practice of Natural Agriculture
follows the teachings of Mokichi Okada (1882-1955), a Japanese jeweler
who became at once a spiritual leader and a farming pioneer. His
basic philosophy took shape between world wars and was a sign of
the terrifying times. The goal was to create a new civilization
rooted in the health, safety, and fulfillment of all people—a
heaven on earth. Achieving this would result from cultivating three
basic priorities: spirit, beauty, and nature.
Today Shumei has 300,000 members worldwide,
mainly in Japan but also sprinkled throughout Asia and North America.
They are organized into local centers, whose members fit into a
complex hierarchy that binds the faith as it moves around the world.
As it has grown, Shumei has accepted as part of its pursuit the
duality of purity and compromise.
Shumei means “divine light,”
which is synonymous with the goodness that is the truth behind all
life. That which obscures this light is a “spiritual cloud.”
Put simply, the ultimate goal is to dissipate these clouds and thus
purify the relationship between yourself and this supreme goodness.
And yet throughout my interactions with Shumei
members I was struck by signs of impurity that seemed contradictory.
A farming sensai (revered teacher) talked deeply about ecology then
smoked cigarettes and drank coffee with creamer from a tube. A grower
referred to the soil as a person with a heart while standing next
to rows of lettuce mulched with black plastic. It didn’t feel
like a scam, but the contrast between elements seemed irreconcilable
to my logical, linear Western mind.
Clashing paradigms and
Some people explained my confusion as a matter
of theological difference. They said that having come from the European
tradition of monotheism, I was trained to see things in black and
white. On the other hand, Shintoism’s pantheistic approach
had bred a view of reality that works on a grayscale, embracing
the coexistence of various, even disparate truths. But my brilliant
Japanese American interpreter, Alice Cunningham, explained it otherwise.
“In Shumei it doesn’t matter where you are on the path,”
she said, “it only matters that you are on it and moving forward.”
have one huge goal: the continued creation of heaven on earth.
We don’t know when that will happen.”
This concept of compromise is essential in
a religious philosophy with such enormous goals. Really. I asked
the 10 members of the official Shumei Natural Agriculture department
what their short- and long-term objectives are, and their interpreter
replied: “We have one huge goal: the continued creation of
heaven on earth. We don’t know when that will happen.”
Natural Agriculture is meant as a means toward
that end. Of Shumei’s main goals it falls obviously into the
nature category, though its place there represents a difficult immediate
task: reconciling our idealization of the wild world with our survivalistic
need to tame it. What results is a vague and interpretable directive:
Create a growing system as close as possible to what nature would
do on its own. Within that, make it as productive as you can without
incurring damage that nature can’t easily repair itself.
The first step is obvious: use no additives.
Outsiders argue that manure occurs in the wild, but Shumei counters
that nowhere does it exist naturally in such concentrations as farmers
apply. Likewise, Bacillus thuringiensis, sulfur, even vinegar. To
Natural Agriculture farmers, introducing a shipment of beneficial
insects to a field is unthinkable.
The premise is that nature already has everything
it needs to thrive. The farmer’s only job is to optimize the
conditions for it to do so. To that end, the farmer fashions the
most effective system from the tools that are available to him naturally.
Note, though, that here “tools available
naturally” doesn’t mean native, or even natural. For
one farmer in Fukuoka this means an exotic, weed-eating snail that
escaped from a defunct local aquaculture factory in the 1970s and
now plagues non-organic rice farmers. For another in Hiroshima it
is the pollinating blossoms from her family’s chemical pear
Commitment trumps practice
Naturally, the available tools are different
in every region, and on every farm. That is the crux of why most
Westerners haven’t been able to fully grasp Natural Agriculture.
It is not a method of farming, and there is no such thing as a standard
technique. While a farmer in Chiba considers it unnatural to start
rice in a cold frame, 250 miles north in Iwate it is an essential
approach. Compost is always seen as a soil protector rather than
a fertilizer, but how it’s made and when it’s applied
is an entirely personal decision. There are no Natural Agriculture
research centers or schools, no books about the practice. As Koichi
Deguchi explains, “The only thing in common is the shared
philosophy — commitment to realize Mokichi Okada’s vision.”
eschews the use of all chemicals and pesticides and relies instead
on the natural resources of pure soil and seed to produce health
crops. The guiding principle is an overriding respect and consideration
for nature, and an understanding of the intricate relationship
between the natural elements—the condition of the soil,
the light of the sun, rain, wind, etc.—and the individuals
growing the food. Much depends on the attitude of the farmer,
of working with nature, not against it.”
