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Natural Farming (Fukuoka) and No-Till - To incorporate residue or not?  RSS feed

 
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Greetings! This is my first time visiting permies.com and the forums. I tried searching but could find no advanced search option (e.g. search exact matches in topic titles only).

So if the answers I'm looking for can be found elsewhere in the forum, my apologies for not knowing how to search correctly. Please educate me!

This is a question for 100% no-till folks out there. I've only recently been exposed to Masanobu Fukuoka's "Natural Farming" and, in general, I find it fascinating and something to aspire to. I'm a homesteader so I have great flexibility in how I can garden/farm. His principle of "no cultivation" has morphed into "Disturb the soil as little as possible" by most practitioners it seems. I definitely want to hold to this principle.

But as Edward Faulkner has (and everyone who has followed the matter since have) pointed out that the decomposition of crop residues and organic matter is chiefly done by microbes in the soil. The general recommendation of many post-Faulkner, no-till folks is to "lightly" incorporate residues and organic matter into the top couple of inches of soil (let us handwave by what means for now) - just don't plow!

Again to the 100% no-till people: if useful residues and organic matter are on the surface of the soil rather than IN the soil, this would this would seem to be less-than-ideal for the soil microorganisms. Is the benefit of not disturbing the soil (as it would have been if the residues were incorporated) going to offset the lack of contact between the soil microbes and the residues?

I have no doubt if left unincorporated on the soil surface, still some nutrients will find their way down into the soil and root zones where they are needed. But are we going to see a sluggish process and possibly lose volatilized compounds to the atmosphere? Ammonia released in the root zone is far more useful than ammonia released into the air.

We have a fair amount of raised beds that we intensively plant. While I want to practice natural farming as much as possible, we don't have unlimited space and the growing season is not long. We are trying to grow our food so efficiency is important. Hence my curiosity.     

I will admit I am currently ignorant of the finer points of occultation. I am in my winter research mode, I just simply have not yet got to Fortier's The Market Gardener. It's on the reading pile and I hope to be starting it within the next two weeks.

Of course an answer could be reached by actually testing the difference myself. But I need to buy equipment to do my incorporation. If NOT incorporating were a viable course of action for us, then I would need less equipment and have fewer chores. Finding balance can be tricky sometimes. Thanks for reading!
 
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Hi Bub Rub, and welcome to Permies.

How important it is to incorporate your residues into your soil versus how important it is not to kill the soil life by disturbing it overmuch is a balancing act, in my book.

What does your soil analysis say about the organic content of your soil?

Incidentally, if you haven't had a soil analysis done, it would probably help to answer any number of questions you're bound to have to contend with as you proceed. It's a great way to save time and energy, and cut down on the guesswork.

As to your question, I think it depends on the structure and composition of your soil. If you have voracious macrobiota tunneling around, grabbing organic matter from the surface and dragging it down (I forget which species, but I have been told, and have read somewhere on this site, that some species of worm take organic matter down into the subsoil with them to feed the bacteria and fungi they eat), incorporating those residues will happen because of your tiny subterranean work crews.

If the soil life is abysmal, this won't work for you, and you will have to do more of the incorporation yourself.

I think it important to keep an eye on the specific reasons why tilling is bad. It's bad for the soil structure for it to all be a uniform particulate size, and it's bad for that size to be so small that on dry days, the wind just takes your soil over to your neighbour's place, or down the street, or into the river that might already have sedimentation issues.

From the biological point of view, we also know that it's bad for the soil biome to invert the soil structure. So going in with a plow that does this, even once, is going to be detrimental to what's already living there.

If that's the no-till garden you've spent years improving, and you have truly bumping soil life, that would be a catastrophe.

If you're trying to convert a piece of land that's essentially compacted clay, there's little to nothing to kill. The badness of the plow then comes from what it does to the shape of the clay, and how it would essentially smoothe over the clay at the bottom of its reach, creating another layer impermeable to roots or water.

In threads where this has sort of come up, having to deal with compaction and kickstarting a system to fertility and better soil life, the answer to compaction issues without killing off the soil life has been broad forking.

If you aren't familiar with the process, it essentially entails dropping the tines into the earth shallowly, leaning back a little on the handle to raise the soil on top of the tines just a little bit. The idea is to aerate the soil without inverting the structure, which keeps the soil life happy. Makes them happier, actually, as more air spaces give roots an easier time of pushing down through the soil, allows organic residues and whatever amendments to sift down through the cracks or channels temporarily made in the soil, and aids in water infiltration.

It is, in my opinion, an answer highly dependent on circumstance. Do you need more organic matter in your soil? Do you need it there right now? Or could you use it as a mulch layer for a while? If you need to incorporate some or all of it, you still don't need to till it in. There are many tools in the permaculture toolbox.

-CK
 
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Welcome Bub,

Good question, and Chris' answer seems sound to me as well.

The main thing to understand with coarse mulch is that you are creating habitats for soil and surface microbes. Its a bit like having a kelp bed versus bare rocks in a tidal zone, wherein the kelp provides shelter, food, and edges for many organisms that would die in open surf-sun fluctuations.  The coarse debris that you put down as mulch shields organisms from sun and weather and slows raindrops before hitting the soil, helping it absorb and drop sediments. Temperature and moisture fluctuations are also reduced. In addition, the coarser the debris, the more variation you get from the top of the mulch down to the soil in gradients of habitats. All this allows for a greater diversity and abundance of organisms to thrive, and will ultimately lead to greater soil fertility though increased organic matter and nutrient cycling.

