Interview by Brian Covert
LARRY KORN was a 26-year-old farmhand from the United States living and working at a communal farm in rural Kyoto in 1974 when he decided to go and see for himself an enigmatic farmer-philosopher he had been hearing about through the grapevine in Japan. The buzz among farmworkers was that this farmer was doing remarkable things with his rice, barley and citrus crops in the countryside of Ehime Prefecture on Shikoku, one of Japan’s main islands. Korn, fresh from a stay at a commune on the southern Japanese volcanic island of Suwanose and armed with university studies of plant and soil science in his native California, made his way from Kyoto to the village of Iyo, near the hot-spring city of Matsuyama. There, Korn was met at the rice fields of the Fukuoka Shizen Nōen (Fukuoka Natural Farm) by the farm’s middle-aged proprietor, Masanobu Fukuoka. It was a meeting that would change both of their lives and alter the course of small-scale farming the world over. Fukuoka, by that time, had not plowed his rice fields for a quarter of a century, but was still producing healthy rice crops that could compete with or exceed those of other local farmers in both quality and quantity. Nor did he use any pesticides or artificial composting or do any weeding. “Do-nothing” farming, he called it—following nature’s lead and leaving a minimal human imprint on the earth. Fukuoka credited this type of farming to a revelation he had had back in 1937 at age 25, when he experienced a spiritual vision essentially affirming the sacredness of nature. He soon quit his job as a young inspector of plants at the customs office of the port of Yokohama, and returned to his family’s farm in Shikoku to try and put his divine inspiration to some practical use. Over time, the “do-nothing” method of what Fukuoka came to call “shizen nōhō” (natural farming) was centered around the use of dried straw for ground cover and seed-filled clay pellets for diversifying the crops.
The modest success of his natural farming at that level, as Fukuoka saw it, had the power to heal both the land and the people tending to the land, posing a direct challenge to the destructive practices of modern-day industrial agriculture in Japan and beyond.