Shumei Natural Agriculture:

Farming to create heaven on earth

Kishima Island, Part 1: Reiji Murota, Master Farmer
On a sheltered island, the dream of Natural Agriculture ferments

In a tiny agricultural kingdom bounded by the sea, a Shumei master farmer has free reign to farm on the wild side. What he finds – and teaches – keeps pushing out the frontiers of Natural Agriculture. The first of two parts on this farm, building on a three-part introduction.

By Lisa M. Hamilton, Posted September 30, 2003

Editor's NOTE:

In her first three installments of “Farming to create heaven on earth,” California photojournalist Lisa M. Hamilton crafted a three-part historical and cultural foundation for her series on Shumei Natural Agriculture.

This story begins the first of five visits to individual Natural Agriculture (NA) practitioners, before the series ends with her description of the Shumei version of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm.

Farmer Number One is an inquisitive man who thinks deeply about embedding agricultural systems within the natural world. His story begins on Kishima Island (see map below or click here for a full map of Japan and the other farms in this series).

His paradigm-shaping mentoring has launched NA disciples to emulate his approach in many places. This is the opening of a two-part story on Reiji Murota and his amazing island farm.


About the Author:
Lisa M. Hamilton

Lisa M. Hamilton, a California journalist and fine-arts photographer. Her stories and photos have delighted readers in national publications such as National Geographic Traveler, Gastronomica, Z Magazine and The Humanist. She has edited, written and produced publications on art, entertainment and environmental issues, in print and on the Web. She has distinguished herself in agricultural journalism with an acclaimed series of stories on prominent California crops in The Newsletter of CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers).



Reiji Murota sees his world—the fields, the farm, the island—as one microcosm of a larger entity that is all-inclusive, yet finite. Add something in, and the balance is jarred; take something out, and the machine doesn’t run.

Nature already has
everything it needs,
says Murota.
We are just here to facilitate.

On Murota’s mature hilltop garden, we admire the yellow flowers of late radishes and the twirling young pea vines, both sheltered under misty mesh tents.

Welcome to Fantasy Island. I can see the camera zooming in right now: on the lawn stands Ricardo Montalban in his white suit, next to him sidekick Tattoo, who’s just about to announce: “Dee plane! Dee plane!” While I’d probably skip the Friday night TV show, the island itself had an undeniable mystique: a location so secluded no visitor knows where he is, the perfect place to try out a wishful reverie.

Early in my Japanese sojourn, I may have found such a place. I certainly have no idea where I am. I know only that the dark water we’ve crossed is Japan’s Inland Sea, and that this island is one of the many vague, green shores that vanish in and out of the mist. I’ve come with my trip’s usual troupe of Shumei guides and interpreter—not fantasy companions per se, but the scene is magic nonetheless.

On this spring day, hot pink rhododendrons peek out from the soft forest and the red leaves of autumn still line wet paths. This is a place where you pass through pleasures like scanning the dial for a radio station: here the precise song of birds, here the perfume of cherry blossoms, here nothing but the pure silence you find only in the middle of the sea.

If Natural Agriculture has a single heart, this is it. And it’s even more like Fantasy Island than I thought. Shumei owns most of Kishima Island, making it a rather inimitable ideal. But it’s a place for the dream to grow, a place where Natural Agriculture can flourish unfettered by the mainland’s reality of drifting pesticides and financial pressure. Its lessons of perfection are taken by the farmers of Shumei, like those departing on dee plane at the end of the show, to put into practice in their imperfect world. A sort of dreamy research center.

But the master of this island is no Ricardo Montalban; in fact, when he slides up to the lunch table just after we arrive, he appears more like a shy servant than the highly revered teacher he’s supposed to be. He’s small and his face is thin, with skin stretched over high, round cheekbones and caved into hollows below. His ears are the red-brown color of sausages, his leather hat so molded to his skull it could never fit another person. Rather than pull up a chair to our table, he stays seated at the one beside it and keeps his conversation cautious and deferent. When he does talk, his eyes blink.

Farmer energized by his fields

Out of the lunchroom and onto the land, Murota is like a fish returned to water. Standing in the soil his voice starts to flow, unfolding the concept of compost, layer by layer. We walk to the second of many micro-fields, up a thin and muddy path lined with short trees, and his voice becomes even stronger. The slight rise obscures our destination, the foliage erases the field we came from, and suddenly it is clear that he’s not powered by just the fields. This wildness is the thing that completes Murota—and his agriculture.

It wasn’t always like this. When Murota arrived decades ago he wasn’t a farmer but a young man sent to help with other work on the island. (Kishima also functions as a Shumei children’s summer camp and a retreat for members.) Natural Agriculture was in its nascence, and the residents in charge were still figuring out how to make it work. Having been professional, non-organic farmers, the only approach they knew was “the more, the better,” and so they set out to make as many fields as the island could hold.

But holding capacity is a matter of opinion. As they cut down trees and plowed wild spaces for fields, the leaves and weeds they relied on for compost became scarce. When the island couldn’t produce enough organic matter to sustain itself, they brought compost from the mainland, even that made with manure—whatever it took to keep the fields going.

Now Murota had been apprenticing with the veteran farmers, and gradually he noticed that something was wrong. It wasn’t just the compromise that allowed the use of manure (a practice verboten within Natural Agriculture), but the system’s overall imbalance. The island’s forest was nearly gone and the remaining pine trees were mysteriously sick, their growth rings growing thinner every year. The seaweed around the island was dwindling. The food production was impressive, but the farmers had forgotten that that wasn’t their only goal. Murota thought, ‘How could we be creating harmony with nature if the nature is being obliterated?’

