The One-Straw Revolution: A Philosophy of Natural Farming

one-straw-rev

Light glows and gathers along the filamentous strands, shining brightly around the thin form, and sparkling in bursts through the breaks of the rice straw. Held in the hand, this straw is small and slender, yellow infused with grey, and delicate. This is the image that begins Masanobu Fukuoka’s tale of the One-Straw Revolution.

He explains that while this straw is slender and slight (much as Fukuoka himself) it is powerful enough to start a revolution. He then draws back from this statement and takes us on a tour of his crops, showing us the rye and barley, and the clover growing among them. Then he brings us back to the revolution at the end of the first chapter by stating that his farming methods contradict modern methods yet still result in the same, or larger, harvest.

In the second chapter he describes the plant pathology research he carried out, which trails off into a description of his social life in Yokohama. He tells us stories of his life that range from the time he met a famous movie star to his fear of dying from acute pneumonia. It is in this chapter that Fukuoka describes the turning point of his life, the point at which he realizes that the life he was so content with was not a life worth living. While he is lying motionless against a tree trunk, Fukuoka suddenly becomes aware of the natural world around him. He hears the chirping of birds, sees the sparkling harbor waves glistening in the dawn, and he says to himself: “In this world there is nothing at all.” He is filled from this moment with the conviction that intellectual knowledge is insufficient to explain our world, only nature can be regarded as having a ‘special value’ and being ‘wondrous to behold’. Fukuoka decides to take up natural farming as a means of testing his conviction that the intellectual efforts of people are useless and meaningless.

The next two chapters detail his resignation from the Yokohama Customs Bureau, the return to his father’s farm to practice natural farming, the subsequent death of his father’s orchard, his employment at the Kochi Prefecture Testing Station, and finally, his beliefs about modern farming. Fukuoka sees his farming methods as being simple and in harmony with natural processes, while he sees modern farming as an overly complex system that leads to a never-ending cycle of natural manipulation. He uses an anecdote to describe human manipulation of farming as a useless cycle: a man stomps on and breaks the tiles of his roof, rain comes and begins to rot the ceiling, the man climbs back onto his roof and fixes the tiles, the man rejoices that he implemented such a fantastic solution. In other words, the solutions to agricultural problems such as plant diseases, low nutrient soils, lack of water, and low yield are problems that we have created in the first place.

Fukuoka describes natural farming as the “center” or “source” of agriculture. He tells us that to adopt scientific farming techniques is to “lead one astray.” His choice of diction comes from his strong opposition to the modernization of agriculture after World War II. He watched as his own farming village turned to mechanized equipment and heavy fertilizer use, only to result in a “negative cycle” that further degraded the land which called for more modern techniques to fix. The idea of being led astray alludes to spiritual teachings such as Buddhism and Christianity, which both influenced the way in which he understood agriculture and nature.

Fukuoka later states that the lens through which each specialist sees nature is inaccurate and corrupts their view of what “true nature” is. One person can only see insect damage, another sees only the taxonomic value of plants, and another sees only the pathogens growing among the leaves. He means to say that science is a tool we use to understand the natural world, but this tool is inadequate and even dangerous in its use. He tells us that the high yield of his crops is in direct contrast with the ideals of modern farming, and causes us to question whether we can know nature through the lens of scientific discovery.

Part II of the book details the processes of natural farming with various types of crops. His main advice is this: no turning of the soil, no fertilizer application, no weeding, and no chemicals. His methods do not hinge on the idea of doing nothing, but rather working with nature in a way that mimics the natural progression of plant growth from seed to harvest to seed.

Part III of the book delves into the political implications of modern vs. natural farming and the role of farmers and consumers in food production. He also describes the ease of food shipment for natural farming and the proposed downfall of industrial farming.

Part IV discusses the definition of food and includes mandalas that graphically depict the philosophical diet of natural farming. Part V ends the book with further discussions about the uselessness of scientific farming and the importance of a less-is-more approach. He ends the book by summing up his advice in the motto of a local farmer who became a wealthy man: “Treat one strand of straw as important and never take a useless step.”

Even though the rambling structure of this book is highly unusual, and relies too much on opinion, it allows us to join Fukuoka’s thought process and see the world of farming as he does. He repeatedly tells us to “take a look” and uses the word “you” time and again to invite the reader into the book. This personal approach is very affective when attempting to explain the philosophical reasoning behind natural farming. In the end, we are left with a greater appreciation of and belief in the power of natural farming.

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