I first read Fukuoka’s most well-known book at the beginning of my farming journey, so I thought it was time to give it another look. The book covers a range of topics, often jumping between them, so I have divided this post up into sections focusing on particular aspects of the work.
Fukuoka talks about how “Humanity knows nothing at all” (in which he includes himself). The harder we work to understand the world by breaking it down into smaller parts the further we move from glimpsing the whole. Fukuoka states:
“The geography and topography of the land, the condition of the soil, its structure, texture, and drainage, exposure to sunlight, insect relationships, the variety of seed used, the method of cultivation — truly an infinite variety of factors — must all be considered. A scientific testing method which takes all relevant factors into account is an impossibility.”
This overlaps with my idea of “irreducible complexity”, that living systems have so many intersecting variables that it is a waste of energy to explain or understand anything. In living systems our explanations, even if somewhat correct, are incomplete because there are always more variables that have gone unnoticed. Trial and error are the only tools we need, and success is the ability to move from one failure to the next possibility with no reduction in enthusiasm.
Fukuoka also rejects the discrimination between natural and unnatural (and I suspect would feel the same about the more recent ideas of native and exotic/invasive). He readily embraced an imported Australian Acacia in his orchards since it hosts aphids most of the year, boosting predator populations that help control citrus pests.
Yields and EROEI
Fukuoka obtained yields of 550 kg rice on his small quarter acre grain field and as much again of winter wheat/barley. With 15 000 kJ/kg that gives an annual output of 16 500 000 kJ energy per year, enough to supply humans that need 10 000 kJ per day with 1650 days’ worth of energy. A typical Japanese peasant diet gets about half of its energy from rice and wheat, so this quarter acre is enough to support nine people for a year with a more diverse diet. This is about what Fukuoka claims, with his farm supposedly supporting himself and another 4-5 permanent workers, plus additional people who stay for shorter periods. He also sells mandarins which grow over the majority of the property, the sale of which provides $35 per month to the workers to buy vegetable oil and other necessities. If we ignore inflation then this money could buy up to 10 L of vegetable oil per month, which with about 8900 kJ/kg, could provide another 1 068 000 kJ per year, enough to provide another 100 days of full energy requirement or 200 days of half energy requirement. Fukuoka also mentions workers harvesting many vegetables from the farm and seafood from local sources. The mandarins that cover about 12 acres are on sloping land unsuitable for growing grain, even with Fukuoka’s low impact methods.
The EROEI (energy return on energy invested) of his grain growing is also worth analysing, and we will convert figures to a one acre scale with one person working. He reports it takes about a day to prepare the grain for direct sowing by coating in clay pellets and a few hours to broadcast, saving about a day per 1/3 acre of rice that is usually transplanted by hand into flooded and ploughed paddies. Let’s be generous and say preparation and broadcast takes one day to do. The crop is not fertilised or weeded, just flooded at select times to weaken groundcover. Maintaining paddy walls and flooding would take maybe another 2 days per year. Harvesting rice takes about 120 hours per acre, so 15 days work. The grain must be hung and dried, then threshed. For wheat threshing by hand takes about an hour per bushel (27 kg), so threshing out the total yield of 2200 kg per acre would take 80 hours, or another ten days. Each crop then takes 1 + 2 + 15 + 8 = 26 days labour to produce, to give 6 600 days’ worth of energy. This gives a time equivalent EROEI of 660/26 = 254, more than enough to sustain a substantially complex society with ample time for development of specialist activities. A more conventional system that spends more time hand weeding, transplanting seedlings, applying fertiliser and using foot pumps to flood the paddy could easily drop this EROEI by half by doubling the labour requirement. Each acre can thus support about 36 people who get 50 % of their calories from the grains grown there. These values are a fair bit higher than those reported in “Farmers for Forty Centuries”, with about 1/3 of an acre of grain per person across the whole of Japan. In mild and consistently rainy climates like much of Japan land can be cropped twice a year, potentially supporting higher human population density than in regions with only one growing season.