Seeing the farm extended to the world

When Murota took charge of the farm 20 years ago, he made a fundamental change that has become the backbone of all Natural Agriculture practice. Rather than viewing it as a system unto itself, he saw his world—the fields, the farm, the island—as one microcosm of a larger entity that is all-inclusive, yet finite. Add something in, and the balance is jarred; take something out, and the machine doesn’t run.

In 2003, his fields create a picture of abundance. Today the cabbages are at their peak, and the rows are comfortably lush. The heads have generous space between them, but each one is so full and round that the row feels packed. It’s that way everywhere: each piece of these 1.8 acres is at its optimum, whether that means heavy, hearty, bushy, leafy, dense or tall.

Murota credits this fecundity to the island’s renewed natural balance, which allows the soil to be composted with local ingredients. But as I jump to draw a conclusion about fertility, Murota catches me. He raises a thick finger patiently and repeats the cardinal rule of Natural Agriculture, the concept upon which most Westerners stumble: Compost is not used to supply nutrition, it is used to keep the ground moist and protected to regulate its temperature so the soil can feed itself.

Nature already has everything it needs, he reminds me, we are just here to facilitate.

The most scientific process he employs is not very scientific. To compost, Murota combines leaves and weeds in a container. He covers them with pure water, then compresses the mass, then repeats until the mixture is 40 percent organic matter, 60 percent water. Then he leaves it to rot.

Of course I ask how he knows when it’s done, and of course he answers indirectly—unraveling the story a little more, but in such a way I realize my question doesn’t really apply.

“Hanjyuku is a word that means something like ‘half-boiled,”” he says, “like an egg. I use the compost mostly when it’s hanjyuku.”

Using compost-in-process boosts benefits

To mix compost into soil it must be fully rotted, but he rarely applies it that way. Most often he takes it when half-done and lays it over the soil and around the plants. The composting process is one of layers, he explains, and each of them is useful. Imagine the duff in the forest: beneath a tree you would find whole leaves, under them those half-rotted, and under them those broken down completely. In each stage of decomposition the leaves have varying levels of energy and nutrients in different forms, all of which are important to the plant’s environment. “Instead of waiting for only the oldest stage,” he says, “why not put it on sooner and take advantage of the whole process?”

The information sinks into my Western head as we admire the yellow flowers of late radishes and the twirling young pea vines, both sheltered under misty mesh tents. The humid air gradually solidifies into a cool rain, adversity that yesterday sent all parties running for the cover of umbrellas. But here at the hilltop garden, the one visibly most mature and vibrant, Murota has kneeled like a yogi before a row of chives and nobody is going anywhere.

For a moment he strokes the chives as if they were a child’s hair. Then he stretches his thick right hand over the soil and gives us the next piece of this story: If you leave the crop in the ground after its top is harvested, the three layers can exist underground as well. The top layer is this year’s roots, the second those of the last crop, and so on. Again, the explanation is one of nature: Go to a wild mountain, where this happens as a matter of course. Take a clump of soil in your hand, pour in some water, and it will expand like a cotton ball. Do the same with soil that has been left bare and cultivated blindly, and it will crumble—there’s nothing to hold it together.

“Real good soil is not just rotting,” he says, “it’s fermenting.”

His left hand brushes the chives aside to reveal a skinny brown mushroom growing at their base. “It’s like yogurt. The life is not breaking down into nothing, but rather that breaking down is producing something new. And the sign of it is mushrooms, just like in a forest.”

Finding concrete proof for the American

The rain is our excuse for going inside, but it’s clear to all that I still need something more, some combination of explanation and proof. Next to the field is a concrete house, and in it an improbably clean room; floors lined with tatami mats and empty of furniture but for two low tables and a single chair for the American woman.

On one table are three glass jars. Each is thick, clean and closed tightly, each contains water and a 30-g. sample of soil sealed inside six months before. What has happened inside them belies their identical nature.

The jar with soil from Murota’s least-mature field is a predictably grim mix of nearly clear water and an inch of dense, monotone dirt caked on the bottom like old fish food. The jar from the hilltop field of eggplants is a step up: the water transparent but dirty, the lumpy soil maybe two inches deep, ranging from green to brown and growing fuzz on top. But the forest soil is a whole separate type of life, a microbial cosmos unto itself. The water is such a deep, thick brown you can’t see through it. The dirt inhabits all six of the jar’s vertical inches and spreads out in thick clumps of hairy dirt, between them furry areas like the bottom of a pond. White filaments stream in and out of view, connecting the various pieces.

Murota explains that whether you’re talking about compost or roots, each step toward wildness adds a new level of complexity. That complexity is what holds the soil together both literally and figuratively. Each layer attracts different microorganisms and contributes different nutrients, and in a perfect state, the soil has all the pieces needed for absorbing nutrition—similar to a whole food, which comes complete with the enzymes and minerals it needs to be digested. When one piece is removed—like a plant’s roots pulled after harvest—the composition becomes incomplete and the natural process can’t possibly function at full capacity.

Likewise, adding something to the system jerks it out of balance. He pulls out a wordy Japanese technical journal and flips to a University of California experiment comparing the life cycles in two lab ponds, one with fertilizer added, one pure water. The latter produced life slowly, peaking gradually and petering out at the end of the chart. The fertilizer sample spiked, then just as quickly plummeted as its rapid growth depleted the pond’s oxygen.

But as my interpreter wades through explaining the concept, I notice Murota is already on another topic. He looks deeply into his cup of coffee, and to waiting attendees tilts his head slightly and begins to talk. These jars and journals are something for me to hold on to, but next to his voice they feel compulsory, hollow. The real proof is outside, somewhere between the slender chives and the wet brown mushroom hiding beneath them.

Farming to create heaven on earth, Introduction:
Farming measured by a different yardstick altogether