Do Nothing

A big influence on my approach to managing my farm is Fukuoka’s principle of “do nothing”. In our frenetic modern world the term is an insult for someone who isn’t working hard enough.

Fukuoka once said:

“Human beings are the only animals who have to work, and I think that is the most ridiculous thing in the world. Other animals make their livings by living, but people work like crazy, thinking that they have to in order to stay alive. The bigger the job, the greater the challenge, the more wonderful they think it is. It would be good to give up that way of thinking and live an easy, comfortable life with plenty of free time.”

Reading his work and observing my farm over the years has changed my approach profoundly. Many people I know constantly recommend that I do this or do that to “improve” the farm, to force it at any cost to conform with the picture in their mind of how a farm should look and operate. If I had followed their advice I would probably still be working a full time job, with too much debt remaining to have much time to even use all the expensive machines and inputs they recommended.

Instead my approach is to accept that I am not really in control of the farm and even bringing in expensive oil powered machinery wouldn’t make much positive difference. A few quick calculations put things into perspective. My 40 acre farm probably has an average of about 225 Watts per square meter of incoming solar energy. At best photosynthesis captures about less than 0.5 % of this as sugars, giving a total maximum annual energy yield of about 4.3 TJ (4 300 000 000 000 J). By contrast my body consumes about 7500 kJ per day, or 2 700 000 000 J per year, or 0.06% of the total energy captured by the farm. Even if I could expend every crumb of energy that flows through my body I could barely make a dent in the total energy flowing through the farm. Like often taught in martial arts I can achieve nothing by taking on this energy flow head on, and at best can redirect it in subtle ways.

Even if I invested tens of thousands of dollars in a small tractor its 60 horse power output, ridiculously running for an entire year around the clock, would consume only 1.4 TJ, still only about 30 % of the total energy output of the plants on the farm. And all that tractor could do is kill plants to make room for weaker ones, so the tractor would only decrease the total energy capture of the farm. This would maybe increase short term yields of crops and cash, but result in long term degradation of the soil and vegetation.

Working without powered machines makes these harsh realities palpable. Modern industrial agriculture is in many ways a machine that turns oil and topsoil into food and people. Even much hobby gardening, with its reliance on trucking mulch and manure and pumped irrigation is an even less efficient way to do the same. I still think small scale and input intensive gardening has its place, particularly as a first step to learning how to manage plants, but no one should kid themselves that it is saving the planet. It reminds me of Marie Antoinette pretending to be a milk maid. By contrast zero input agriculture seeks to answer the question of what can grow to support humans in a way that is a net positive both for the people and the environment. A do-nothing mindset is an essential part of the tool kit.

Often people do something because they think it is important without ever testing if that is true. Everyone knows that you must water seeds after you plant them to make them grow. I don’t water mine and they grow just fine, often actually better. I recently gave my very rough bed that grew garlic over winter a quick weed while nothing was in the way, then used a shovel to break up the clay in small sections about 60 cm apart in a single central row. The spots were scraped back to about 3 cm deep and a pinch of about 5-6 okra or rosella seeds planted. I left gaps for basil and lagos spinach seedlings later (partly due to the seed being smaller, but mostly since I am trying new varieties and only have a tiny pinch of seed to work with). Some nice accumulated topsoil from the old weed piles on the paths was hoed up into a bucket and crumbled over the seeds to bury them about 1 cm deep. The seeds will sit there and wait until we get a little more rain. It will probably only take another 10 mm to get them going. Seeds don’t absorb liquid water from the soil, but rather humidity from the air pockets between the crumbs of soil. I have seen seed germinate well from humidity alone in soil that is dry and dusty to the touch. The seedlings will establish slowly if spring stays dry, putting most of their energy into their root system and fooling casual observers into thinking they aren’t doing much. When the summer rains finally arrive the top growth will catch up at an astonishing rate.

I was planning on also sowing bush snake bean, but the smaller plants mean about three times as much work cracking open holes in the hard clay to sow them compared to the large and widely spaced okra and rosella. If I wait until 10-20 mm of rainfall first the soil will soften up so I can do the job with much less work with a simply hand trowel. The germination of the okra and rosella will be a good sign that the snake beans should be in. Timing and observation are important when your energy is limited.