— from the English
language pamphlet Shumei
Farmers do trade information, but often it’s
not transferable. It can be learned through informal apprenticeships.
But still the lessons are about how to think, not what to do, since
once the apprentice becomes independent his variables are sure to
While some do come to Natural Agriculture
from organic farming or from no ag background at all, most are previously
chemical farmers. Many of them have been threatened by pesticides
and are thus predisposed to a non-toxic approach, others are inspired
by friends and neighbors. But all come to Natural Agriculture after
embracing Shumei as a philosophy. That agricultural shock of quitting
pesticides and fertilizers cold turkey is predictably rough. And
while some farmers weather the transition painlessly, many endure
an initial period of desperate failure. What carries them through
is their belief.
No, belief itself doesn’t pay the bills.
But imagine the power of finding a farming technique, and a faith
on top of that, that frees you from the pesticides that have given
you cancer. In some cases this scenario is driven home by what members
see as the miraculous power of Shumei’s spiritual healing
Others’ belief lies in the sheer experience
of eating Natural Agriculture food. Even within this national culture
that values food so intensely, flavor has slowly been sacrificed
for cosmetic perfection. As I traveled from Morioka to Fukuoka,
over and over Shumei people credited one thing with convincing them
they are doing the correct thing: the taste. The older people say
Natural Agriculture has let them remember how food used to taste,
the younger ones say they have discovered something altogether new.
The evidence, they say, is in their bodies and in their mouths.
Engaged consumers buffer
Still, conviction doesn’t make up for
the financial failure that can come with the drastic switch to Natural
Agriculture. Nor can it buffer completely the pain of trial and
error in a culture so intolerant of failure. But Shumei has a sort
of secret weapon that trumps these earthly obstacles, and it lies
in the most unlikely of places: with the consumers.
All of Shumei, not just the farmers, commit
themselves to the teachings of Mokichi Okada. Many have gardens
that follow the fundamental principles, but most of the organization’s
300,000 members are urbanites, not farmers. Nevertheless, many of
those who aren’t primary producers themselves are still part
of Natural Agriculture. They buy the produce and organize the distribution
systems behind the local CSA programs. They even work in the fields.
of Shumei are all willing to help. They don’t mind sweaty,
hard work—even for free. Their acquiring a lifestyle to
follow nature weighs more.
The model is community. As Sachiyo Noshida,
of Aichi prefecture said, “In older days, all neighbors came
to help in their busiest work such as planting rice seedlings and
weeding. Everyone cooperated to farm. [Likewise,] CSA members of
Shumei are all willing to help. They don’t mind sweaty, hard
work—even for free. Their acquiring a lifestyle to follow
nature weighs more.”
The most obvious benefit for the farmer is
the ready-made market. Right now there are 1,290 Natural Agriculture
farmers in Japan, not nearly enough to supply Shumei’s demand.
Thanks to the organization’s distribution network, when production
exceeds local needs food can be sold to a group elsewhere in the
country. As long as a farmer is willing to adopt the methods completely,
his produce is assured a home. This is significant, considering
the Japanese attention to cosmetic perfection. Consumers trained
to choose the supermarket’s high-polish beauties are unlikely
to purchase the often less attractive produce no matter how good
Shumei members, on the other hand, come to
see imperfections as a sign that the produce was grown in line with
their larger belief system. And that’s the key: they are committed
on an ideological level that goes as deep as their spirits. It brings
them to the field as volunteers, where they learn how much it takes
to weed rice by hand or to coddle tomatoes into ripeness. They carry
this back to their kitchens, where they reflect on how they cook
and where their ingredients come from. They carry it to the table,
where they notice what the food tastes like and how much is left
on their plates. And they carry it back into Shumei, where they
encourage others to get involved as farmers, consumers, or both.
The result is that Natural Agriculture becomes not just farming
or even a foodshed, but the very food itself, from soil to seed
to ingredient to meal. Likewise, the participants see themselves
not as independent players in a competitive market, but as threads
in a web of interdependence. It is a return to the old ways, particularly
the culture that instinctively held such reverence for food. But
it is also a modern arrangement. Its organization is innovative
and dynamic, as required by 21st-century society. Moreover, it is
an active defiance of a developed world that takes food production
At its core, Natural Agriculture is not just
a way of farming. It is a determined appreciation of the fact that,
despite all the chemicals and all the concrete, we can still farm
in a way that makes things better, not worse.