It’s fair to say that I don’t know what Amazon was thinking when it recommended I read The One-Straw Revolution. I bought a beginner’s book on gardening once and some biodegradable dog poop bags, and I can only assume that from those purchases the Almighty Amazon Marketing Algorithm labeled me a militant environmentalist Hell-bent on removing the influence of science from that greasy mess I shove down my gullet on a daily basis. I am not. But I’m glad it assumed I was.
The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka is a manifesto on farming, not a guide. Fukuoka was educated as a biologist and worked as an agricultural customs inspector for several years. During his brief government career he witnessed one of the tragic failings of man which Mark Twain described as thus:
Civilization is the limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessities.
Fukuoka -san watched as experts kept searching for scientific solutions to problems created by other scientists, the farming industry, and the whims of consumers. But it wasn’t until he experienced a philosophical awakening after a bout with pneumonia that he returned to the orchards from whence he came.
I suppose in the 1940’s that pneumonia was a more serious deal than it is today, and this is where Fukuoka’s story gets a bit “emo.” His hospital stay left him in a depression and facing serious metaphysical questions. He eventually concluded that
Humanity knows nothing at all. There is no intrinsic value in anything at all, and every action is a futile, meaningless effort.
Truly inspiring words from a man who went on to write a passionate book meant to spark a food revolution, right? (He actually jokes about it in the final chapter.) This realization led him to leave his career and return to the family orange grove where he began to experiment with what he would call “Do-Nothing Farming.”
Fukuoka began to experiment with “doing less” with his trees and vegetables and more with his awesome facial hair. This process often led to failure but what he soon discovered was that his failures were caused by the damage done to the land by modern agriculture.
He soon realized that Mother Earth, much like Daryl Hanna, was doing just fine before science came around and thought he could improve her. Once the soil is farmed using modern methods that include chemical fertilizers and herbicides, the land becomes dependent on them. But once the soil returns to it’s natural state crops grow just fine with very little help from mankind.
Do-Nothing Farming isn’t about being lazy: It’s about approaching agriculture in a way that works with nature instead of relentlessly trying to tame her. He used no fertilizer, no herbicides, very little compost, yet continually produced rice yields that compared with the rest of the farms in his area.
Fukuoka gives plenty of specific advice about his farming methods: plant summer and winter crops, utilize cover crops, cover the fields with the straw leftover from your crops to protect the seeds and replenish nutrients. His instructions are pretty specific to Japanese agriculture but I’m excited to research and adapt them to my own gardening here in Pennsylvania.
Modern Agriculture: It’s the Consumer’s Fault
Much of this book is philosophical in nature, and considerable effort is spent discussing what good food actually is. (Depending on my mood it’s either food from my garden or a #13 from McDonalds) Fukuoka’s definition is, loosely translated, food you can enjoy eating which keeps you healthy without having to think too hard about it. Basically he means local, in-season, organically grown food, and if you have to obsess over nutrition too much you’re probably doing it wrong.
The problem is that this isn’t what the consumer wants. Like Hollywood has sold a false ideal of female beauty, so we’ve also been sold a false idea of what good food looks like.
The FDA tells us we need specific amounts of specific food groups ( these amounts often vary based on which agricultural lobby is throwing the most money around). We think our foods have to be the perfect color, the perfect size, and the perfect texture. On top of all that, we want the perfect produce even when it’s not in-season. Consumers demand these qualities that don’t occur naturally, and if farmers want to sell their produce they’ll have to use unnatural methods to attain them.
Furthermore organically-grown produce is sold at a premium whether the growing process warrants it or not, pricing it right out of the hands of working men and women who need it the most.
A Problem in Need of a Solution
I have one issue with Fukuoka’s philosophy of farming: in order for “Do-Nothing” farming to succeed on a global scale, society would have to change in a big way. His ideas work in a world where the farmer grows for himself and sells to the local village. On this scale the farmer can produce high yields in a natural way and still have leisure time leftover. However reality tells us that 9 out of 10 people world-wide depend on others to grow their food because they busy themselves with what Fukouka sees as meaningless human industry. While I don’t necessarily disagree with him, those billions of people that would either starve to death or give up the convenience of modern living to pursue subsistence farming might.
What I loved most about The One-Straw Revolution is that it was philosophical in nature, but unlike so much philosophy it had energy, passion, and a goal driving every word. The author’s direct, common-sense approach to natural farming was refreshing in a world filled with the false hopes of science and technology making our lives simpler.