Shumei Natural Agriculture:

Farming to create heaven on earth

Kishima Island, Part 2: Reiji Murota, Master Farmer
Companionable chaos: A Japanese farmer strives for longterm fertility via wild but calculated interplanting

Mr. Murota believes any soil can evolve to greatness, given proper management ... and time. He's content to spend 20 years making a field ready for tomatoes. When the goal is not just food but the healing of the soil, there is no urgency.

By Lisa M. Hamilton, Posted October 28, 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.

The fourth installement introduced Reiji Murota, an inquisitive man who thinks deeply about embedding agricultural systems within the natural world.

This fifth installment continues Murota's story and finishes the 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.

Murota's story begins on Kishima Island (see Kishima Island 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.


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).

“Trees and weeds help each other.” Without shade, weeds cannot grow on this parched land; without weeds Murota can’t make compost.

The field is a riot of vegetable plants, each with such vigor it threatens to overcome the straight rows in which it’s planted.

Murota believes any soil can evolve to greatness.

 

“Of all the things we have done to the earth, agriculture has caused the most devastation.”

It’s a controversial statement, to say the least, but there’s no debate on the edge of this onion field. Before anyone questions it, Reiji Murota begins making his point—not as an argument, but as instruction.

In his opinion the most unnatural state for upland soil is to be bare. And yet this is an integral stage of modern agriculture’s standard process: plant a whole field, harvest a whole field, leave it bare until the time comes to plant again. Taking crops off the land inevitably extracts some life from the field, even in Murota’s plots. But that stripping off a layer of life to leave the ground uncovered spoils the soil’s natural ability to heal itself. Without this vital element, the fields become dependent on additives—it’s a tale familiar enough to Western ears.

But now Murota veers from the beaten path. In nature, he says, the soil always has a layer of something growing on top, which is what allows it to recuperate. To emulate this, he keeps his fields in constant production. This doesn’t mean back-to-back monocrops—even a half-acre in a single crop means the ground must sometimes be entirely bare. Instead he keeps the soil covered by planting in tandem. “Whenever I plant one thing,” he says, “I’m always thinking what I’ll plant with it.”

Cultivating chaos within limits

The combinations are imaginative. Instead of the classic tomatoes-and-basil, he has tomatoes and asparagus, head lettuce and peppers. Under a misted green net, pea vines climb over the brown stalks and shriveled fruit of last year’s eggplant, which have inhabited this ground all winter. It looks like the product of neglect, but that’s the thing that makes Murota a genius: his laissez-faire is highly calculated.

For instance, this field is strictly onions and pumpkins. As he harvests a row of onions—one of few crops whose whole plant is removed—the squash spread from adjacent rows to fill in the empty space. In fall, onions are planted again among the dying vines, which fade back into the earth over winter. Year after year, this field is planted the same: two rows of onions, one row of squash, the interaction between them ebbing and flowing with the seasons.

It makes sense, even if it is odd to see a farmer plan his fields around a technique normally associated with home gardens. What doesn’t add up is the third companion plant in this field, a vestige of the backyard that seems inherently incompatible with commercial agriculture. After every 11 rows of the squash-onion rotation, the dirt fades into a strip of shaggy grass and a line of arakashi or konara trees, trees of the oak family.

Even after a short time on Kishima Island I have realized that Natural Agriculture doesn’t follow the same rules as farming where I come from. (Quite frankly, because financial gain is almost an afterthought, it doesn’t have to.) Yet aren’t trees fundamentally opposed to row-crop farming? They suck up water, eliminate sunlight, and (mostly) yield no crop themselves.

Murota, always looking at the macrocosm, sees it differently. Kishima Island’s greatest problem is the climate: there is very little rain, and the near constant winds blow away what moisture does come through. The effects were devastating during the time of his predecessors, who razed the island’s forests to make room for fields, leaving the ground totally exposed. So when Murota took over, the first thing he did was plant trees.

New trees buffer harshness

Even growing in the middle of his onions, the trees are seen not as competition for precious water but as vital protection, even building blocks. He recalls how farmers deal with aridity by just dumping more water on, a solution whose myopia visibly offends him. “In dry land, you just pull water from a river and pour it on your land,” he says. “But because it’s so dry it filters through the dirt, then rises back up and brings minerals with it. Then the water evaporates and leaves the minerals on top, and ultimately it does more harm than good.”

