Friday, December 16, 2022

The One-Straw Revolution

 "I believe that a revolution can begin from this one strand of straw.  Seen at a glance, this rice straw may appear light and insignificant.  Hardly anyone would believe that it could start a revolution.  But I have come to realize the weight and power of this straw.  For me, this revolution is very real." 

Thus begins Masanobu Fukuoka's One Straw Revolution.

I came to Fukuoka late; my purchase of One Straw Revolution was in 2010.  I had read other books before - many of Gene Logsdon's books and some of Wendell Berry's books, as well as a bevy of the "how to" books written by reasonably engaging folks - but few of them (mostly Logsdon) caught my attention and indeed, my enthusiasm, like Fukuoka.

"I tell the young people up in my orchard again and again not to try to imitate me, and it really angers me if there is someone that does not take this to heart.  I ask, instead, that they simply live in nature an apply themselves to their daily work."

The book itself is about one quarter backstory of Fukuoka's life, one quarter his practice of "do nothing" farming, one quarter his philosophy, and one quarter his attempts to spread his agricultural philosophy in his native Japan.  It has the benefit of being a self contained history and philosophy and instruction manual of Fukuoka's practices; while he has written other works, one could understand him from this single volume.

"Humanity must stop indulging the desire for material possessions and personal gain and move instead towards spiritual awareness."

The principles of Fukuoka's farming practice are clearly described:  No cultivation, no chemical fertilizer or pre-prepared compost, no weeding by tillage or herbicides, no dependence on chemicals.  Simple practices - developed by a lifetime of trial and error.  Like many other Japanese practices, it seems deceptively simple in its presentation, but filled with the potential of a lifetime of improvement.

"The narrow view of natural farming says that is good for the farmer to apply organic material to the soil and good to raise animals, and that this is the best and most efficient way to put nature to use.  To speak in terms of personal practice, this is fine, but with this way alone, the spirit of true natural farming cannot be kept alive.  This kind of narrow natural farming is analogous to the school of swordsmanship known as the one-stroke school, which seeks victory through the skillful, yet self-conscious application of technique.  Modern industrial farming follows the two stroke school, which believes that victory can be won by delivering the greatest barrage of swordstrokes.

Pure natural farming, by contrast, is the no-stroke school. It goes nowhere and seeks no victory.  Putting "doing nothing" into practice is the one thing the farmer should strive to accomplish.  Lao Tzu spoke of non-active nature, and I think that if he were a farmer, he would certainly practice natural farming.  I believe that Gandhi's way, a methodless method, acting with a non-winning, non-opposing state of mind, is akin to natural farming.  When it is understood that one loses joy and happiness in the attempt to possess them, the essence of natural farming will be realized.  The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings."

The above quote represents to me one of the reasons that Fukuoka resonates with me.  Not just because he likens farming to Japanese Sword schools (although that is pretty amazing), but that he is able to turn to the philosophical end of farming:  in the end it is people that farms should be growing.  The farming is just the means to that end.

Fukuoka's humility comes through in these pages in a way that such a thing often does not - but, like the head of my own sword school, I suspect that if one were to have asked him what he was, he would have said he was only ever a student - "I have made a lot of mistakes while experimenting over the years and have experience failures of all kinds" he writes, and then shares some them:  how when he first started his "do nothing" farming, he killed almost all the fruit trees in his father's orchard or how, when he scattered ashes in the fields as a soil amendment, he disrupted the webs of young spiders in the fields.  He only writes of himself as a simple man, try to find better ways to attune himself to the natural way of the world.

"A person can analyze and investigate a butterfly as he likes, but he cannot make a butterfly."

Fukuoka passionately believes in his methods throughout the book, and he relates some stories where he attempts to convince others to adopt them - and while he always sad when they do not, he somehow seems to maintain his hope that someday, such things will be adopted.  In the meantime, he continued to practice his simple way of farming and life, somewhat immune to the world going on around him.

"Stepping out of the hut into the afternoon sun, I paused for a moment and gazed at the surrounding orchard trees laden with ripening fruit, and at the chickens scratching in the weeds and clover.  I then begin my familiar descent to the fields".