Fukuoka points out that at the time of publication in the 1970’s there was about a quarter acre of arable land in Japan per person, so there was enough for the nation to support itself provided the majority were farming naturally. After WWII there were indeed over 70 % of the population farming. Now it is under 4 %. At the time of publication Japan had a population of 100 million, peaking recently at 120 million which is now declining, so this is likely still true. That does make you wonder why the population of Japan was under 40 million in 1880 if people were already mostly natural farming then. As suggested in “Farmers for Forty Centuries” it is likely access to protein from seafood or firewood for cooking were the real limiting resources in the pre-industrial society.
It is worth taking time to compare the main principles of Fukuoka’s approach with how my own farming has evolved. The first principle is no cultivation/ploughing. I totally agree here that plant roots and soil organisms do a far superior job of building soil structure than a human can ever do. Early experiments of digging in compost gave a quick burst of growth, then the soil collapsed into a worse state than before I began. When you are digging with your own hand labour it is also extremely physically demanding, energy expended and wear and tear on joints that are better avoided.
The second principle is no chemical fertiliser or prepared compost. Fukuoka observed even applying a light dusting of ash to his grain fields wiped out spider populations. He does apply a little poultry manure when he lays down straw in the fields to accelerate decomposition. I agree with his disdain for the busy work of composting, preferring to allow materials to decompose in place, ideally also grown in place. Our Australian soils are also mineral depleted through their age and due to leaching. I have found that field and staple crops are capable of growing better in land that is cycled through fallow periods, and that crops that produce biomass to return to the field (like Canna) are much better than those that do not (like potatoes). I see fertiliser as a waste product created by some other part of the system, such as ash from cooking fires or manure from animals that needs to go somewhere to maximise its benefits and avoid problems.
The third principle is no weeding (either by tillage or herbicides). I am leaning toward this being true, with a few caveats for my local conditions. Well managed weeds are definitely vastly superior to mulch. Not all weeds are equally worthwhile, so some effort should be applied to discourage the trouble makers while managing the moderate ones and even encouraging the best ones. Fukuoka also uses brief flooding to weaken his weed and clover cover crop enough to allow rice to establish. This isn’t an option in all places, so other appropriate methods of imposing disturbance are needed. In my more intensive vegetable gardens using the space as a goose night pen does a lot of this work for me, laying down lots of manure at the same time. In my field crops the ice cream bean trees do the job, suppressing sun loving weeds when their canopy closes, which is fairly easily disturbed by periodically cutting the trees back to establish sun loving crops.
The fourth principle is no dependence on chemicals. Fukuoka accepts that weak plants that are grown poorly attract pests and diseases, often noting that those that sweep his district leave his fields untouched. He does however use oil emulsion on citrus scale, but noted that it only became an issue when the overstory trees were thinned out (most fruit trees are understory trees by nature). I agree with this principle as well. Food that has to be rescued from pests and diseases by any means is not worth eating even if the measures “succeed”, and I include physical and “organic” protection approaches here as well.
In the context of a rapidly industrialising agricultural system and society Fukuoka was a truly remarkable visionary who made his mark by living the life himself that he hoped others would live. He persistently experimented with different approaches for decades, constantly asking “what if I don’t do this or that” rather than trying to add more layers of complexity to already complex pre-industrial subsistence systems. When I look at popular permaculture today, with its dependence on industrial inputs, gadgets and promises of quick and easy solutions, I wonder what Fukuoka would think. I suspect he would say nothing and simply retreat to his mud walled hut. I can highly recommend anyone interested in permaculture to read this very accessible foundational work that was a key influence of later thinkers like Mollison and Holmgren who were more focused on technical details. It is worth noting that a long time student of Fukuoka tried to recreate his system on a different farm in Japan and completely failed. He missed the essential lesson that everyone needs to start from scratch when they inhabit a particular piece of the world. The answers you seek are in no book, but in the land itself.
One thought on “Book Review- The One Straw Revolution, M. Fukuoka (1978)”
“Well managed weeds are definitely vastly superior to mulch.”
I definitely agree with this. Any part on the farm that is not green is not productive, because any non-green part does not perform photosynthesis and thus captures no solar energy to be put into the system in the form of biomass. Even if it is weeds, if its green(performs photosynthesis) its productive both economically and ecologically for the farmer.