming and Faith, SUNY Series on Religion and the Environment, 2008, Gary Fick
• Personal exchange with professor Larry Korn
Photo by Tomaso Michelotti
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