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