Natural Agriculture and the Food System
I would like to share a brief background about Shumei Natural Agriculture. Natural Agriculture has some fundamental guidelines. One of those is the belief in the quality of soil. Everything comes from soil, so you really do not garden or grow a plant. You grow soil. That is the foundation of all gardening and farming. The second fundamental guideline is saving seeds. In this way, seeds grow in purity over time when they are grown in the same location. You save the seeds because they become adapted to a specific location. The third fundamental guideline is continuous cropping, and this is a long-term process, very different from traditional agriculture. The goal is over time to plant the same crop in the same place. The theory behind this guideline is that the plant becomes acclimated to that place, and that place becomes acclimated to that plant, so they become coexistent over time. Another aspect of Natural Agriculture is community; the farmers and those that they serve become part of the farming food chain.
And lastly, there is the spiritual growth. Natural Agriculture comes from a philosophy that very much believes that growing is not only a physical process, but also a spiritual process. And when we say spiritual we do not necessarily mean religion per se, but more the energy that is imbedded in Natural Agriculture plants, the energy generated by the farmer and gardeners, and the energy received by the consumer when they eat Natural Agriculture food. This is the basis of Natural Agriculture farming and gardening.
I would also like to talk a bit about the environment that we live in and the role of consumers. Are any of you consumers? I think so. Do you eat? So yes, you are a consumer. And most importantly, I would like to talk about the connections between the farmer, the consumer, and the environment. I would like to talk about these connections, because even if you are not a farmer or gardener you certainly are a consumer, and thus you are part of a whole food system. And these connections are what make Natural Agriculture very special, because this approach to agriculture is very different than other agricultural practices.
If you were in the scientific community you would ask, what is a food chain or a food system? This is what we look at when we analyze the process of food production. We have production, processing, distribution, marketing, consumption, composting, and then it starts all over again. As you go from one activity to the next, you are going down the food chain. All of these activities together make up what is called a food system. Each of us is involved somewhere in this system, as the farmer, consumer, distributor or maybe in several of these roles. We are all involved. We do not just live off of air. We are somewhere involved in this food system. And Natural Agriculture is involved in the entire food system.
So, what is the first link in a food system? The first link is the farmers. The farmers connect to the land where they grow their crops; they connect to their families; they connect to those that they work with; and they connect to the customers. Hopefully they connect at all of these levels. Some agricultural processes and some agricultural producers do not have these linkages. They may just go out and sit on their tractor (I do not have any problem with that, I have a tractor.) They get on their tractor, they grow their crops, they go home, and somebody else takes care of the remaining steps in the food chain. In Natural Agriculture, the farmer is involved in every aspect of the food system. Let us look at some examples.
Learning from Nature
Young farmers in Japan are always trying new things. Natural Agriculture is not a prescription farming method beyond the basic principles discussed earlier, the care of the soil, saving seed, and types of cropping patterns. All of us are researchers too. We are constantly looking at how we can improve what we are doing. Why is that? It is because every year, nature tells us something new, nature gives us new ideas. We learn from nature, we grow from nature, and therefore, we improve how we grow our crops. What crops we grow and where they go may continue to change until we find just the right combination. Sometimes a lettuce plant will move all over a farm before it finds its right home. That is part of our learning, and that is part of learning from nature. Some farmers like to use equipment and are experimenting with equipment all of the time.
Above is a picture of me in Virginia on my farm, with my super assistant. That is my new puppy, a blue heeler or Australian sheep dog. My neighbor thought I needed a good dog on the farm. Well, we do not have cows or sheep to herd, so he herds me. But he is in training to herd chickens in the future.
My connection to my land is very different from the farmers here at the Shumei Santa Cruz farm and all of the workers here, because our environment is very different. East Coat, West Coast, Central, North, South, different parts of the country have different environments. The land is different. The climate is different. The soil is different. Virginia is green and lush because we get a lot of water—very different from California. Our nature is different. A Natural Agriculture farmer in California has to learn about their place. The farmers in Japan have learned about their place. I had to learn about my place in Virginia. Each of us has a different natural habitat, a different nature, and that is the key to and core of Natural Agriculture. You just do not go out and plant something and grow something, you observe and learn what nature tells you to grow.
As an example of differences in farms, and how the farmer has to look and listen to nature, my crops are grown very differently from those grown by Masa Noda, Santa Cruz’s Farm Manager. I have a totally different environment. We started plowing a couple of years ago and saw that we had very deep soil, very clay soil. In California at Santa Cruz, the soil was very sandy, very dry. But as I started farming I had to look at my farm and ask, what does my farm what to teach me? We grow a multitude of crops. We use a lot of mulch, which you cannot in Santa Cruz, because you simply do not have the rainfall to grow that much hay. We mulch two to three feet deep, so it is a very different system. We grow peanuts next to blue, yellow, and white green beans. We use a lot of mulch. We apply it very heavily, about one to two feet. The primary reason is so we do not have to weed. We have lots of weeds. Weeds are probably the worst things for farmers. They spend a lot of time weeding. But we mulch our weeds away, and it works very well.