Another good example of a do-nothing approach happened on my creek flats. I recently extended a goat paddock into the area, so I was going down to cut branches and train my new kids to understand electric fences and bond to the herd. Just outside the goat paddock were some old goose pens that had grown various crops (one with pigeon pea, cocoyam and seed grown arrowroot, the other choked with cobblers pegs after a jam melon crop last summer). Given I already had usable goose fences around these spaces I decided to prepare them for cropping soon.

The first one had a closed pigeon pea canopy and was fairly clear at ground level, so I decided to plant jam melons, pumpkins and gourds here since they are fairly weed sensitive when establishing and need to go in pretty soon. I started cutting out the pigeon pea, leaving the roots in place and tossing the tops to the goats (not quite chop and drop, maybe launch and lunch?). I will direct sow the seed here soon after rain and see how I go without further inputs. It took me a lazy half hour to cut out about a quarter of the pigeon pea.

The second one with the thick covering of cobbler’s peg would be better for arrowroot seedlings from this year’s breeding work as they wouldn’t be ready for transplant until around December, giving me time to manage the vegetation. There was a long strip of black plastic still in place under the weeds that I had moved around to solarise between the previous jam melon crop. Normally I would cut the weeds back with a hand sickle but previously I found this to be both a lot of work, and leave sharp bases that punctured the black plastic (plus I didn’t have the tool with me and didn’t want to walk home for it). Instead I remembered seeing how well the goats could trample the weed down, so I simply decided to do the same in my flimsy sandals.

I cut a stick first and bashed all the seed off the cobblers pegs. A more work obsessed person may have tried to gather them all up, put them in the bin in plastic bags (or compost them?) and then bring in truckloads of mulch to “build the soil” and “suppress weeds”. Cobblers pegs already built the soil while I was doing nothing there for the last six months, leaving soil with better tilth than most spots in my vegetable gardens that get goat manure. I will never be without these weeds so why stress trying to eliminate them? I see them as a volunteer green manure crop that I didn’t need to buy the seed, sow the seed, water, fertilise, and force to return to the soil. Interestingly these spaces had a decent population of Sida weeds that I spent considerable time pulling out their deep taproots but now almost all the ones left were now dead, so maybe all that work was not necessary.  

After a rough trample I used a short plank that had been holding down the black plastic as an aid, stepping on it then flipping it another step along to crush the weeds down a bit more so the plastic would lay over them more snugly (preventing light getting in and the wind catching the edges). I then carefully peeled back the black plastic and flipped it over onto the next section of weeds. My caution was warranted since there was a 2 m brown snake hiding under it that I had walked close by multiple times earlier. It peacefully slipped away into the undergrowth before I could get a photo. I believe overgrown landscapes are less dangerous for snake encounters since the animals can always easily escape and don’t feel as threatened. The plastic was weighted down again at the edges and after a few weeks can be moved again. I will start sowing Canna seedling in tube pots soon so I can plant them in sections. If time allows I might do stale seed bedding, allowing the first flush of cobblers pegs to germinate before briefly smothering in black plastic once more. Ultimately this black plastic trick can’t be used forever, but I strongly suspect that soil allowed to fallow with cobblers pegs will eventually become unappealing to it. Already the number of plants and the strength of their attachment to the soil is decreasing. The weed can also be managed around vigorous field crops like arrowroot by simply slashing off the tender tops with a hand sickle a few times until the crop gets tall enough to shade them out. We select crops to suit our latitude, climate and soil so why not also select them to be competitive with our most ubiquitous weeds?

These are just two examples of the “do nothing” mind set at work. Before you rush in to do a job take the time to question if you could do it more easily, or do it less, or maybe even do it not at all.

PS- I collected a dozen more examples of my do nothing approach that afternoon, but I will follow my own advice and not tell you any more as hopefully my point has been made!

Okra seed direct sowed into a pocket of broken up dry clay soil.
An old strip of solarising plastic with its cover of weeds pulled back. I wonder if anyone is home?
The plastic flipped onto trampled weeds, much easier than cutting them.
A bonus example- I leave my scotch thistles until they just start flowering, then bash them down with a stick. The roots almost never regrow at this stage presumably since all the resources are up in the young flowers. Easier than digging them out. Simpler than spraying.
Another bonus example. I worked very hard to try killing of this Setaria grass before moving the goats in. Turns out they love eating it. I shouldn’t have bothered. This knowledge will save me banging my head against a much larger patch elsewhere.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: