There are a lot of philosophies out there in regard to agriculture, gardening, and food production. I’m enjoying learning about each of them, everything from permaculture to the square foot gardening method to biodynamic gardening. I had not heard of Do-Nothing or natural farming until I came across this article on healyourlife.
The story of the philosophy’s founder, Masanobu Fukuoka, is very interesting. He went from being a plant scientist and agricultural academic, recommending inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides to having an epiphany that would lead him to “do nothing”.
Now a disclaimer. I do certainly believe science holds the keys to understanding many things. I think understanding plants and soils scientifically is very important and offers very valuable insights that can help us as gardeners. That being said, oftentimes technology is sold to us as a solution to many problems under the banner of scientific progress, and it may even work and temporarily increase yield or keep plants alive, but the impact on the long term or on the production systems is often ignored. Industrial scientists create chemical inputs that allow tilled fields devoid of living topsoil to produce genetically modified crops at the expense of topsoil and the long term productive capacity of the land. To me, science has a place in gardening, farming, and agriculture. That place is in description and understanding, evaluating, and utilizing that knowledge to create long term solutions for the productive capacity of the land. It should not be used to create short term fixes that perpetuate infertility and the dependence on inputs sold to us by industry. But I digress.
Fukuoka’s philosophy aligns nicely with many other gardening philosophies like permaculture and organic farming in general. He has five principles in his system. No tilling, no fertilizing, no pesticides or herbicides, no weeding, and no pruning.
The first principle, no tilling, is something that everyone should be able to get behind. Tilling destroys valuable and fertile topsoil. Warren Buffett’s son, Howard Buffett, a former big-ag CEO uses his foundation to support no-till agriculture. When soil is tilled the topsoil layer erodes. What you end up with is dirt, and the need for inputs. The more fertile topsoil is lost, the more inputs are needed, making the land (and farmer) completely dependent on chemical inputs provided by Big Ag.
The second principle, no fertilizing can sound tough to accept. This is certainly not a short term philosophy, but rather a long term investment. No fertilizing does not mean not caring for the soil. He does do several things to care for the soil. He utilizes many weeds in a manner reminiscent of chop and drop. In this process you take a plant like a dandelion, which has a long taproot that pulls minerals and nutrients from deep down in the soil, and you cut the leaves and leave them on the soil as mulch. As the leaves break down, they add these nutrients back into the soil. This, added to other mulches, keeps weeds from taking over and adds nutrients to the soil over time. This is where the third principle of no weeding comes from. Now, I don’t follow this one, but weeding, especially intense weeding can have an impact similar to tilling. Constantly disturbing the soil can create the conditions for erosion and disturbs the soil’s microbiome. This method of farming utilizes those plants that take up residence. Oftentimes these plants, provided they are not invasive, have some benefits. One can easily understand principle number 4, no pesticides and no herbicides. The fifth principle is interesting to me. When I cultivate fruits, I think of things like raspberry and blackberry where you should remove the old canes to get fruit. Then I think of taking a walk in the woods and finding wild brambles, and no one is cutting down the old canes with those, yet they fruit. He might be onto something there. I need to do more research on why he doesn’t prune, as I’ve never seen properly done pruning as a harmful practice.
His system is very interesting, and although he had to spend 6 years with low yields, long term his system worked. In his life he challenged the idea that large scale mechanized farming is needed. We’re often sold the idea that to feed the world this is what we need. In the United States around 40% of our corn goes to ethanol production. 36% is used to produce animal feed. According to the USDA, around 3.8% of corn is used to make high fructose corn syrup. So out of the over 90 million acres used to plant corn, at least 80% of it is used for industrial products rather than feeding people. The same could be said for soybeans, wheat, and other commodity crops. If this land was used to grow food in a non-monoculture and integrated way, we could probably feed the world. This, however, does not feed the pockets of Big Agriculture, their shareholders, their lobbyists, or the politicians they buy. Sorry to sidetrack with a political rant, but I think if you’re not involved in Big Ag, no matter which side of the aisle you’re on, you probably know this to be true. With all of that said, mechanization in agriculture is not necessarily a problem. I’ve got no problem with tractors! What I do have a problem with is using so much land to produce crops that are not used for food. To top that off most of these fields and areas are monocultures, which leads to a whole host of problems. Again I state, some mechanization in food production is not necessarily bad, but the over-mechanized ethanol factories we call farms with their mega-machinery do more harm than good to the environment, the food system, and the economic well being of farmers who actually produce food.
Do Nothing farming calls to mind many philosophies like permaculture, biodynamic gardening, and even Native American farming practices like intercropping. I am happy to have stumbled upon that article and hope to learn more about Do Nothing farming and Masanobu Fukuoka. I plan on reading his book The One Straw Revolution when the libraries open back up after CO-VID 19.