The Future is Abundant

by Larry Korn

The title of this article is a statement of hope and an invitation to join us in creating a new agriculture. The agriculture we envision is based on sustainable, ecologically sound food production and forestry methods, which are responsive to local conditions and human needs. 

We are inspired by this task largely by the work of Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka, author of The One-Straw Revolution, and Australian environmental scientist Bill Mollison, author of Permaculture One and Permaculture Two. Although these men live and work far from our region, they share a common perspective in their approaches to agriculture. Both emphasize the practical value of minimum tillage, tree crops, perennial plants, and soil-building combinations of grasses, legumes and nitrogen-fixing trees and shrubs. They also stress the importance of maintaining diversity and complexity, and of integrating plants, animals and human society into whole, self-sustaining agricultural landscapes. We believe that the principles put forward by Fukuoka and Mollison offer a solid starting point from which we can establish a sustainable regional agriculture.

Masanobu Fukuoka grew up in a traditional Japanese village where his family had lived and farmed for more than 1,400 years. He was trained as a plant pathologist, and at the age of 25 he experienced an inspiration caused him to question the fundamental principles of modern society and led to his life’s work in natural agriculture. He believed that many of our environmental and social problems arose from people living out of touch with nature. He returned home to his father’s farm where, over the past 40 years, he has been demonstrating the soundness of his ideas by applying them to agriculture.

Fukuoka’s approach is to interfere as little as possible with natural processes. He broadcasts his seeds in the season they would naturally fall, or lets plants reseed themselves directly. He does not plow the soil, but instead keeps it soft and enriched with a continuous ground cover of white clover. Instead of using tillage or herbicides to control weeds, Fukuoka uses the clover, a mulch of rice and barley straw, and a rotation of crops carefully timed to discourage weeds. As he explains in The One-Straw Revolution, “I ultimately reached the conclusion that there was no need to plow, no need to make prepared compost, no need to apply chemical fertilizer or pesticide. And so my farming has become this very simple way. It’s really no more than tossing out seeds and spreading straw, but it has taken me more than thirty years to achieve this simplicity.”

The greater meaning of natural farming, according to Fukuoka, is to learn to observe and accept the natural cycles of plants, animals, soil, water and climate so closely that they become part of you, and you a part of them. It is difficult, however, to come to know nature simply by looking at it. Some form of interaction is necessary. By sowing seeds and closely watching the results, we get subtle clues from nature. From these clues we can learn to garden and farm within natural cycles. Therefore, it is important to walk through the garden, fields or forest regularly, watching developments and applying this knowledge to future plantings.

In the year and a half that I worked on Fukuoka’s farm in southern Japan, I came to realize that his simple, yet sophisticated, growing methods were molded by local crops and conditions. Although many of his techniques would be difficult to apply directly to the Pacific Northwest, his work demonstrates how much can be accomplished in a lifetime of persistent effort and patient observation of nature.

Bill Mollison has devised a concept of consciously designed, self-sustaining ecosystems which he refers to as “permaculture.” His system, involving a great diversity of plant and animal species, emphasizes the importance of tree crops and other perennial plants wich have multiple beneficial uses in the landscape. The elements are designed into an integrated system which takes advantage of the unique conditions and attributes of each site. They are arranged in such a way that the species which require the greatest attention and care are located closest to the dwelling site, while the plants and animals that require less attention are placed on the periphery. By careful design, energies which enter the area from the outside, such as wind, sunlight, water, fire and wildlife, are encouraged or screened so they work to the benefit of the whole system. The idea is to design a perennial, highly productive ecosystem which, once established, will operate with a minimum of maintenance. Neither Mollison’s nor Fukuoka’s systems are “no-work” methods, but both are guided by the principle of reducing unnecessary work as much as possible.

Mollison’s ideas have generated a great deal of excitement, and some controversy. Some people question how such a diversity of native and exotic species will interact when placed together, perhaps for the first time. Others doubt that the planting of aggressive nitrogen-fixing species such as white clover, acacia and alder is compatible with the principle of minimum maintenance. It has also been pointed out that a greater number of interrelationships among species does not necessarily mean that the system will be more stable, as Mollison claims. This basic assumption of permaculture is still being actively debated among ecologists.

The reason for the controversy, I think, is that there are few models of working permaculture. Although based on years of careful research and observation, Mollison’s ideas are still largely theoretical, awaiting the authority of practical demonstration. The situation is similar to Fukuoka’s, following his inspiration for natural farming, but prior to his return to the farm. The proof of the usefulness of the permaculture concept will come with its implementation in farms and gardens in the Pacific Northwest and other parts of the world.

The various models of sustainable agriculture which are being developed in the Pacific Northwest and other parts of North America cannot be exactly like Fukuoka’s rice farming or Mollison’s examples of Australian permaculture, since specific techniques need to be adapted to local conditions. They are, instead, expressions of people’s diverse attempts to heal the damage caused by past exploitation and to establish a way of life and a way of farming which helps to fully realize human potential. More than simply gardening or farming techniques, natural farming and permaculture encompass an attitude and a way of life.

Developing a sustainable agriculture in the Pacific Northwest will help restore the health of the land and build stable human communities, and will provide a model to people in other regions who share our goals. It will take time, patience, and a great deal of effort, but by working together, sharing our experiences, and continuously clarifying our vision, we can share a future of sustained abundance.

From The Future is Abundant, A Guide to Sustainable Agriculture, copyright 1982 Tilth, 13217 Mattson Road, Arlington, WA 98223.