Buddhism and Agriculture II: Hope and Despair on Fukuoka Farm, Iyo.
My friend Shinya Ishizaka and I drove up the driveway of a small warehouse just outside of the town of Iyo, in Shikoku, Japan. The morning sun shone through the leaves of the pine trees in the garden and illuminated gold the web of an orb spider cast above the door. We were meeting with Hiroki Fukuoka, the grandson of Masanobu Fukuoka, the founder of natural farming.
Hiroki-san emerged from the warehouse in gumboots and greeted us warmly with a bright smile. He took us in to a small kitchen where we sat down for a chat. He explained to us that he was using this warehouse to package organic foods, but that it was still undergoing renovations.
Two bearded young Frenchmen entered, who had been helping to set up the warehouse. They were carrying a container of orange juice, squeezed from the fruits of Fukuoka san’s farm. They served us gracefully and silently with a ladle. Shinya greeted them in English but they replied briefly in Japanese and left us to our interview.
In my previous blog post, I gave a general outline of the philosophy of Masanobu Fukuoka, drawing on his most popular text, The One-Straw Revolution. In visiting Hiroki-san and the farm, I hoped to gain a sense of Fukuoka-sensei’s global impact, particularly his ongoing relevance in the developing world. I discuss these topics in the next blog post in this series. In this post, I would like to outline what has happened on Fukuoka-sensei’s farm since he passed away in 2008.
The Final Years of Masanobu Fukuoka
Those who had met Masanobu Fukuoka told me that in the later stages of his life, he became deeply pessimistic about the future. He had devoted his life to perfecting his methods of natural farming, not only to save agriculture from the destruction of soil and biodiversity but also to revegetate the world’s deserts. Despite working on this for many years, he felt that progress was always inadequate. Improvements were made on tiny tracts of land, while in fact, the entire planet needed healing.
Fukuoka-sensei became particularly depressed after delivering the lectures that he periodically gave to students and intellectuals around the world. He felt that although they nodded along to his words, few of them, if any, could really hear him. His deep sadness was partly the loneliness of one who felt perpetually misunderstood; yet, it was also a sense of despair that the urgency of his message was never heeded. People liked to listen to him but were incapable of changing their ways. No one seemed to recognise the urgency of the environmental crisis unfolding all around.
More and more, he became convinced that books and lectures could not change anything. Indeed, his final project was to create a deck of Uta Karuta cards called the Iroha Revolutionary Verses, which were intended to transform people’s perspective through other means. Uta Karuta cards are used in a Japanese game popular amongst children, in which one must match the first half of a poem with the second half. Fukuoka-sensei’s deck contained poems that he had composed regarding the limitations of human knowledge and the importance of living close to nature. He believed that these short verses and the images accompanying them might have potential for more transformative impacts than the endless speeches that appealed to the intellect alone.
Masanobu Fukuoka’s grandson, Hiroki-san, remembered his grandfather as being a very kind and gentle man, during his childhood. Yet, when he reached his teenaged years, he recalls being surprised to see the way that his grandfather interacted with his guests. This man who was so kind with his own family was often impatient and even aggressive towards the guests who came to study his farming methods. When things became too crowded in the huts on his mountain farm, he would ask people to leave, seemingly unmoved by their tears at having travelled from around the world, only to be turned away.
Hiroki-san used to wonder how a man prone to such imperiousness would cope with his own mortality. Yet, in the final months of his life, when he became ill, Masanobu Fukuoka was incredibly peaceful. On the day of his death, he took plums in the morning and lay down in his bed. By midday it was noticed that he was no longer breathing. Hiroki-san describes him as being like a great tree, which as it dies, slowly ceases to draw up water from the ground. Gracefully it dries out and then returns to the earth.
Masanobu Fukuoka was, indeed, like a great tree, but one who stood very tall. When he cast his seeds, they blew across the entire earth, but rarely reached the ground directly beneath him. Even today, he is relatively unknown in Ehime Prefecture, where he lived and farmed for most of his life.
Hiroki Fukuoka: Continuity and Change in the Tradition of Natural Farming
Masanobu Fukuoka had little interest in matters of money-making. He spent much of his time in his hut on the hill, perfecting his farming methods and working on his writings. Consequently, the tasks of marketing produce and managing the household economy fell to his wife, children and grandchildren. It was, therefore, not surprising that when he became too old to care for the farm himself, his family took over its management. Initially, the farm was managed by Masanobu’s son, Masato-san, and now it has passed on to his son, Hiroki-san.
Masato and Hiroki Fukuoka have been far more focused on the commercial aspects of farming. Consequently, they have been considerably less strict in their adherence to the principles of natural farming, in order to maintain yields capable of providing adequate family income. Despite their more commercial orientation, they still are not using chemicals and remain committed to the general philosophy of natural farming.
Some of the main changes to farming practices on Fukuoka farm have come in response to criticisms from neighbours. During Masanobu Fukuoka’s lifetime, much damage was done to relations with neighbours in the village. His methods of natural farming were seen as highly unorthodox and he was reproached for leaving his fields unweeded. Masato-san saw it as his duty to repair neighbourly relations that had been damaged by his father. In some respects, rebuilding these relations entailed a loosening of commitments to strict adherence to the principles of natural farming. Some of Fukuoka-sensei’s prescribed irrigation practices, for example, had led to disputes with neighbours over the use of communal water resources – as Sensei would, at times, draw on water resources at drier times of the year. These unconventional irrigation practices have been abandoned. Other than this, the Fukuoka family’s use of the techniques of natural farming remain essentially the same: there is no use of chemicals, no tillage of the land and no use of composting. When we visited the field on which the family has practiced a wheat/ barley/ rice rotation, we found the straw of rice laid down across the ground, with the wheat shoots beginning to poke their heads through, just as Masanobu Fukuoka had taught.
