The One-Straw Revolution
by Masanobu Fukuoka (
New York Review Books Classics, 2009
Review by Kim Jordan
I grew up on my dad’s farm stories, but I did so while I raised potted plants on apartment balconies and the windowsills of rental houses. His work on the farm gave him many tales but it was that very work, so unrelenting in its nature, that led him to seek his nomadic fortunes with the military and take us with him. Yet when we made our summer visits to my grandparent’s farm, the very farm on which he grew up, I longed for the rhythm of the seasons, the realness of growing food, and the beauty of the farm full of life.
Masanobu Fukuoka’s classic, The One-Straw Revolution, which was first published in October, 1975, appeals to the secret farmer in me. Not a farmer driving a tractor over miles of straight rows of corns, wearing a gas mask and long rubber gloves, but a farmer who covers winter fields with rice straw and sows seeds in ripening fields, a farmer who writes haiku in the winter, a farmer who reaps a harvest in harmony with the ways of nature. Fukuoka’s revolution is about natural farming, beginning with one straw of rice.
As humans, we like to control non-human things that can work just fine without us. Take insects, spiders, plants, and worms, all of which manage to find a balance in fields without chemicals, machinery, or fertilizer. And that balance still allows a farmer to attain a harvest equal to or greater than the average “modern” on a hillside near a small village in southern Japan. Over his lifetime as a farmer, Fukuoka noted that petrochemicals were disrupting the natural balance of the land. Instead of doing more to correct it, he did less and called this “natural farming.” Natural farming, in comparison to the easy “know-nothing” farming promised by agribusiness companies that prescribe cookie-cutter plans and schedules, asks the farmer to work with nature through the virtues of awareness, observation, connection, and persistence.
Fukuoka’s insight is that human intelligence is woefully insufficient—we just don’t know enough—and he set out to demonstrate our ignorance in 1938 through his method of “do-nothing farming,” a mode of farming in which the first question isn’t what to do, but rather, “How about not doing this?” In fact, the main need for human intervention comes when the natural balance of the land has already been disrupted. That’s when agricultural techniques are most needed. Human tampering can damage the soil and leave lingering problems that require correction. For Fukuoka, understanding the natural state and patterns of nature is vital. He writes, “Nature does not change, although the way of viewing nature invariably changes from age to age. No matter the age, natural farming exists forever as the wellspring of agriculture.”
No cultivation, no chemical fertilizer or prepared compost, no weeding by tillage or herbicides, and no dependence on chemicals. These are Fukuoka’s principles. How does he farm in light of them? He times the sowing of his seeds so that, while the current crop is still ripening in the field, they can germinate before the weeds. He covers his fields in rice straw directly after harvest, adding bits of poultry manure. And he conditions and nourishes the soil by using ground-cover crops, such as clover, vetch, and alfalfa soil. “The object seen in isolation from the whole,” he observes, “is not the real thing.” A natural farmer, he shows us how each object, each choice, plays its role in connecting all life. He writes, “Applying an insecticide is not simply a matter of eliminating the leaf-hoppers together with their natural predators. Many other essential dramas of nature are affected.”
My dad remembered the day they stopped drinking fresh milk on the farm and started going to the store to buy it. I asked him, “Which tasted better, farm milk or store bought?”
“Farm milk,” he replied.
Confused, I asked, “Then why did you buy the store stuff?”
He told me, “It was the times. Everyone shifted to larger dairies. We couldn’t compete anymore.” I was confused then and I still feel that confusion now: why have so few of us challenged industrialized farming techniques?
Fukuoka rebelled against the shift toward industrial agriculture and found a way forward. His legacy lies in a different—and powerful—question, “How about not doing this?” And his farm is a testament that, with one straw of rice, we can resist industrial agriculture.