His solution is to work from the ground up—or down—by building the soil, knowing that the more fertile it is, the more water it retains. Trees are integral to that process. They cushion against the severe climate by providing windbreak and shade, and by holding moisture deep within the ground. Over the years, they add to the soil’s complexity by pulling up nutrients with their deep roots and creating leaves for compost. And, as he says fondly, “Trees and weeds help each other.” Without shade, weeds cannot grow on this parched land; without weeds Murota can’t make compost.

Trees also contribute to the eco-system’s overall complexity. Recognizing and seizing this interconnectedness is the thing that makes Murota’s system work, but it requires commitment on a deep level; simply adding a tree doesn’t solve things.

Case in point: As we walk uphill from the onions and squash, we pass a fat trunk sliced near the ground. “This is an akashiya tree,” Murota says. “It’s popular in Australia and Africa, places that are truly arid. I planted it in the beginning, thinking it would be good because it grew fast.”

The prediction proved too true, and as the akashiya shot up and out it did exactly what I had assumed a tree would: it sucked up the water and shaded out the young fruit trees. Murota had to cut it down years ago, and then question how he could refine the system.

Random trees tempt plant disorder

Past the stump, through the rain of blossoms now sprinkling down from the surrounding trees, we walk farther uphill and find the island’s best field. Murota -- whose hands remain in his pockets unless they are demonstrating something, whose voice is always cool and slow -- now beams through his thin cheeks. The field is a riot of vegetable plants, each with such vigor it threatens to overcome the straight rows in which it’s planted.

Rising among them are trees: a tall, bushy mountain cherry, a feathery young enoki (hackberry), and a spindly paulownia with globe-shaped buds ready to explode into purple flowers. They follow no plan. In fact it almost seems they are the ones encouraging the peas and peppers to shirk the field’s careful order.

Each tree arrived as a seed on the wind, and since then Murota has let them grow just to see what might happen. They are scattered and few, maybe 10 in the whole quarter-acre field, and Murota admits he’s still figuring out which types and how many are optimal. He does know, however, that these trees—native, local—are the best suited to this climate, and therefore the most likely to offer his vegetables symbiosis, not competition.

That he will experiment like this is testament to this field’s fertility. Among the squash and onions, he must use the regimented oak trees for their predictable results. Likewise, the variety of foods grown here demonstrates excellence, while the lower field is relegated to growing only the two crops it can reliably support.

But it won’t always be that way. Murota believes any soil can evolve to greatness. A field’s worth is not a fixed sum predetermined by its location or original composition. Maybe the hillside plot of onions and squash gets more wind than this protected area, but that difference is at most an obstacle to be overcome. He sees soil as the result of a building process, its future determined by what kind of building is done. Just as Shumei at large believes this troubled world can become heaven on earth, his vision of soil’s possibility is unlimited.

On the way to reaching nirvana, a field is ranked in terms of “maturity,” meaning how long it has been cultivated in Natural Agriculture and how successful the transformation has been. Soil is judged by its ecological complexity, and therefore the variety of life it can support.

Strengthening soil through production

While American organic farmers swear by crop rotation as a way to care for land, Murota and other Natural Agriculture farmers determine what crops are suited to a field and stick with them, year after year. New fields, for instance, normally grow root vegetables until they are “strong” enough to move on to what are deemed more demanding plants. Even after almost two decades of healing Kishima Island, Murota feels the soil isn’t ready to do a good job of growing tomatoes and other challenging crops. “To humans, ten years is a long time,” he says. “But in terms of reviving the soil, it’s nothing.”

Once the system is moving, however, it grows exponentially. Healthier trees make more leaves and better weeds for compost. Those in turn help the soil retain moisture, which means faster decomposition, which enlarges the community of life supported underground, which in turn enlarges the community supported above ground.

To prove that soil complexity builds on itself, Murota has applied his compost to other Natural Agriculture farmers’ poor soil—again, not as fertilizer, but as sheer life force. The results were exactly as he predicted, but it’s still just proof, not a solution in itself. After all, he can’t forget the disaster that ensued when Kishima Island tried importing compost rather than raising soil that could support itself.

“When I put the compost on the poor soil on the mainland, it got much better,” he says. “But it only helped the appearance and the vitality. The vegetables’ taste, that’s another thing. Taste takes a lot more work than that.”

Next: Yasuo Tarumi of Fukuoka Prefecture planted traditional cover crops to help heal his land from agri-chemical damage. He uses persistent observation and his extensive line of farm implements to practice his version of Natural Agriculture.

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