Learning to Observe

The Practice of Natural Agriculture


photo of a man's profileLisa Hamilton

Yasuo Tarumi will kneel by the computer when required, will sit at the dining table when politeness demands. But the truth is, he would rather be on his couch. As soon as allowed, he’ll return to the indentation he has made in the flower-patterned cushion and resume gazing out the window. The floor-to-ceiling glass frames a view of the house’s flower garden, but he is looking beyond. He is a farmer, after all. His eyes focus on the fields.

This has been Tarumi’s view for 61 years, ever since he was born on this farm in Fukiage, a village near the mountains on the north side of Japan’s Kyushu Island. Each morning, he went to school in the tiny yellow building across the street. Each afternoon, he walked home through the hills a half mile away so that his parents wouldn’t put him to work in the fields. When they did, he would pass the time looking for frogs and catching bees.

Back then, the bees were attracted by renge, Chinese milk vetch, the same hot pink flower currently coloring the view from Tarumi’s sofa. His family always sowed it in the paddies as a winter cover crop, tilling the plants after they had gone to seed so that the flowers would come again in fall. But after World War II, as part of a national effort to increase food production, the government instructed farmers to change their habits. Here on Kyushu, the southernmost island in the main chain, they were told to drop the cover crop and “make use” of the warm winter season by growing wheat. The pink of the renge disappeared.

At that moment in history, when Tarumi was a child, two things happened that would bring him to where he is today — wearing a hole in his couch while transforming this corner of the world.

First, the familiar: Agriculture changed, taking a quantum leap toward the philosophy of conquest and domination. Of course it would be naïve to think that before World War II, the planet’s fields and pastures were tended by happy yeoman who cared only about communion with plants, animals, and soil. The very meaning of agriculture is to manipulate the natural world so it produces more of the food that humans desire. But the pace of that manipulation quickened exponentially in the years following the war, particularly with the widespread adoption of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Before long there were new rules for agriculture, whose spirit and vocabulary were suddenly warlike: control, reclaim, defeat, kill.

At the same time, a countertrend was occurring as a tide of people espoused turning agriculture back toward nature — people like Sir Albert Howard, Eve Balfour, J. I. Rodale, Masanobu Fukuoka. Among them was Mokichi Okada, a Japanese man who recast agriculture in spiritual terms.

photo of growing plantsLisa Hamilton

Developed partly in response to the war, Okada’s philosophy was that purifying the spirit improved the life of the individual, which in turn improved the world that he or she inhabited. He saw three ways to enact that purification. First, one must be in the presence of beauty, such as fine art. Second, one must receive what he called Jyorei, or “God’s light,” a spiritual healing reached through prayer. This he referred to as “the art of life.” Third, one must live harmoniously with nature, which Okada believed would bring purification. This was called “the art of agriculture.”

This practice is now called shizen nouhou, or “natural agriculture,” and it is practiced by the modern followers of Okada’s spiritual teachings, an organization called Shumei, based in Japan. Essentially, natural agriculture proposes that rather than seek dominance over the natural world, we should return to our place as integral members of it. For Tarumi and other natural agriculturists, this begins with the simple premise that nature is perfect. That is to say, nature already has everything it needs to thrive — soil has the ability to grow plants and contains the nutrients they need; plants have the ability to seek out those nutrients, as well as to adapt to new climates and contend with insects and diseases. What could be called non-natural agriculture, which depends on pesticides and fertilizers, is the result of humans ceasing to trust or even recognize that inherent power.

Sounds basically like organic farming, right? The difference is that the practice is spiritual in character, not agricultural. Indeed, the key to natural agriculture is to dissolve the hierarchy that comes with even the gentlest stewardship. We are programmed to believe that plants and soil need us, that the work of farming involves making up for what they lack. Instead, natural agriculture prescribes an equal partnership, in which we trust in the inherent capabilities of plants and soil. Pesticides and fertilizers are out, but so are compost and botanical sprays, because additives of any kind would signal a lack of trust. American farmers to whom I’ve described this argue that it’s impossible. How could any such business sustain itself? And yet the goal is not to produce quantity for our own profit; it is to facilitate the plants’ and soil’s natural development, and feed ourselves on the remarkable results.

Purifying the spirit improved the life of the individual, which in turn improved the world.

What allows the system to succeed is that Shumei’s consumers feel that natural agriculture is as much their duty and practice as it is the farmers’. Their job is to create a support system that enables the farmers to focus on spiritual priorities rather than yields. In the traditional hierarchy, soil serves farmer, and farmer serves consumer. Natural agriculture repositions the three as interdependent players who participate equally in the labor and reward of food production. The soil grows and provides. The farmer tends the land. The consumer participates, appreciates, and educates. As a result, the process behind eating changes from being an assembly line to a true food system.

Of course, all of this is easier said than done. Tarumi converted to natural agriculture straight from a modern, chemical-intensive approach, and the process was difficult. At first what he needed most was something to rid the soil of chemical residues, particularly in his rice fields. He remembered the pink flowers of his youth and planted the first crop of renge in decades. The postwar credo had shunned it and other cover crops for not producing anything, but soon Tarumi was observing renge’s very tangible benefits. It enriched the soil. It suppressed weeds, rice’s greatest pest. Plus, it sowed itself and cost nothing.

