I’m new to the site but not to permaculture nor to Fukuoka-san’s work and philosophy of natural farming. We have a small farm in Bakersfield, California and we have switched from organic practices to natural farming at the beginning of the year. I mainly was getting frustrated with our costs rising to grow food. I almost actually gave up on the farm. But we went to Eco Farm and got inspired and now more than ever with the virus situation, I definitely know I want to be a farmer. And we’re doing it the natural way.
I find a lot of people say they are doing natural farming but I really don’t think they are. Nature doesn’t prepare compost nor does Nature start a seed in a container filled with a medium that is environmentally exhaustive and then take that seedling and move it into the field where it wants it. I’m getting disappointed that people aren’t seeing the natural way.
With that said, we’ve been trying the last several months doing it the natural way and, well, it’s not easy to digest at first. There are many failures. But let me say what we have been doing. We don’t till the soil but we also haven’t ever so that wasn’t hard. We stopped using any fertility inputs, including prepared compost. The soil should have everything the plants need, right? We stopped weeding, too. I think this one is hard to understand. I think we might be better off using weeds as chop and drop mulch for other veggies. And we don’t used any pesticides or chemicals, but we never did in the first place anyways.
We grow mostly vegetables and we have had many veggies fail. I’m trying more heirlooms now than ever before to see if any could thrive in these conditions. I also lightly spread some mulch we have that is from our ramial wood chips. I be careful not to spread it too thick so that seed can’t push through.
I just basically wanted to jump on here and say we are a farm growing food for our community and we are trying the truly natural way of farming Masanobu Fukuoka-san wrote about. And it’s terrifying because I’m worried that Nature is so destroyed that we will keep failing. I don’t know.
One thing I did want to ask is if anyone else on here is doing the real natural farming and doing it as a production farm and not as a hobby or your own garden. I would love to hear from you!
Personally I find myself daunted by the immensity of the task necessary not only in revising techniques but also in my revising my tastes, patience and expectations in the pursuit of "the cultivation and perfection of human beings".
Just as you are frustrated by the efforts of others, other would be frustrated by your efforts. So rather than be frustrated, I think it wise to set your own foundation, as Fukuoka did, and then grow from there, as Fukuoka did.
Many choose to do stuff with compost. You are choosing to not use compost. Personally, when compostable material presents itself, I try to think of other uses for that material (animal feed?) and if nothing else presents itself, I choose to place it on the ground and put mulch over it. I think of it as Ruth Stout's method. I am not sure if this means that I share your school of thought or not.
You are advocating heirlooms. Since I have learned of landrace techniques, I am most excited about that - which means if I do it well, I will leave behind heirlooms. So on this point it seems we have a different philosophy.
I suspect that at Eco Farm you heard of dozens, or even hundreds of approaches. Some you may have thought "I will never do that" - but in a few years you find yourself doing exactly that.
My post here is an attempt to help rinse away your frustrations with others and instead embrace the diversity of others.
You say "Nature doesn’t ..." and you mention you use wood chips. Nature has no wood chipper. :)
There are many schools of thought under the permaculture umbrella. We try to encourage all of them, even those we don't personally prescribe to. I hope that you will do the same.
What is the "natural" environment of Bakersfield like? I've only been through the area a few times and my perception of it is largely fence line to fence line farms in the most big ag sense so I don't have a good context for what "natural" looks like in that area.
That said, exploring native food plants and their close relatives seems like a great place to start in the hunt for food crops that will thrive with less human contrivance.
Good luck and keep us posted on your farms progress. We'd love to see pictures too
”In making the transition to this kind of farming, some weeding, composting or pruning may be necessary at first, but these measures should be gradually reduced each year”. I think, when you start at the beginning, applying some compost or growing cover crops to improve the soil is what Fukuoka has suggested. Once the soil is improved, you should keep reducing these.
Also there is a reference that for kitchen garden Fukuoka San used compost from kitchen waste and wood ashes.
Check your soil test, the soil may not have everything plants need for optimum growth, some soils are deficient and no amount of good soil life will magically create a mineral that isn't present in the first place. Also each year you sell produce you remove minerals those have to be replaced one way or another. I personally do not add minerals to my soil but I understand that this means some plants will not do as well as they should.
Since you are doing this for money you need to really track costs and time, you also need to keep doing what you were to create an income as you transition. I do not know of anyone who grows for profit who uses these methods.
Other things to think of are that Nature does not produce huge vegetables that people will buy either, go look at a wild carrot root, or a wild cabbage, I have wild parsnips on my land, where they grow in the grass edges (their natural habitat) they are 1.4feet high and their root is the size of my little finger. when one makes it into one of my beds and I leave it for the flowers, it grows 3-4ft high and the root is as thick as my arm. For sales it's all very well having principles but you also have to have product.
