Natural farming is an ecological farming approach established by Masanobu Fukuoka (1913–2008), a Japanese farmer and philosopher who described his agricultural philosophy as shizen nōhō. It is also referred to as “the Fukuoka Method”, “the natural way of farming” or “do-nothing farming”.
The title refers not to lack of labor, but to the avoidance of manufactured inputs and equipment. Natural farming can also be described as ecological farming and is related to organic farming, sustainable agriculture, agroforestry, ecoagriculture and permaculture but should be distinguished from biodynamic agriculture.
The system exploits the complexity of living organisms that shape each particular ecosystem. Fukuoka saw farming not just as a means of producing food but as an aesthetic or spiritual approach to life, the ultimate goal of which was, “the cultivation and perfection of human beings”. He suggested that farmers could benefit from closely observing local conditions. Natural farming is a closed system, one that demands no inputs and mimics nature.
Fukuoka’s ideas challenged conventions that are core to modern agro-industries, instead promoting an environmental approach. Natural farming also differs from conventional organic farming, which Fukuoka considered to be another modern technique that disturbs nature.
Fukuoka said that his approach prevents water pollution, biodiversity loss and soil erosion while still providing ample amounts of food.Fukuoka distilled natural farming into five principles:
- No tillage
- No fertilizer
- No pesticides (or herbicides)
- No weeding
- No pruning
- Tilling may destroy crucial physical characteristics of a soil such as water suction, its ability to send moisture upwards, even during dry spells. The effect is due to pressure differences between soil areas. For more on this subject see water potential. Furthermore, tilling most certainly destroys soil horizons and hence disrupts the established flow of nutrients.
- Tilling over-pumps oxygen to local soil residents, such as bacteria and fungi. As a result, the chemistry of the soil changes. Biological decomposition accelerates and the microbiota mass increases at the expense of other organic matter, adversely affecting most plants, including trees and vegetables. It is well-known to gardeners and farmers that for plants to thrive, a certain quantity of organic matter (around 5%) must be present in the soil.
- Tilling uproots all the plants in the area, turning their roots into food for bacteria and fungi. This damages their ability to aerate the soil. Living roots drill millions of tiny holes in the soil and thus provide oxygen. They also create room for beneficial insects and annelids (the phylum of worms). Some types of roots contribute directly to soil fertility by funding a mutualistic relationship with certain kinds of bacteria (most famously the rhizobium) that can fix nitrogen.
Though many of his plant varieties and practices relate specifically to Japan, and even to local conditions in subtropical western Shikoku, his philosophy and the governing principles of his farming systems have been applied from Africa to the temperate northern hemisphere. In India, natural farming is often referred to as “Rishi Kheti”.
Principally, natural farming minimises human labour and adopts, as closely as practical, nature’s production of foods such as rice, barley, daikon or citrus in biodiverse agricultural ecosystems. Without ploughing, seeds germinate well on the surface if site conditions meet the needs of the seeds planted there.
The ground always remains covered by weeds, white clover, alfalfa, herbaceous legumes, and sometimes deliberately sown herbaceous plants. Ground cover is present along with grain, vegetable crops and orchards. Chickens run free in orchards and ducks and carp populate rice fields.
Periodically ground layer plants including weeds may be cut and left on the surface, returning their nutrients to the soil, while suppressing weed growth. This also facilitates the sowing of more seeds in the same area.
For summer rice and winter barley grain crops, ground cover enhances nitrogen fixation. Straw from the previous crop mulches the topsoil. Each grain crop is sown before the previous one is harvested by broadcasting the seed among the standing crop. The result is a denser crop of smaller but highly productive and stronger plants.
Fukuoka’s practice and philosophy emphasized small scale operation and challenged the need for mechanised farming techniques for high productivity, efficiency and economies of scale. While his family’s farm was larger than the Japanese average, he used one field of grain crops as a small-scale example of his system.
In ecology, climax ecosystems are mature ecosystems that have reached a high degree of stability, productivity and diversity (see old-growth forest). Natural farmers attempt to mimic those virtues, thus creating a comparable ecosystem, and employ such advanced techniques as intercropping, companion planting and integrated pest management.
Natural farming recognizes soils as a fundamental natural asset. Ancient soils possess physical and chemical attributes, which render them capable of generating and supporting life abundance. It can be argued that tilling actually degrades the delicate balance of a climax soil in the following ways:
Food chain in the Bhagavatam
Flowers & fruits etc., the produce of the immobile creatures (trees and plants) constitute the food of the mobile ones; the footless (grass, sprouts etc.), of those walking on feet (graminivorous quadruped like horse); (from among the quadruped) the handless (deer etc.) are the food of those provided with hands (lion and other carnivorous beasts); while quadrupeds (such as the products of milch cattle) as well as the annual plants (cereal crops) are the source of food for human beings.