This act of observation is the core of natural agriculture’s application in the field. Without the option of adding to the system, farmers must figure out how to let the system take care of itself. In addition to the hours that he spends watching his fields from the couch, he muddies his boots every day — touching, looking, smelling, counting, and otherwise taking in what’s happening around him.

“When I was conventional, I wasn’t thinking about anything,” Tarumi told me. “I was almost robotic. But as a natural agriculture farmer, I notice myself communicating with the crops, even talking to them.”

To partner with the soil and plants, Tarumi believes that farmers must develop a dialogue with them. It’s the same as with a human partner: To work together, each party must understand the other through listening. Of course, plants and soil can’t speak audibly. Instead, the ways their physical forms change from day to day are their voices; to listen, a farmer watches them.

“Because you’re not adding anything to the soil,” Tarumi says, “you must observe what happens in the field — that is your greatest tool. By observing well, you can always find a solution within what’s available to you naturally.”

For instance, wherever there is water, Tarumi’s observation reveals a snail called jumbo tanishi, or apple snail. Because it likes to eat rice, few local farmers would observe it for long without offing it. Tarumi used to do the same, but once he quit using chemicals, he had to find some other way to control the pest.

He remembered that the snail ate both rice and weeds. All rice farmers know this, but most never think twice about it; since they spray herbicides, there are no weeds to think about. As part of his dialogue with the land, Tarumi watched what happened when there were weeds. After many days of muddy knees, he finally found the key: The snail does not eat when it’s out of water. As plants poke through the water’s surface, the snails climb their stalks to push them back under so that they can feast. When Tarumi had the water level high in the paddy, the snails were able to mount, submerge, and munch the young rice plants. But when he lowered the water level, they couldn’t get high enough on the strong stalks to bend them. The rice grew unimpeded, and the snails instead lived off other plants as they emerged in the paddy. Tarumi hardly had to weed the rice; the snails did it for him.

The jumbo tanishi story might suggest Tarumi is a barefooted St. Francis of sorts, living with and of the earth, but it’s not like that. The technique works only if his fields are perfectly level; high spots go dry in this low water, and sunken spots allow snails to climb the rice. And so Tarumi depends on precision leveling machines, tools he owns from his previous work in the farm implement business, to reshape the landscape.

photo of flowersLisa Hamilton Tarumi’s Chinese milk vetch enriches the soil and helps keep weeds out of his fields.

Furthermore, the snail itself is hardly “of the earth,” at least not Japan’s earth. In the 1980s, it was brought from Southeast Asia as a potential food crop. The Japanese eat tiny snails in miso soup, and the importers figured bigger ones would be even better. Though people of other nations relish jumbo tanishi, the Japanese found the snails’ texture repugnant. The company that was breeding them shut down and dumped the snails in the streams, where they have flourished.

Neither the use of high-tech farm machinery nor the invasive snails seem that “natural.” But for Tarumi the farm is one whole system, composed of elements organic and manmade, native and exotic. Just as a bird might build a strong nest using thread or hair it finds on the ground, each of the farm’s elements can be used to strengthen the whole system. The key is that the farmer uses the tools according to natural agriculture philosophy — not to boost yields, but rather to optimize conditions so that the plants and soil may grow strong using their own capabilities.

Tarumi likens the process to raising a child. Chemical-based agriculture seats its son on a chair and brings him food, spoon-feeding him all the way to maturity. If the child is left to fend for himself, he dies. Natural agriculture provides the food, but leaves the child to find it on his own. Growing in this way, each successive generation of plants becomes stronger.

Like most natural agriculture growers, Tarumi saves seed. Because of this, each year he finds the plants better adapted to this place and its pests. The rice stalks strengthen, which means they have better resistance to ambitious snails. The rice has even begun dealing with another great pest, unka (brown planthopper), which feeds on the rice plant’s lower stalks and bores holes into them to lay its eggs. Most growers spray to kill the bugs; even organic farmers use the plant-based insecticide neem oil when unka threaten. At first, Tarumi could only watch as the unka ruined his crop. But recently he noticed a change. His rice plants have begun to envelop the eggs with their leaves, effectively cocooning the bundles so that they can’t hatch.

“Nature makes the decisions, not you,” he explains to me from his sofa by the window. “I used to think, ‘This is my land, I’m going to control it and make things grow the way I want them to.’ But natural agriculture is about letting go of that. It requires restraint to not control things, but still, all you can do is watch.”

This understanding of our place in the natural world has become the foundation for a whole new approach to farming and eating that’s taking root around the world. Natural agriculture farms have sprouted throughout Japan, as well as in the Philippines, Germany, Turkey, Colorado, New York, and California.

What can confuse new practitioners is that the farming is actually not an end in itself, nor is eating the food. Instead they are tools for learning and practicing a new relationship to the world. Tarumi and other pioneers of natural agriculture explain that this way of seeing the ground beneath your feet and the food on your plate extends in rings outward, and eventually you can apply it to everything, everywhere. Practiced at its highest level, natural agriculture has as its goals not carrots or rice, but health and happiness. To achieve them, it uses the tools of love and gratitude.

Writer and photographer Lisa M. Hamilton is the author of Farming to Create Heaven on Earth, a book about the natural agriculture movement. She’s currently writing a book about the changing role of farmers in American society, Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness, to be published by Counterpoint Press in 2009.

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