that our health could possibly be related to the soil is
an extremely radical one. It hasn't been discussed much
in medical literature. It isn't recognized as important
by your family physician. It isn't taught in high schools
or colleges. If you would ask the Department of Agriculture--Is
our health related to the soil? It would answer--Yes--but
from that point on they and I ride on different trains.
They actually believe that to obtain health from food, you
have to use chemical fertilizers to build up the soil's
fertility. I shall try to show how ridiculous that attitude
— J.I. Rodale,
The Organic Front (1948)
In retrospect they are called pioneers,
but in the actual moments that the world’s innovators
seize history in their hands, the titles are less glamorous:
loon, fool, heretic. Yet both sets of names grow from the
same idea, that the person in question has proposed a reality
different from what we find familiar and comfortable. When
J.I. Rodale introduced non-chemical agriculture into North
America’s burgeoning agribusiness system, there simply
was no room for it. The prevailing definition of what was
true—that agricultural wealth requires chemical additives—by
default made organic methods false.
What I would have given for this insight on my first day
in Japan. I was visiting farms that practice Natural Agriculture
(N.A.), a nascent movement promoted by the Shumei faith, mainly
in Asia. I was sent there to unravel the mystery of how it
works, meant to return home with practicable techniques and
hard facts and numbers. But after hours of dead-end questions
and answers as solid as smoke, I sat down and wrote this:
“Maybe it is because I am a foreigner and they don’t
want to get that personal. Maybe it’s because I’m
not asking the right questions, either because I don’t
understand the culture or because I don’t understand
N.A. But here is what I really think: I think N.A. doesn’t
work that well.”
In a way, I was correct. When evaluated using conventional
Western definitions of what farming is and does, Natural Agriculture
doesn’t score very high. But it doesn’t try to.
That’s because it’s not simply a different method
of organic cultivation, like dry-farming or Grow Bio-intensive.
In fact, its proponents will plead with you to understand
that it’s not a method at all; it’s a philosophy
In abstract it sounds like organics in this country: no chemicals;
reliance on the strength of plant and soil; working with nature,
not against it. Yet the guiding principle behind these tangible
directives is more slippery. The ultimate goal is to create
a heaven on earth, and so Natural Agriculture aims to create
systems as close as possible to what nature would make on
As practiced by the Shumei
Natural Agriculture Network, this means no additives,
not even plant-based sprays or fertilizer. The only thing
laid on the soil is plant matter, and that only to regulate
soil temperature and moisture; manure is verboten. Each farmer
takes stock of the tools available to him naturally—be
they insects, rainfall, tractors, soil fluffy or dense. Playing
the role of steward/facilitator, the farmer configures those
tools into the system that produces as much food as possible
without causing damage that nature can’t easily repair
Each farmer’s technique is vastly different, but one
thing is the same: yields are equal to or -- more often --
lower than those on organic or chemical farms. One could close
the book there, pronounce the concept a bust, and move on.
But remember the lesson of J.I. Rodale: Natural Agriculture
doesn’t make sense when judged by our priorities, but
does that make it wrong?
What if the thing that’s wrong is the questions we
are asking of it?
The Western perspective on what makes good farming is rooted
in the age-old tradition of trade. As devoted and conscious
as we might be, our definition assumes farming to be a commerce-based
activity: grow food, exchange it for money. Natural Agriculture,
on the other hand, grew out of the teachings of Mokichi Okada,
a mid-20th-century spiritual leader and pioneer of Japanese
organic farming. He redefined agriculture as a faith-based
pursuit, in which the philosophy is the motivation, the technique,
and the measure of success.
It follows that Western farming and Natural Agriculture have
different definitions of success. In simple terms, our minds
judge an agriculture by its ability to make money. Those with
ecological consciousness judge it equally by its respect for
the Earth. We evaluate a technique in terms of productivity,
resultant fertility, and its product’s quality; the
pinnacle marked by deep color, fine texture, complex flavor,
and optimal size—usually the bigger the better.