Every time I read this book, I am more taken with it.  It is the rare agricultural author that can write not only of farming practice, but of natural theory and philosophy and poetry and who ponders the great meanings of live through the medium of agriculture (and somehow links sword schools and farming).  Fukuoka comes across as student of nature, trying to learn from it the best way to work in harmony with it so that he can benefit from it without harming it; he has the humility of the learner and the courage of the practitioner. He sees himself as a provocateur of change - not change by force or decree, but by example and message.  

"If you hit the mark on the wrong target, you have missed."

Every time I read him, I become even more inspired to seek to life a life as he lived his:  quiet, welcoming of seekers, humbly living a simple life as an example that such a thing can be done, and done well.

"Lao Tzu, the Taoist sage, says a whole and decent life can be lived in a small village. Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen, spent nine years living in a cave without bustling about.  To be worried about making money, expanding, growing cash crops and shipping them out is not the way of the farmer.  To be here, caring for a small field, in full possession of the freedom and plentitude of each day, every day - this must have been the original way of agriculture."


  1. Nylon125:09 AM

    An interesting post TB. Too many people are wrapped up in material possessions let alone personal gain. Look at all the "influencers" on social media. Not many folks are interested in "do nothing farming" while modern mass farming allows the world's population to approach how many billion now?

    1. Nylon12, I heartily recommend The One Straw Revolution if you have not read it. Yes, it is about farming - but it is about a lot more than farming as well.

      Of note, Fukuoka in the book also denotes that "do nothing" farming is actually a lot of hard, manually work - and to your point, not a lot of people want to do that. Like most things in life, the apples do not just slide down into your hand.

      The greatest issue we have is that modern mass farming requires a great many inputs - chemical fertilizer being a bit one. We have certainly seen the impact of that with the decrease due to the Russia-Ukraine War. The remarkable thing - to me, anyway - is that we could be working to apply such solutions now, before we absolutely need to. Instead, we blindly continue down the road of mass produced agriculture - the concept of "bug farming" represents just an extension of this thinking, not truly revolutionary thoughts.

  2. Well... if you want to kill 2/3 of the world population by starvation... you couldn't start at a better place than 'organic farming'...

    1. Doing a quick search Glen, it appears to depend on whom you ask. Some say yes, some say know. Those that say no are likely not calculating in the cost in the bad parts of industrial agriculture; those that say yes are likely assuming best case scenarios.

      I suspect the question Fukuoka would have for each of us is what are we, personally, doing.

    2. Honestly? I think the whole "organic farming can't feed the world" message is propaganda perpetuated by industrialized agribiz. Ditto for the messaging that farming is for stupid people and dopes. And, of course, everybody is assuming food production must be done on a massive global scale.

      The real problem is that they've got the paradigm wrong. Fukuoka is one of those pointing to an actual solution.

    3. Leigh, I saw an interesting article a couple of weeks ago about soil loss in the Midwest. The proposed solution, due to the measured loss, was (as you might imagine based on current trends) "No Till Farming" - but the sort that Logsdon always rightly demeaned: covering the soil with plastics and using herbicides (the industrial solution), not the vision of Fukuoka - because unless you use modern needs for agriculture, it is just "going to fail".

      "Farming is for stupid people and dopes" - It is an odd dichotomy when we seem to live in a society that (at least from what I can see) values the output of farmers' markets and (in theory) the people that produce such things while at the same time the "Farming is for people that cannot do anything more worthy" motif exists in our society. I cannot fully understand why this is.

      They do indeed have the wrong paradigm, and Fukuoka demonstrated with his work that his methodology could be successful. Unfortunately like many things, we fight a system of vested interests.

    4. In terms of paradigm, the other people we need to be listening to are Bill Mollison and Geoff Lawton. Gabe Brown is another one, who has scientifically documented that his use of cover crops, with no fertilizers, and no 'cides builds soil and sequesters carbon. Some of these people have testified before congressional committees, but their voices and solutions remain ignored.

    5. Leigh:

      1) (Quickly goes out and does research) More authors to read and books added to the cart. My dance card is filling up quickly...

      2) I am not surprised that their voices are ignored - after all, the only answer is the one we currently use. Much like many other things in our current society, answers which are not "approved" are not correct.

      3) The information is out there. Would that more people availed themselves of it.


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