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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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.