The One-Straw Revolution: On saving the planet, one garden at a time

I thought I knew a thing or two about gardening. But since undertaking a rather intensive gardener training program I now know just how little I actually knew about gardening.

I’m not alone. It turns out that so much of what we’ve been told about gardening and farming over the past few decades — from the usage of pesticides and fertilizers to the annual tilling of soil — has turned out not only to be bad for the soil but bad for the planet.

The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka (translated by Larry Korn) is the story of one person who saw what was wrong with industrial agriculture (in the early days of industrial agriculture) and completely reinvented agriculture. Mr. Fukuoka was a Japanese plant scientist who came of age after World War II as Japan was adopting Western agricultural practices and their associated chemicals. Dissatisfied with the increasing emphasis on science over nature, he quit his job, returned to his family farm and set out to do things differently. He began doing less of what so many other farmers had been doing. As in no chemicals. No tilling. No excessive watering. And no neat and tidy rows of plants and trees like we have grown accustomed to seeing on conventional farms. Twenty years of trial and error later, he ended up with one of the most productive farms in Japan and, in the process, became known as the “father of natural farming.”

We need natural farming, now more than ever.

My mom lived on an Iowa farm surrounded by miles upon miles of productive farmland. But when I visited years ago I learned that nobody could drink the well water. It was contaminated from all the chemicals and minerals sprayed on the crops. Local rivers and streams were becoming more and more toxic, particularly after the rains, as nitrates leached from the soil and into the water supply, finding their way into Gulf of Mexico where we now have a dead zone the size of Delaware. And yet when you drive through Iowa you see miles of seemingly healthy corn crops. Everything neat and orderly and green. But it’s an illusion, and an unsustainable illusion.

Mr. Fukuoka was trained as a scientist, so he knew the risks of chemicals. He also believed that there were better, more natural, ways to fertilize the soil. He gradually developed a system of planting clover (which is a nitrogen fixing plant, also known as “green manure”) and laying down rice stalks as ground cover. And he did not till the soil, not because he was lazy but because he didn’t want to damage the soil and its billions of microscopic creatures that were living within it.

And this brings me to the most compelling idea presented by Fukuoka — that humans, in our efforts to control nature, have only made things worse. Fukuoka wrote:

If nature is left to itself, fertility increases. Organic remains of plants and animals accumulate and are decomposed on the surface by bacteria and fungi. With the movement of rainwater, the nutrients are taken deep into the soil to become food for microorganisms, earthworms, and other small animals. Plant roots reach to the lower soil strata and draw the nutrients back up to the surface.

If you want to get an idea of the natural fertility of the earth, take a walk to the wild mountainside sometime and look at the giant trees that grow without fertilizer and without cultivation. The fertility of nature, as it is, is beyond reach of the imagination.

In other words, if our soil is doing so much of the agricultural “heavy lifting” for us, why are we killing it?

He cites the massive pollution caused by runoff from overfertilized and overwatered fields.

The most commonly used chemical fertilizers, ammonium sulfate, urea, super phosphate and the like, are used in large amounts, only fractions of which are absorbed by the plants in the field. The rest leaches into streams and rivers, eventually flowing into the Inland Sea. These nitrogen compounds become food for algae and plankton which multiply in great numbers, causing the red tide to appear … My modest solutions, such as spreading straw and growing clover, create no pollution.

The good news is that I’m reading more and more about famers embracing cover crops over chemicals. Even some of the research I’m seeing out of Iowa is showing a small (but growing) number of farms adopting cover crops. And, yes, the demand for organic produce is pushing farmers to try new approaches. But there’s also a general sense of unease with all these chemicals we were told would improve our lives. And this is the most revolutionary aspect of the book and natural farming, that it challenges us to question practices and beliefs and so many of us were born into, that we were raised to think of as right.

As far back as I can remember tilling was considered an essential farming practice. You fire up the tractor and turn over the soil. And yet, according to Mr. Fukuoka, tilling is simply not necessary. He has a field that he hasn’t tilled in more than 20 years, one that is more productive than any other farm in the region. So how does he get the seeds into the ground? He just tosses them onto the ground (Nature works in much the same way). And what a “mess” this ground is. There is nothing neat and orderly here. Just clover and rice stalks and no exposed soil, which is another rule of thumb: never let the sun touch the soil.

To be honest, I still appreciate the orderly nature of traditional farms — everything in parallel lines and perfectly in sync. Like so many of those Old McDonald children’s books. And yet I also know there is something intrinsically wrong with massive mono-crops, for soils, for pest control, for the quality of the food itself.

I appreciated Fukuoka’s focus on simple living, as in simple diets. He noted that Japanese were eating more meats because rice was considered a lower-class food. And he argued in defense of plain old rice. And it was nice to see that way back then he saw the environmental impact of so many people giving up grains for meat:

Meat and other imported foods are luxuries because they require more energy and resources than the traditional vegetables and grains produced locally … Brown rice and vegetables may seem to be coarse fare, but this is the very finest diet nutritionally, and enables human beings to live simply and directly.

This book is as much about establishing a relationship with nature as it is about growing vegetables and fruit trees. Ultimately, as the title attests, this book is about revolutionizing the way we treat the land beneath our feet. Even if you have no intentions of tossing a seed onto the ground (though I recommend a few showy milkweed seeds for the monarchs) you’ll enjoy this book.

The One-Straw Revolution