Measured with this ruler, Natural Agriculture comes up lacking.
Its independent farmers are not competitive in an anonymous
marketplace, their production is generally less, and, by our
definitions, their soil fertility and crop quality are generally
A different yardstick
But what if the goal of quantity were replaced with the goal
of building a system close to nature? What if financial gain
took a back seat while we concentrated on increasing harmony
among the natural elements of the world? What if ultimate
success were defined as the creation of an agriculture closer
to heaven on earth? What if the goal were to concoct not the
most complexly mediated production techniques, but rather
the most simple and minimal interventions? Natural Agriculture
would be the most effective approach, and organics just a
step along the way. (In a fitting twist, chemical agriculture
would simply not be an option.)
||"The Japanese foothills amble
toward all coastlines, leaving cities and people and farms
to perch on the edge of the water. It is an undeniable
geography, one that resists manipulation and instead insists
that you play by its rules."
It’s easy to respond that redefining success in these
ways is unrealistic. Heaven on earth is inherently intangible,
and what’s more, farmers need and deserve to make a
living. It’s all true. Nobody said Natural Agriculture
could work within the familiar structure of Money for Food.
But then, Shumei is defining its own structures to replace
convention. This radical moving of goalposts resembles the
new economics of the local food and organic food movements
in the U.S. It’s just that Natural Agriculture takes
its quest to the next level.
Instead of working within the existing food production system,
its proponents aim to create an entirely new system in which
spirit is the priority—and finance as much of an afterthought
In this material world, there is one big difference that
makes it possible: Japan’s 1,290 practicing Natural
Agriculture farmers are rarely alone at the market or in the
field. That’s because the consumers are also members
of Shumei; equally devoted to agriculture as a spiritual pursuit,
they break out of their ordinary vocational roles to practice
their version of CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Being
a customer means not just buying the food, but organizing
a CSA, helping to weed the rice paddies, and sometimes becoming
Shumei consumers could be seen as a captive market, but really
it’s the very concept of a market turned on its head;
the lines that traditionally separate consumer from producer
all but dissolve.
What happens when modern food production becomes a community-wide
effort? This series of profiles explains how it actually works.
But first, to understand the paradigm shift behind Natural
Agriculture, one must understand the world in which it exists,
the world it intends to create, and how it aims to do so.
of Japan’s culture is its closeness to nature. Cooking
… is simply the result of an acute awareness of the
Japanese Cooking, A Simple Art (1980)
There has been no greater influence on Japanese food and
agriculture than the land itself. This chain of islands stretches
2,000 miles between north and south tips. Like a zipper up
the center lie unbudging mountains, some capped with icy peaks,
others spreading into rolling plains just below the tree line.
Their foothills amble toward all coastlines, leaving cities
and people and farms to perch on the edge of the water. It
is an undeniable geography, one that resists manipulation
and instead insists that you play by its rules.
The first settlers arrived in Japan from the harsh, dry steppes
of Northern Asia. This temperate climate’s lush hills
were abundant by comparison, a change that inspired gratefulness
that later formalized to become the Shinto religion. This
worship of nature laid the groundwork for the profound reverence
of food that defines traditional Japanese cuisine.
Yet as the people multiplied, the limitation of the land showed
itself. Because of the mountains only 29 percent of the tiny
island nation is inhabitable, only about 16 percent arable.
Further, that 16 percent seldom occurs in the stretches we know
in California and the Midwest. In the beginning there were more
wide open spaces, but increasingly land was tilled up the sides
of hills and finite valleys—wherever possible. Instead
of our flat fields stretching to the horizon, the Japanese vision
of a farm starts with plots of roughly one-quarter acre. Even
today, a full-time farmer might have only 3 acres total, and
those split among various properties perhaps miles apart.
|"In food and beyond, Buddhism’s
values of purity and austerity became part of
the national identity."
