“The idea 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 itself.
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.)
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 as
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 farmers themselves.
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
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.
“The essence of
Japan’s culture is its closeness to nature. Cooking …
is simply the result of an acute awareness of the seasons.”
—Shizuo Tsuji, 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
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’
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.