So the farmer’s connection is to the land. Masa and I once farmed together in Southern California for several years before he came to Northern California. He and many other Japanese Natural Agriculture farmers have come to farm in the United States. Because Japan is very green and very wet, very much like the eastern U.S., they came here and it seemed like a desert. They ask, “How do you grow here? We don’t know how to do this. Can we do Natural Agriculture here?” And yes, they could, because again Natural Agriculture is not a formula for all farms to use one specific method. It is not about ‘do this, do this, and then do this.’ It is about how do you relate to your place, to your location.
Often the entire family is involved with the work on the farm, either helping in the fields or with the marketing. Masa farms for his family. His children have lived on the farm their entire lives. My daughter and my granddaughter live on my farm. They are connected to our farm. Not only are we farming plants, but we are also farming for our children, and our families. My granddaughter goes to the field almost every day when I go to the field. She plays with the dogs, finds earthworms in the soil. She has her own private tomato plant that she takes care of. It is a volunteer plant that she just took over, saying, “That is mine.” Everyday she eats the tomatoes that are on the vines. Children play and their fun is being out in the fields, chasing butterflies, making mud pies, and grazing on tomatoes from the vine. They are very much connected to the land and the land gives them health. What they eat and learn about living on the land is invaluable.
We are also connected to the people we work with. My farm assistant, Tilo, is from Mexico. His background as a young man was farming in Mexico, so he has a great knowledge about the land. My granddaughter watches Tilo work. And even though they speak different languages, they communicate about nature very well. She shows him earthworms; he shows her plants, flowers, and bugs. So this is their connection, with each other, and then I am connected with them, as I work with them. This is Natural Agriculture. We are not just growing plants, we are growing people, and we are growing relationships.
Most Natural Agriculture farms market their produce through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. This establishes another connection between the farmer, the distributors who prepare the crops for the CSA, and the consumers who are members of the CSA. Many different kinds of crops are grown in Japan, some similar and some different kinds of crops from those produced in the U.S. I am not sure what they are or how they grow, but they grow them in a Natural Agriculture method just like we do. Some of the distributors are staff. Some of them are consumers in the CSA that come to work on the farm to collect crops and bring them to a central location for processing. They are part of the farming operation, the farming organization. Natural Agriculture includes them, because they care about how they process the food. If a farmer grows delicious, wonderful, nutritious, fresh, healthy food, but these people in their distribution efforts abuse the food or are unkind to the food, or simply do not take care of it, then that degrades the food. Everyone is linked to this process of how the food is grown and how it is handled. This is part of Natural Agriculture. These are the connections.
Natural Agriculture helpers seem very happy as they sort and package crops for the CSA. I was always impressed with their enjoyment in their work when I visited farms in Japan. A lot of conventional farmers and the farm workers go to their farm and always seem tired. They say, “Oh, it’s hot.” or “It’s a long day.” We work in 100 degree weather on the East Coast a lot, and we get very sweaty. But we still have a smile on our faces. Of course we do not have smog, which I had in Los Angeles, so that helps. Natural Agriculture farmers and distributors always seem joyous, because they know that they are providing their consumers with the most healthy, nutritious food available.
The farmer also has a tangible connection with consumers through direct marketing, as in farmers markets, and when the consumers come to work on the farm. Most farmers do not know whom they sell to. Once the produce is off their farm, they do not worry about it. In Natural Agriculture you have a consumer relationship. You want to have your consumers stay healthy, and be grateful for the food they eat, and they in turn are grateful for the work you do to produce that food. Some consumers come to work in the field andhave parties. They are very much involved, and they give feedback to the farmer too. What was good, what was not good.
There is a story I once heard about a farmer and one of his customers. Because they had developed a solid relationship, a lady complained to her farmer that her sweet potatoes were too small. She liked bigger sweet potatoes. He was very gracious and thanked the lady for telling him her concerns. He told her, “You are part of my family, you are a consumer. I want to know what you feel, if you are happy with your crops and what you eat.” So he changed the variety, and grew a larger sweet potato. However, the year that he changed varieties, he had a crop failure. The lady never complained again, because she realized that the farmer was growing what nature had told him to grow, what he knew he could grow in his field, and what would work in those fields. From then on all of his crops even got better, and all of his consumers were really glad that he grew what he grew. So, there is a lot of karma in farming, because nature lets us know, and nature knows best. Sometimes we can change, and are allowed to change what we grow, and sometimes we are not. But this is a really interesting story because the lady realized she did not have a connection to nature. She did not understand why that crop was the way that it was. Why it was smaller. There was a reason why it was small, that is just the way it grows. But it was still nutritious. It was still healthy. And so consumers learn as they work with the farmers about Natural Agriculture. Natural Agriculture is not just teaching the farmer how to grow; it is also helping consumers understand the growing process and what nature is.
