Veronica Shukla

Random Musings

The One-Straw Revolution: Part Two, The Four Principles

The Four Principles

In part two, Masanobu Fukuoka discusses his four principles for successful natural farming. The four principles are simple and indeed seem to propose a less labor-intensive method of producing food. Here I’ll discuss each of the principles while adding my own elaboration.

No Cultivation

Throughout my life, I’ve only ever seen methods of farming and gardening that involve tilling or plowing the field. Growing up in northwest Iowa, I would drive by acre after acre of plowed corn and soybean fields. I would watch gardeners turn their soil with a shovel or see ads for the newest gas-powered tiller. So naturally, when I started gardening, I thought that cultivation was necessary to plant a seed, never once stopping to think about how plants have succeeded on their own since the beginning of autotrophs. A few plants depend on help from moving creatures to bury their seeds, such as the case with squirrels and acorns or fruit seeds and animal poop. But often, a plant creates seeds that simply fall to the earth, maybe become buried under fallen organic matter, and sprout to become another generation of healthy plants.

Of course, we don’t just plow to create easily workable soil for planting, we also do it to destroy weeds. But, the more you read about permaculture, succession, and natural farming, the more you will understand that plowing actually promotes weed growth. Tilling brings up dormant weed seeds from under the soil, allowing them to germinate. It also exposes soil, and nature’s very Bandaid for exposed soil is pioneer species (AKA weeds).

Tilling also benefits the farmer with a boost of fertility. Tilling brings atmospheric gases into the soil, and the soil life explodes to life creating abundant nutrients while consuming organic matter and gases. However, organic matter is usually not replaced. With each successive cultivation, more organic matter is burned up, and eventually the soil is drained of nutrients. The soil life suffers dramatically; certain species become extinct in the area. This paragraph is just a small snapshot of how today’s farming practices are destroying soils that have been farmed for centuries in just a few years.

Tilling is usually done with tractors, gas-powered tillers, or animal power. The first two are environmentally unsound, and the last one is questionable ethically. I personally as a Buddhist and animal lover would probably not be able to force an animal to spend hours hauling a heavy tool for no benefit to itself doing an activity that we now know has no long term benefit.

I also no longer dig in the soil unless necessary to harvest tubers, plant trees, or other similarly “necessary” jobs. Every time I struck ground with a shovel, I would kill a worm, and it made me feel horrible. I do no harm, and that includes even the smallest of sentient beings. I now sheet mulch to smother less-desirable plants and plant appropriate plants to slowly break up the earth with its roots.

No Chemical Fertilizer or Prepared Compost

To be clear, Fukuoka does not villianize compost. Compost is a great tool in the beginning of creating a sustainable garden, food forest, or farm. Chemical fertilizer, however, is quite worthy of villainization in my opinion.

Like tilling, chemical fertilizers create a food imbalance for soil life, causing it to burn up all the carbon (organic matter) it can find, eventually eating up all the humus. With no more humus, the soil becomes hard-pan or washes or blows away. This clunky soil, no longer friable loam that once held water and air, now needs to be tilled to be planted.

With no more humus, certain species of soil life die off, and the remaining species may have the ability to survive by feeding on the very plants that the farmer put there, causing the need for pesticides.

Soil life, organisms that literally support all other plant and animal organisms, need to be nurtured, not destroyed.

As we know, chemical fertilizers also pollute the soil and the water and have far-reaching affects that we don’t often think about. For just one example, fertilizers run into the rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans. There, the fertilizers feed the algae causing deadly algae blooms.

Indeed chemical fertilizer has its known problems. But what is wrong with compost? Well, Fukuoka uses what he calls do-nothing farming. I once watched a Youtube video of a woman showing viewers her transition from lawn to edible landscape. While showcasing her composting area, she said that composting is the hardest work she does, but she does it because it’s so important. (It’s a great video, and I love what she is doing; see it here.)

The thing is, compost is very important, but you don’t have to have a separate pile to make compost. Man – man is funny. He thinks he needs to create something like this himself. Maybe he can do it better than nature, faster than nature, hotter than nature.

Nature has built the composting process into her very veins. She does it automatically as long as you follow the process that she would do. Do not remove your plants and haul them to the compost pile. Just cut them in place. Do not rake your leaves and haul them to the compost bin. Leave them there if you have a food forest, or move them directly to the garden as mulch.