When we spoke to him, Hiroki-san emphasised that the challenges of producing chemical-free foods are dwarfed by the challenges of marketing. Consequently, the family has not been overly involved in promoting the philosophy of natural farming (though they have welcomed foreign visitors over the past two years, who have come to learn more and soak up the ambience of the farm). Their focus has been on getting their produce to market. Hiroki-san has leased out additional lands in recent years, to focus on growing oranges and kiwi – two fruits that are very common in Ehime province and for which there is far greater market access for local farmers.
Beyond this, the family have been working hard to make sure that their produce is taken up by consumers. This entails consumer awareness efforts, not only in terms of the value of chemical-free agriculture (which is still not widely recognised in Japan, outside of the major cities), but also in terms of the plight of farmers. Hiroki-san draws attention to the fact that no young people are farming any more, as agriculture becomes increasingly unviable. Indeed, in Iyo, with a total population of 50 thousand people, there are only 20-40 farmers who are under the age of 39. This will pose serious challenges for Japan in the future, regarding how its food system will be reproduced. Hiroki-san suggests that consumers need to be willing to pay more for some food items, recognising the poor economic condition of farmers and the natural precariousness of their work, which is so dependent on the whims of nature. He stresses that farmers should be able to enjoy an average income and quality of life – yet at present, it is far below average and often entails poverty, uncertainty and distress.
Hiroki-san has had some success in finding reliable markets for his produce. In particular, he has been selling through the farmers’ association, local farmers’ markets and is selling to some consumers directly. Occasionally, he meets young people at the farmers’ markets, and their interest in ecological agriculture and the plight of farmers is certainly encouraging. Nonetheless, his view is that, at least in Japan, the consciousness of the younger generation is decreasing. When we asked if he has any optimism about the future of sustainable agriculture, he took a long pause and smiled and said that he has not yet seen his ray of hope.
The concern that Hiroki-san has is not only that young people don’t understand the ecological crisis, but also that they have no general understanding of what agriculture means. They have taken on the capitalistic assumption that agriculture is an industry. They do not understand the basic realities of farming – that it is highly integrated with the local ecology, for example, and that crop failures are the result of the whims of nature, not the fault of the farmer. He also suggests that Japanese society (much like in Western countries) has become overly obsessed with the appearance of foods. Like his grandfather before him, he emphasised that the concern for the aesthetics of food neglects what food is primarily supposed to be: healthy and safe. The primary value of food as a source of nutrition has been forgotten, and this does not bode well for farmers committed to producing the kind of nutrient-dense food that comes through chemical-free farming methods. To change this, however, requires more than simply continuing to practice natural farming: it requires a widespread and profound shift in consciousness. Not seeing any sign of this on the horizon in Japan, Hiroki-san has fallen into a similar despair as his respected grandfather.
Hope on the Hilltop
After showing us the fields on which he was growing a diverse variety of crops, Hiroki-san drove us up a winding road to the hilltop where his grandfather had lived in a small hut and refined his methods of growing fruits and vegetables in biodiverse natural environments. To my surprise, the land on the hilltop is no longer being used for any agricultural purposes. It has been left to nature and is undergoing a transition: from a biodiverse agro-ecosystem, to a natural, fruit-bearing forest. Following the ‘do-nothing’ philosophy of his grandfather, Hiroki-san only provides minimal intervention to encourage this transition. He estimates that he has only worked on this land for a total of four days this year: and that work was only to cut some bamboo that was beginning to dominate the forest too much. The rest has been left to nature, to find its own balance.
To the untrained observer, like myself, the land looks almost indistinguishable from a lush, natural forest. Wild daffodils sprout up through the mosses and groundcover plants and loam that cover the soil. Fruit of persimmon and orange hang from the canopy above, where one hears the playful calling of so many varieties of birds. Occasionally, amongst the small trees and shrubs, one spots some radishes or rhubarb sprouting up, as a reminder of the farming that was once done here. The six huts of bamboo and clay that Masanobu Fukuoka had set up to cater for his many visitors have now gone out of use and one suspects that they too will soon be swallowed up by the forest.
The hilltop felt to me like a fitting tribute to Masanobu Fukuoka’s work and philosophy. As both Hiroki-san and his esteemed grandfather knew all too well, the human world can be disappointing. People fail to recognise the destructiveness of their actions. They hear wise words and they nod along in agreement, but they seem pitifully unable to change their ways. It is not surprising that this has led the Fukuoka family to harbour some feelings of despair. Yet amongst the birds and the peace of the forested hilltop, one starts to feel as if this is of little consequence. We are reminded to trust in nature’s incredible capacity for regeneration – something which Masanobu Fukuoka emphasised repeatedly during his life. With the right mindset and the right effort (often only a ‘minimal’ effort!) there is still some hope that we can heal the damage that we’ve done.
Acknowledgement. I would like to sincerely thank Professor Shinya Ishizaka, who invited me to Japan and suggested visiting Fukuoka-sensei’s farm. Shinya provided many of the insights that inform this blog, but any shortcomings of this post are my fault alone. I would also like to thank Larry Korn, one of the translators and editor of several of Fukuoka-sensei’s works, and author of the recently published One-Straw Revolutionary, for providing me with feedback on an earlier draft and giving important background information for my visit to the farm.
 The cards were published posthumously in 2009, under Fukuoka’s self-publishing company, Shizen-Juen (ISBN 978-4-938743-03-1