From these small plots of land grew a distinctive kind of
agriculture that continues today. Labor is done largely by
the proprietor and often by hand and small machinery—if
not the weeding itself, then the spraying of herbicides. Animals
have never made much sense, either as laborers or meat, since
land is too precious to grow the grains to feed them. The
nation’s diet was built on rice, which produces the
most food energy per acre of any grain. (Some attribute Japan’s
group-oriented culture to the predominance of rice: early
on, its labor-intensive cultivation required that communities
work together to raise the crop on which all life depended;
an individual would not survive alone.)
Insularity over imports
In climates where weather allows, Japan’s precious
fields might have to support two or three crops a year without
rest. And yet they have never produced a surplus of food.
Other countries in similar circumstances have traditionally
relied on imports, but Japan’s island culture chose
insularity over other nations’ goods.
It’s hard for Americans to understand what happens
in the inherent absence of plenty. As MFK Fisher wrote in
the introduction to Shizuo Tsjui’s book, “We have
never been taught to make a little look like much, make much
out of little, in a mystical combination of ascetic and aesthetic
as well as animal satisfaction.”
But in Japan, food has always been truly precious. “Even
noblemen were expected to leave their bowls and plates absolutely
clean,” Rafael Steinberg wrote in The Cooking of Japan,
“to the extent of tucking fruit pits and fish bones
into the sleeves of their kimono.” That scarcity has
translated into a deep, sensual appreciation of food. The
Japanese diet is light and simple, with the spotlight on individual
ingredients rather than complex concoctions made from them.
In fact, a complete dish in a traditional meal might be no
more than two black beans and a sliver of radish, or a bowl
of broth with one tiny potato afloat.
This natural proclivity for simplicity was enhanced by Buddhism,
which arrived from China in the Sixth Century. Its vegetarianism
stripped rich animal fat from the diet, but temperate Japan
could not replace it with what Shizuo Tsjui calls the “tropical
largesse” from the countries where Buddhism originated.
In food and beyond, its values of purity and austerity became
part of the national identity.
The Formative Periods
Buddhism was only one of the lasting influences of Japan’s
early relationship with its powerful neighbor. Culinarily,
the most obvious were tea and soybeans, but perhaps more influential
was China’s cultural sophistication. When the T’ang
dynasty collapsed and the age of Heian-kyo (now Kyoto) rose,
Japan shut itself off from the world. Behind closed doors
for centuries, this adopted refinement was the guiding principle
of cultural development.
It translated into food in the forms of decoration and elegance.
Kyoto court cuisine’s ingredients were still simple
and largely the same as that of the peasant’s larder,
but presentation became paramount. Here came the snow-white
octopus sliced to accentuate its smoky purple edges, the garnish
of three delicate radish threads or the curl of a fiddlehead
presented like sculpture. For four hundred years, these aesthetics
were fashioned into an art.
Eventually the Kyoto Empire was usurped by the samurai, but
that only served to proliferate the sensual worship of food.
Because samurai armies were comprised of both noblemen and
commoners, the ideal moved across ranks and then to the masses.
European traders and missionaries arrived in the mid-16th
Century, and their ways were (not surprisingly) interpreted
as barbaric. But it wasn’t sloppy eating that had them
ejected less than a century later, it was their politics.
They were seen as a threat to the feudal system, which had
harnessed the country’s agricultural wealth and was
the key to the ruling class’s power. With their deportation
the doors to Japan were closed again in 1638. This time not
only could foreigners not enter, but the citizens could rarely
When Emperor Meiji came to power in 1868, he opened the country’s
doors to a world that was vastly different from what they
had left two centuries earlier. Whereas the tide of international
influence had elsewhere been gradual, here it swept in like
a wave. For the first time in Japan’s history, red meat
became a status symbol. Western clothes, Western food, Western
thought—it was the beginning of the process that many
now credit with the increasingly rapid death of the sophisticated
but delicate indigenous culture.