Instead of throwing your food scraps into the compost bin, take a few extra seconds and tuck them directly under the mulch. I do this; it is not stinky, it is not ugly, it does not create pest problems. In my garden, food scraps are my fertilizer. I put more under the tomatoes and zucchini and less under the beans. I’ve also gotten over wondering what the neighbors think when they see me out there shoving food into my garden instead of taking food out.

Compost can be a great tool, but it’s definitely easier, and possibly more beneficial, to just compost in place. I’ve read that the heat in a pile, the turning process, and the shoveling and hauling can all harm some of the soil life, where none of these things happen in a natural decomposition setting.

Also, exposed compost has problems akin to exposed soil. I used pockets of compost to plant seeds in newly created sheet mulch beds. The compost dried out much too quickly and weeds germinated much more exuberantly in the compost pockets than in the rest of the beds. Compost can also wash and blow away easily if left uncovered.

So Fukuoka is not saying compost is bad. He is merely reminding us that we don’t have to try to out-do nature. It’s her process. Let her take the lead and the brunt of the hard work.

No Weeding by Tillage or Herbicides

Weeds seem to be public enemy number one. In an effort to squeeze a yield out of every drop of land, we’ve developed a need to rid our gardens and fields of weeds with the pervasive thought being that weeds will choke out our crops.

Indeed, we do not want other plants to take over our land and reduce our yields to nothing. Therefore, we should control the weeds, but not eliminate them. Why? Many reasons.

Vast plantings of one crop is unnatural and will invariably cause numerous problems. If you are growing grains or something that needs to be planted in a block to make harvesting reasonable, allowing some weeds to germinate will create some diversity in your field.

Weeds are generally pioneer species. These plants are the ultimate handymen of nature. They cover scalped soil, holding it in place, keeping it moist and cool. They break up earth and add organic matter. If from the right family, they fix nitrogen into the soil. And many of them, called dynamic accumulators, reach down with their roots and pull up nutrients from the subsoil, depositing them to the topsoil. You can determine the quality of your soil and identify its issues by simply observing which species are thriving at the moment.

But this doesn’t mean that once you have used these plants to determine your problems that you should go buy some packaged fixer of that problem and lug it to your soil. Observe because it helps you become more connected to your land, but there is no need for you to fix it.

Those plants are there to fix the problem for you. If you leave them to their business, they will eventually amend the deficiency and no longer thrive in that area. They will begin a natural decline so that another species can come in. This is called succession. It is how you get from an abandoned field to a forest — generations of plants that keep improving the soil for the next generation until it gets to a self-sustaining system that benefits the most organisms. They don’t seem so bad now do they? All this time, you were trying to kill a fly who was actually your fairy godmother.

Fukuoka controls his weeds with mulch (the straw from every single harvest) and white clover. The white clover covers the earth, creating a barrier to hold back some of the more invasive plants. But guess what? It also fixes nitrogen.

It has also become a common belief that weeds are ugly. Anything that looks as it does in the wild is considered unkempt and uncontrolled. Flower gardeners spend much time designing and planting beds and do not want weeds to foil their efforts. The plants we choose for beauty are considered beautiful because of our perception, a topic much too broad to consider in this post. I will simply state that a change in our perception, something that is completely possible for everyone, is a pretty easy solution to this problem. We can try to dominate nature, poisoning the Earth as we attempt to contort her to please our eye, or we can work with her and revel in her inherent beauty.

No Dependence on Chemicals

This principle seems a bit redundant considering we already talked about chemical fertilizer and herbicides. However, Fukuoka is actually addressing the fact that the need to use chemicals is caused by our very actions. Using chemicals, amending soils in ways that wouldn’t happen in nature, tilling, weeding, monocropping, etc., have created weak plants and weak ecosystems that need human intervention merely to sustain. 

Meanwhile, that grove a few blocks from my house completely sustains itself and countless animals. It’s simple. Observe nature and how she works, copy her processes to the best of your ability, and let her do the work for you. Second guess every single farming technique you have ever learned from a human. Look for that technique in nature, or consider whether it is practical in nature, that is, self-sustaining.

Do you ever see mules pulling a plow out in the prairie before the wheat grass comes up? Do these wild plum trees need insecticide or pruning to produce copious amounts of food? Why not? How do the plants work together? What plants do you often see together in communities? Why do those mushrooms come up right there? Is this white stuff really harming the plant or the food production of the whole community? If a disease affects a community does the whole thing fail or does it make the community stronger? Observe, question, observe, question, observe, and observe some more. And after decades of this, you will be closer than you ever were to understanding something that can never be understood by humans — nature.