The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka is a wonderful little book. Originally published in Japan in 1975, the book was translated into English in 1978 by a group of Fukuoka’s students. University trained in microbiology and specializing in plant diseases, Fukuoka worked as an agricultural customs inspector as well as Head Researcher of Disease and Insect Control at the Kochi Prefecture Testing Station. In 1937 he was hospitalized with pneumonia and while recovering he had a spiritual experience that transformed his world view and made him question the practices of modern agriculture.

His father had a large farm with a citrus orchard and rice fields. Fukuoka took part of the orchard under his care and began his experiments in what he called natural farming. After quite a lot of mistakes and setbacks and the interruption of WWII, Fukuoka took up farming again in 1947. This time it did not take him long to figure out what he had done wrong before. Fukuoka uses no-till methods to raise rice in summer and barely in winter. He does this year after year in the same fields in such a way that he never has to add fertilizer or use pesticides and his soil keeps improving with time. His citrus growing methods also require no additions of fertilizer or pesticides. His growing methods require less work than modern agriculture even though everything is done by hand, and his yields are equal to and often higher than “regular” farms.

What did Fukuoka figure out that allowed him to farm the way he did? His goal was to achieve a balance that allowed nature to do most of the work. Using straw from the winter grain to mulch the rice and rice straw to mulch the winter grain he protected the soil and added nutrients to it. He did not keep his rice fields flooded, he didn’t have to because the straw kept the soil moist and the weeds down. He also used white clover as a perennial mulch both in the grain fields and the orchard. He did not prune the fruit trees. Fukuokoa managed on his farm to create a sustainable system that continually improved the soil and kept diseases and destructive insects under control.

Fukuoka says the problem with agricultural science is that everyone specializes in something so that no one is able to see how it all fits together. The people who study insects don’t understand how not plowing and using mulch increases beneficial insects and allows them to keep the destructive insects under control. The people who study plant growth don’t see how the variety of plant grown and the conditions under which it is grown affect the yield. It is not all about fertilizer and herbicide. Those things are necessary only when everything is out of balance. As he says,

An object seen in isolation from the whole is not the real thing.

Fukuoka had such success with his methods that he had students come to his farm from far and wide to learn from him. He also had frequent visits from researchers to study his soil and insect populations among other things. He would ask these researchers about their results and whether they planned on promoting his farming methods to others. And while the results were always positive, the researchers would always say his methods were too experimental. But Fukuoka saw it differently:

If crops were to be grown without agricultural chemicals, fertilizer, or machinery, the giant chemical companies would become unnecessary and the government’s Agricultural Co-Op Agency would collapse. […] To do away with machinery and chemicals would bring about a complete change in the economic and social structures.

While it all starts with farming methods, it does not stop there. It becomes bigger than that. It is also about the health of the planet and the health of people. It is about growing food that is nutritious as well as eating locally and in season. It is about community as well as being connected to nature. It is about being a producer instead of a consumer. It is about physical needs as well as spiritual needs.

While Fukuoka claims to not be religious, his farming approach is a kind of Taoist and Zen mix. He spends time talking about “extravagance of desire” and how it has caused us to go astray. He talks about how we need to get rid of our “discriminating mind.” And his favorite Sutra is the Heart Sutra:

The Lord Buddha declared, ‘Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Matter and the spirit are one, but all is void. Man is not alive, is not dead, is unborn and undying, without old age and disease, without increase and without decrease.’

He tells a student one day while they are working that there is no life or death, that all is illusion, there is only void. This very much chimes with his early transformative spiritual experience when he realized there is no intrinsic value in anything, action is futile and effort is meaningless. Because human beings have no purpose, when we live in harmony with nature we are content and don’t need to find meaning and purpose.

Fukuoka would ideally have all of us be farmers. He believes if we all farmed using his methods we would be well-fed and happy. We would also have plenty of leisure time in which to pursue the arts or some other kind of study. A utopian dream, that. Fukuoka is definitely onto something, but his exact methods will not work for every farm, they are specific to his own. But that doesn’t mean his approach cannot be used as a starting point, that his ideas cannot be adapted. I think what it comes down to is small, local farms growing a variety of foods instead of huge monoculture agribusiness. It means not buying tomatoes and other summer fruit and vegetables in the middle of winter. Perhaps it also means everyone growing some of their own food whether it is zucchini in a pot on a balcony, getting rid of the huge backyard lawn of the suburban mcmansion or something in between; doing what you can wherever you are.

The One-Straw Revolution is inspiring to read. Fukuoka is quite personable. The book is written in a conversational style that is easy and pleasant to read even when it sometimes slips into being more of a lecture. The edition I read is the original 1978 publication, but it was reissued in 2009 as a New York Review of Books Classic. Even if you aren’t a farmer or a gardener, the book still has plenty to say because as far as I know, we all have to eat and so we all have a stake in how our food is grown.