The words of Christ, that even Solomon in all his glory could not compare with a single white lily. convey an eternal truth.
The smile of the Buddha, when he stood atop a mountain and held up a single flower, must not remain an eternal riddle.
Masonobu Fukuoka, natural farmer and philosopher, (1913 – 2008)
Masonobu Fukuoka became a farmer in the 1930’s in the province of Ehime, on Shikoku island, Japan. At age 25, he describes himself as a typical young man. A believer in Science, working in the plant inspection division of Yokohama Customs Bureau, spending his spare time peering into a microscope. Fukuoka goes on to describe how an abrupt change his character came about as he began to question the meaning of life. He had an epiphany after a night of rambling and was struck by a message from Kami, the God of Nature. For 6 months, he describes feeling elated, and then the conviction began to wear off, but he was never the less, irreversibly a changed man.
In the late 30’s he moved back to his homeland to live alone in a hut on top of a hill, and began to prepare to start his natural farm. Although filled with the intention, it appears little was put into practice before he was drafted to serve in WWII where we worked for the agricultural experimentation station.
After war Fukuoka returned, “the next day I went to work in the fields, savouring the joy of having become myself again” Since that time he did not veer from the path of natural farming. His practice, forged through repeated failures, is a method of successive plantings of rice and winter grains, using a non cultivation and direct broadcast technique. This is his infamous technique of packing seeds into clay balls and distributing them by lobbing around the land. Alongside cereals he cultivated natural orchards. Hard to believe, but he describes himself as, “a lazy fellow farming for the fun of it”, and in such a way, almost half a century passed.
We visited the farm this October. Masanobu-san has passed away now, and leaves his son and grandson continuing to farm the patchwork of small fields and hillside orchards. Methods of cultivation have changed, rice and wheat are now directly planted using seed drills, rather than clay balls. But in the citrus orchards a natural pruning technique is practiced, and the ethos of the farm is to resist technological modernisation unless necessary and to continue farming in as natural, and organic a manner as possible. No inorganic pesticides or fertilisers are used although manure is brought on site from local animal farms.
At 8:20 a.m ten of us assembled in the big barn and spent 5 minutes limbering up with some stretches to jolly music. Feeling suitably invigorated we hopped into a small car and drove a few minutes to the rice fields we would be working in. Rice plants grow in bunches of 10 or so stalks. The first job I had was to hand harvest the corners of the small fields to allow the mechanised, push along, reaper binder to get to action. I used a hand sickle to cut several bunches in succession before being piling these on the bank, and after adding another three these were bound together using a few stalks of last years rice.
Next I joined Simone, a French carpenter who lives locally and today the only other foreigner, to construct drying beams. We used a truly enormous wooden mallet to bash in 3 posts to make a tripod and then walked around 5 metres from this and repeated. The tops of the tripod spiked up allowing a long beam to be cradled running between these 2 tripods and supplementary supports of wood were added. There was much lining up of the cradles, and checking stability lest strong winds blow the drying harvest over. Simone explained the beam should be low enough for everyone to comfortably stack the rice stalks onto, but not so low that there isn’t adequate air flow to dry them.
Fukuoka’s grandson, Haruka was one of several people pushing along the small reaper binder, whilst his son, now around seventy, was busy setting up drying rails and stacking the bushels of rice onto them to dry, and it was Haruka who called time, and we all gathered on a bank for mid morning break.
A selection of fizzy drinks, with names like Miracle Body were handed out, which despite ourselves we relished, on this hot steamy day. We explained to the group how we came to be at the farm, that my sister had picked up a copy of Fukuoka-san’s most celebrated book, ‘The One Straw Revolution’ whilst at an ashram in India, and left it with me on her return. Although I had never read it cover to cover it has been a cherished possession and often dipped into when inspiration needed. It was this, and that a bakehouse customer had been here and often mentioned that he felt it was a place that held interesting lessons and could put us in contact if wished.
Thirty years ago the regional government announced a new road was to be constructed, and it happened to go straight through Fukuoka’s hillside farm, he garnered support, petitioned and the road now at least misses the hill.
The farm has become hemmed in by noisy roads and train tracks. This is quite common in Japan, with over 70% of the country wild forested hills, the 160 million population are fairly packed into the flat valley bottoms, and following a re distribution of land following WWII to the population, mega farms tend not to be common. Rather, myriad patches of rice paddies and market gardens are found in and around towns. Despite the hum of traffic a river rushed past with orange and white koi carp resting in their favourite spots.
Our task was now to hang the bundles of rice onto the drying rail. Bushels were split 70:30 and pushed, with ears hanging down, alternately onto the rail. I imagined it to be a bit like thatching, as we needed to compress the bushels as much as possible to save space and make the structure as water tight as possible. A 2nd tier was added, this time bushels divided 50:50 and taking care that the ears hang freely rather than getting caught and trapped in the ridge where they would go mouldy.
Hundreds of dragonflies, perhaps feeding on insects we had disturbed, whilst armies of dogs hopped to the edge of the field croaking greetings to the lizards, crickets and praying mantis they passed on their way.
After lunch Simone took us to the original house on the hill and large octagonal barn constructed in the 1970’s with a group of international volunteers. Here we found the remnants of the arboretum and forest garden Masanobu-san planted with seeds collected from his travels. His heirs have left this upland area to return to wilderness, although they say if someone wanted to restore it, they would be welcome. Architecture students recently took measurements from the site before it is taken by the forest.
I was intrigued to see a 3rd generation organic farm. Most of my experience is in Europe with relatively new start ups, fresh energy, drive and ideas. Seeing something that has experienced that euphoric inception, and then continued was valuable. There is no doubt making ends meet has been a challenge to the Fukuokas. Food prices are already very high in Japan so farming organically must make it tricky to be competitive. Plus, it is my understanding, that until recently organic has been less appreciated here than in Europe or N America. But for all that they are thriving. We visited the citrus plantations, winding up steep narrow concrete roads in a tiny car. We passed kiwi vines, and leaning against the edge of the roadside were thousands of logs, all inoculated with Shitake culture. A big log can produce for 5 years I was told. Surplus fruit is turned into marmalade or fruit juice, sold under the farms own label. Once we returned to the field many of our co workers had finished for the day. Contrary to Japan’s typical work culture, where 30 hours of overtime is common per week, the Fukuokas adopt a relaxed and flexible attitude.
At a time when Japan may be questioning what progress is, the unabashedly ambitious, and deeply spiritual teachings of Masanobu-san, interpreted through two generations of gentle, yet diligent and astute farms, could prove to be a model to aspire to.
The accommodation was pretty basic, futons on the dusty floor of a once solid, now tattered farmhouse. The kitchen may not have been cleaned in places since the 1970’s, but all of this was made up for by the hospitality and also the reasoning that they are very busy. I hope a WWOOFER with lots of goodwill will clear it up one day.
Ben MacKinnon – e5 Founder.