Introduction to
Farming to Create Heaven on Earth
(Shinji Shumeikai, 2007)


Page 2 of 3

Agriculture might seem an unlikely avenue for communing with nature, being as it is a process of extraction. It is even stranger that a philosophy born in the twentieth century would choose agriculture for this role. In this age of supermarkets and industrial-style food production, many see agriculture as being decidedly against nature.

Our more common way of respecting the natural world is reverence based in pure observance, the “take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints” approach. But that passive contemplation is relatively new. Indeed, it was made possible only because people evolved enough to secure a food supply—through hunting or farming. Our true link to the earth is actually a working relationship: we take from the land and, in recognizing our dependence, are both grateful and humble. In its original form, agriculture inspires the deepest respect a person can have for nature.

Unfortunately, abundance has eroded our respect. With our food supply ever more secure, we have grown uncomfortable with being dependent on a larger system. As a result, the evolution of agriculture—particularly since World War II—has had a subtext of conquest. We strive to cease being subject to nature and instead command the elements to do our will.

At its core, Natural Agriculture aims to reverse that transformation. Rather than proposing that we seek dominance, it advocates returning to our place as integral members of the natural world. This begins with the simple premise that nature is perfect. Thus, nature already has everything it needs to thrive. Soil naturally has the ability to grow plants and contains the nutrients they need. Plants naturally have the ability to search out those nutrients, as well as to adapt to new climates and contend with insects and diseases. What could be called nonnatural agriculture, which depends on pesticides and fertilizers, is the result of humans ceasing to trust or even recognize that inherent power.

Over the past few years, I have explained Natural Agriculture to numerous people involved with organic farming. They already base their practices in the belief that strong plants don’t need the help of pesticides and that building soil is the most important thing a grower can do. Yet the conversation always stops at the question of the use of compost and manure, which Natural Agriculture forbids. “What about the nutrients?” they say. “How can you extract crops without putting anything back in the ground? How is the soil not depleted?” John Haberern, executive director of the Rodale Institute, once put it this way: “What we do and what Shumei does is similar. It’s just that sometimes we think the soil needs a little help.”

The key to Natural Agriculture is dissolving the hierarchy behind that thinking. We are programmed to believe ourselves superior to plants and soil, to believe that the work of farming involves making up for what plants and soil lack. Instead, Natural Agriculture prescribes an equal partnership, in which we recognize the natural capabilities of plants and soil and believe in nature’s power to heal and maintain itself. The goal is not to produce quantity for our own profit but to encourage the plants’ and soil’s natural development and feed ourselves on the remarkable results.

Of course, for a farmer who switches to Natural Agriculture, the first season can be disastrous: the natural elements have so long depended on fertilizers and pesticides that almost nothing of themselves remains. But as they build, their strength becomes evident. With each new year free of additives and other intervention, soil regains its natural composition of complexity. Plants are increasingly able to dig deep for nutrients, which builds powerful roots that endure extreme weather. They also develop resistance to insects and diseases. Most pests are natural, after all, existing to curb the populations of other species. Over generations, plants can balance out the cycles of ebb and flow, if only they are left to their own powers.

Meanwhile, the farmer’s labor is to optimize the conditions for plants and soil to develop. This involves obvious chores—planting, supplying water, weeding. It also includes acts such as saving seeds, which allows progress to accumulate through generations. Beyond that, how Natural Agriculture works varies from farm to farm. Because it is not a method of farming, there is no such thing as a standard technique. Instead, each grower fashions the most effective system from the tools that are available. There are no Natural Agriculture research centers or schools, no books about the practice. Farmers do trade information, but because the variables change, often the application is not transferable. Any lesson about Natural Agriculture is ultimately about how to think, not about what to do.

This brings us back to the idea of using fertilizer. On one hand, it seems like a minor infraction. People have been using manure for thousands of years, so certainly one can value soil and still make amendments. But using fertilizer means that, on some level, a person is not convinced that the earth has everything it needs. Inversely, not using it exhibits a vital sense of trust. Such an act implies that rather than change nature to work for the farmer’s own benefit, the farmer will change him or herself to work with how nature already is.

 

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