Heath, as great as Fukuoka's method worked for him, he didn't live in a Mediterranean climate with no summer rain, and somewhat low rainfall the rest of the year, like you do.
You also may not have the same kind of soil that he had. The kind of soil you have, in addition to late spring/summer/fall irrigation needed, you'll be tweaking his method and possibly using parts of others.
While everyone else who gets rain in the summer has a great time with wet cardboard over weeds, that won't happen for you. Throw in some wind and that stuff will dry out, curl up, and actually suck the moisture out of the top of the soil.
I ended up using versions of Sepp Holzer's methods, but instead of Hugelkulture mounds, I used Hugelkulture trenches. That way all the moisture was conserved under the soil, and thick mulch, often starting with 8 or 9 inches, which quickly shrinks to 6 inches, ends up working very well. I also incorporated parts of Robert Hart's food forest methods, which would work very well in the heat of Bakersfield, especially with the canopytrees providing some humidity in the air.
If you have clay soil, the most important thing is not to let it be exposed to the sun, keep it moist, but not saturated, so the worms will come near the surface and do your tilling for you.
When the rodents got under the thick mulch, I used 3/4" rock around the perennials, then thick mulch between plants, but not around them.
And, of course, do it the way that feels good, the way that feels like it's not so much work. Being a farm warrior is only interesting for the first year. Mother Nature has plenty of surprises in store for you, so don't always choose the most effort-filled way. :-)
Don't fall for the My-Place-Is-Special, It-Won't-Happen-Here Syndrome.
And, of course, the most important thing about farming, regardless of the way it's done, is be sure of your market, and that you grow what people want. I never could talk people into unusual vegetables. The best sellers were lettuce, kale, tomatoes, potatoes, and eggs. In fact, considering the clamoring for eggs during the pandemic, it seems to be a worthwhile addition to a local farm under even the worst of situations.
Don't fall for the My-Place-Is-Special, It-Won't-Happen-Here Syndrome.
Thank you for your responses to my initial post. It's been a very interesting year. We're shutting down our farm after 3 years. Covid-19 has done a number on our local market and we actually have seen sales dry up. Now I am going back to gardening for my family and myself. I admire folks who can keep their farms rolling through these times and I hope they can keep up all the fantastic work!
With that being said, we did see some interesting things happen with the natural farming experiment this year. I observed that many seed balls did not work and I think it is because of the time of year that I made the seedballs. We tried to use less water this year than in past years, and I noticed that the top few inches of soil, even when mulched, would dry out fairly quickly. I threw out the seedballs in April, but I think it would best to do this experiment now when it is cooler, more humid, and wetter. I say this because I am now seeing random crops popping up everywhere. For example, I threw parsnips out in August because a guide said that is when you plant parsnips here. Nothing happened. Come late October, parsnips are all of a sudden growing everywhere. Sorghum, lettuce, squash, nasturtium and many other plants are all of a sudden coming up in all sorts of places.
I think I am going to try everything I want to grow in the fall. My thinking is that warm weather crops will hang out in their clay balls until the clay gets moist enough to melt away. When the spring comes around and the weather warms, I'm assuming the plant, like tomatoes, peppers, and other warm season crops, will sprout and begin to grow. I'd like to get them at least hanging out on top of the soil as our cool season rains come through so that when the right time and temperature comes around for them, they can access the soil moisture below and take off.
I really think it's all about timing with this method. I tend to let plants grow because I can learn a lot from these observations. I have random volunteer chard everywhere right now, as well as daikon, arugula, cilantro, and dill.
And here's the thing. They look perfect and huge! And I haven't done a thing! The soil has maybe a little mulch from previous crop residue but I'm not adding anything else to it. So I really do believe that plants do have the ability to express their genetic potential and the soil has everything the plant needs. I think sometimes the problem is we literally just don't put the plant there. So I've gotten pretty good at throwing thousands of seeds everywhere. I'd rather spend my money on that than other things.
So I am getting ready to try this again, albeit in my home garden. I'll be tossing out all my cool season and warm season seeds here in the next couple of weeks to see what happens. I think if it can work here, it can work anywhere.
I'll post some photos of the next round. Thanks everyone!
Damn Heath, really sorry to hear your farm fell victim to the madness. I think you're spot on with the timing thing in your climate. You've got a pretty narrow window to get that natural irrigation from the rain and all the guides are going to be written from the mainstream industrial ag perspective.
Definitely keep us updated on your experiments and hopefully the destruction wrought by this lunacy will be balanced by new opportunities for you out the other end
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