Friday, August 6, 2010

Weeding and the Spirit of Fukuoka

Everywhere on this trip (in Belgium, Portugal and India), I have met people talking about the book One Straw Revolution written by a Japanese man by the name of Fukuoka. I had never heard of this book or this visionary man, until I started this journey. Cyrille in Belgium first told me about it in the Soul Food bar, and then Yve talked about it in her urban garden, and Sreedhara described the beauty of Fukuoka’s system in the back of a jeep during a long ride between Pachmarhi and Bhopal. In the penultimate full circle, I write this now, in the heat of a monsoon night, across the yard from a house built in honor of this man. And while cataloging Navdanya’s seed bank I found rice varieties that he preserved and shared for the future of farming.

Fukuoka’s ideas are revolutionary, and rest on four basic principles: 1) no plowing, 2) no fertilizer beyond a little chicken manure and green manures, 3) no weeding and 4) no dependence on any chemicals. Sprinkled in with this is a fair bit of beautiful prose about nature and landscape, Taoist philosophy, natural diets, stories, jokes and just plain common sense. It makes for a fast, pleasurable and inspiring read. I found it free online (and you can too) here: Run, don’t walk, toward reading this book. I have no doubt that it will change the way you think about food and farming.

It has permanently changed the way I think about weeding, which has created some ethical and epistemological problems for me here, since we do a lot of weeding right now on Navdanya’s farm. The season of rice planting has just finished, and now we wait for harvest. And weed. Fukuoka refers to his farming as “do nothing” farming. Which doesn’t mean he literally does nothing, but he has created a system of intercropping that makes for much less work. He lets his “weeds” do the work of ground cover, soil building and fertilizing, which is a basic principle of permaculture and biodynamic farming.

For example, Fukuoka intercrops wheat, rice and white clover—the seeds of which are all sown at the same time. The wheat germinates and grows while the rice grains wait for rain. After the wheat is harvested, the field is flooded, either by irrigation or by rains (Fukuoka’s preferred method). The white clover is easily mowed (and makes mulch)after the wheat harvest. It is weakened enough by the short flooding of the fields so that the rice will germinate and grow above the clover. The clover is a nitrogen fixer, so the “weeds” he has planted, actually put back what the rice and wheat take out. A perfect, renewable system. Read more from him about vegetables and fruit orchards, please...

Fukuoka’s argument against plowing and weeding is simple. The act of turning the soil actually brings weed seeds to the surface, and bare soil is literally begging for cover. What we call weeds are actually plants highly adapted to growing quickly to protect the soil. We can do the same by planting things we want to grow in between our crops, or use mulches, both of which Fukuoka uses in his systems. I now think of bare ground as a wound, and find ways to sneak the weeds we pulled back over the bare ground. When I find myself a part of a team that is weeding, I say a little apology for the soil and try to think of ways to stop this madness.

I (temporarily) convinced Jai Singh of the effectiveness of mulch while we were weeding the flower garden. Some weedss had dried in a pile for a few days. Underneath, the soil was weed free and moist. The soil around it was dry and had already sprouted weeds. I suggested we arrange the pulled weeds around the flowers. He shrugged as he does often, and shook his head in that characteristic way that Indians do when they do and don’t agree, maybe, maybe not, koi bhatt nahin (It’s nothing). And then agreed to try out what I suggested, I think only because I was a minor pain in his ass about it. Nevertheless, a small victory.

Fukuoka argues convincingly that it is the appearance of a weed free patch of ground that makes us think the plants are healthy and more productive. In other words, we perceive this “weed-free” system to be better. His experiments with a variety of mulches and intercropping indicate that plants actually thrive and produce more when they are surrounded by other plants. They are not robbed of nutrients by competing plants; rather they are enriched by their mysterious associations in the soil.

In case I have painted a dim picture of Navdanya’s methods, I must say that not all the farming/gardening operates under the influence of a weed-free worldview.

Today I helped Sheela pick taro (also known as cassava, yucca, tapioca…) leaves for a delicious dish, I um, yum, love, but the name of which I have yet to nail down. (The word I thought it was turns out to be an insult in Hindi. Hello, learning curve. Look for future blog posts on this, never fear, after I get properly educated.) So, today we harvested the leaves of several volunteer taro plants growing with joyful abandon among papaya, lemon grass, squashes and some other mysterious “vegetable trees”. (More education and/or translation needed, here I’m afraid). I looked at this messy “weedy” mix with new eyes, and thought, how beautiful, how perfect. Just the way it should be.

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