Natural Agriculture and You
I have talked about the differences between how farmers connect to nature, and the difference in farm types. But the often forgotten connection in modern agriculture is the consumer connections. What is your connection to the whole food process? You will have a connection to your farmer if you want to be a part of a Natural Agriculture system. You support those farmers financially by buying their crops. Philosophically, you learn about why the food that you bought is healthy, why it is different from buying organic or some other crops. Consumers need to become aware of what the farmer actually has to go through in growing their crops. And you also, hopefully if you are part of this system, will become part of nature. Part of the philosophy of Natural Agriculture is not only for the famer to become part of nature, but also for consumers to be part of it as well. There are so many people that live in large cities all around the world that have no connection, no understanding, no direct contact with nature. Natural Agriculture hopes to reconnect people. In being part of the Natural Agriculture food system, you will end up with a new lifestyle.
We are losing farmers rapidly all over the world. We are going to have a farmer crisis, because there will be fewer farmers to feed us. So you need that connection. You need to find a farmer and live with them in the sense of being part of their community. These connections change those who work with Natural Agriculture in an energetic way, in a spiritual way. In the sense that you reconnect with your community, you reconnect with people that like good food, you reconnect and are energized by the crops that you eat. One Japanese woman farmer produces fruit crops. Some of her family works with her, as well as retired community members. This work energizes them so much to be out on the land, and to be working with nature.
Natural Agriculture farms are producing the next generation of farmers. I am a proud grandmother. My granddaughter is three, and as I said, she goes with me to the fields. She is a budding entomologist. She can name most insects that we see in the field. She loves earthworms. She eats earthworms (what can I say?). She also is a grazer. She eats everything. The vegetables do not need to be cooked. She just goes and eats, and eats and eats. Sometimes we string up green beans, and pole beans. One time, the string became tangled and she was trying to get it untangled. She was very serious about the whole situation, trying to attach the string to the posts. She seemed very connected with the string and the string beans. I considered that she may be a budding physicist, learning ‘string theory’ and having to work through this process. She is a nature person. She is a very happy kid in her natural world. She loves soil; she loves to play in the dirt as all children do. Hopefully as we get older, we should all continue to ‘play’ with the soil. Did you ever go to a mud spa? I have never done it, because I work in the mud on the farm, but that is a different way of getting in contact with nature. My granddaughter is continually connecting to nature. She, like Masa’s children, has never been unconnected. She has kind of been there from birth.
We were picking watermelons the other day. The watermelon to me represents the epitome of nature. It is the essence of summer. You can just mush it in your mouth, and spit out the seeds. We had a lot of fun in a seed-spitting contest. That connection, at least in the South, is pure nature. That is our connection. A watermelon is beautiful, just gorgeous, all green and red. It is like a work of art, is it not? So it is not just the eating, or the smelling, or the taste, but it is also the vision.
So, we have the farmer connected to the consumer, the consumer connected to the farmer, but our primary connection should be back to nature. Standing in this redwood forest, how can you not be connected to nature and these redwoods? They are just tremendous examples of how nature is so strong, the liveliness in the trees. When I come into a redwood forest, I feel very small. I feel as if I am in my mother’s arms as a child. These redwood trees cradle me and I am listening to the heartbeat of nature. I smell the fragrance of redwood. This is really the epitome of our connection through the ages, because these are such ancient trees. This is a link in our heritage to with nature. The nature we come from. It is said in the bible that we come from dust and we go to dust. Maybe some of our ancestors are out there in the dusty roads that we are driving or walking on today. We are nature. We are connected. And this concept of connection to nature is what Natural Agriculture is teaching us. Hopefully you might take away this philosophy with you, whether you practice Natural Agriculture or are a consumer.
Nature is beauty, and that is another phenomenon of Shumei’s philosophy: the appreciation and sponsoring of beauty. We have sunflowers on the border of the field. A multitude of bees are attracted to the flowers. It makes our spirit very joyful every day when we come out and watch those flowers and the bees sitting on the flowers. The bees do not intimidate us, and the bees are not intimidated by us. We live happily together. The message I would like to express is that hopefully you will become more aware of nature, because to become aware of nature brings out the universal spirit in all of us.