The ultimate example of this coarse debris effect is in temperate rainforests, where you can find more diverse and abundant soil organisms than anywhere else (10x the biomass of tropical rainforests where debris breaks down too quickly to build up and up to 40,000 fungus and 1500 macro invertebrate species in a single tree's columnar network of life if I remember Noss' Redwood Ecology correctly).

If you are going to have to buy equipment to incorporate the matter into the topsoil, I'd say it's definitely not worth going beyond a broad fork, which you could still use through coarse mulch. Anything beyond that will expose your finer topsoil particles to rain, wind and sun, leading to erosion, compaction etc. Let the worms do the work.
 
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Welcome Bub, How learned are you on Fukuoka san's total ideas, have you read it all twice? Natural Farming is not a get it done this year type of system it is an over time system, that is partially dependent on a good soil microbiome already being in place.

The whole idea of No-Till is to keep the microorganisms intact, thus allowing them to build their numbers as the years pass by, it was developed as a way for farmers to no rely so heavily on killing their soil and then adding fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.
As time has marched on, many people have forgotten that even in ancient Egypt, soil was turned over before planting. The destruction of soil culminated in the US with the Dust Bowl era and No-Till was a way to prevent what had happened from happening again.
Rice paddy farming (what Fukuoka san was familiar with as well as other vegetable farming) starts out with a rich microbiome and he built upon that initial rich soil.

In the US and Europe, it is going to take a few years to get the microbiome to that level that Fukuoka started with and built from.
For the US, most people want to plant this year and reap a good crop of food, but they want to use a slow soil build system, this will work the second year, but the first year will be a disappointment to those who expect instant results.
If you know what your getting into it is easier to grow some of your food while you build the soil and after that first year of chop and drop, tea and extract enrichment, compost lay on, you will start to have darker, richer, more alive soil and your plants will reward your efforts year after year.

Raised beds are not exactly the ideal type of land for Fukuoka type farming, but it will work, it will just be a tad more work since you will need to bring items to the raised beds to lay down so they can rot along with the remains of what grew there that season.
In a commercial field you broadcast a  mix of seed and allow it to grow to near maturity then you either crimp roll it all or you cut and let it lay, as you re-seed with winter growing plants, the next spring you repeat the crimp roll or chop and drop and plant your crop seeds through the refuse.
For the farmer, this works very well. For someone wanting to grow things to eat that first year, the crop amount will be far less that what it will be in the years to come, because you first have to build some soil and the microbiome organisms.

Compost teas and extracts were developed to build bacteria, beneficial molds and thus encourage fungal growth. Later on the teas were discovered to do well as folar feed sprayed on the  undersides of the crop plant leaves.
I prefer to use both teas and extracts directly on the soil surface to build the microbiome and let that produce the microbiome on the plant structure. My research shows it to be a better long term use of the teas for long term improvement of soils.

The person just starting out has better and faster success if they take their organic materials and gently work them into the top six inches of their soil. Next is to brew up some compost extract with heavy aeration to promote bacterial growth then apply that to the surface of their gently turned soil.
This injects healthy amounts of bacteria and slime molds along with the foods these organisms love to eat into the soil where they reproduce like a wild fire spreads in a 30 mph wind. End result is soil that will begin to rot away chop and dropped materials within just a couple of days and everyone can live happily ever after.

Redhawk
 
Bobby Reynolds
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My apologies. I had a very busy day yesterday and crafted a huge reply touching on all the points raised. The reply was crafted over many hours, which apparently the system doesn't like. And it probably took a total of two hours to craft. So I did reply but it vanished into the ether...

Thank you all so much for your questions and tips!! I do not have the time to re-create my reply right now. I'm up to my eyeballs in preparation for the next season and I'm behind on my reading/research.

If I can find the time to re-create the reply I will. But for now know everything posted has been a huge help and I think I have the beginnings of a plan (subject to revision, of course). Thank you all for taking the time and energy to help out!!
 
Bobby Reynolds
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For posterity's sake, I should finish this thread! Again thanks to you all for the contributions. They were a big help and, after having completed my winter's research, I have a direction forward. I am going to try NOT incorporate and see what happens :)

Point of clarification: I have two different "zones" I'm managing: the raised bed veggie garden and the orchard/green manure/grain fields. The raised beds are not planned to be a natural farming practice pre se. They are intensively planted, for instance. The orchard/fields are intended to be naturally farmed.

The raised beds have great organic matter content, but lacked macronutrients and may have been overly acidic (33% peat). We did not do soil testing on them after building them. But we WILL be testing them for pH and macronutrients as soon as the snow melts. I will amend them in keeping with those test results. Because of the intensive planting of these beds they can't be truly "naturally farmed." But I think I can get VERY close. Last fall we did a lasagna bed treatment on the raised beds. This year we will incorporate the remaining lasagna residues into the top 2-3 inches bed soil using just hand cultivators. After than I will declare them officially no-till :) We are going to adopt a mixture of living mulch, green manure mulch and straw. Only harvesting root crops will require disturbing the soil (and I'm going to try planting potatoes and sweet potatoes shallowly under thick straw mulch to keep them from growing too deep. At the end of the season all plants will be cut off at the soil level and the roots left to decompose over winter. Our mulching for fall/winter will hopefully be at the point the following spring where the mulch can simply be pulled off the surface for planting/soil warming, and replaced after plants are established. We are committed to no chemicals/sprays, opting to let pest disease problems strike and dealing with them manually as best we can. We would both rather lose a crop than disrupt the biome that is trying to restore balance after having been forced to exist in such an unnatural state for so long.

The orchard is intended to be naturally farmed. Since I'm just starting it this season it will be what Fukuoka-san called Hinayana natural farming. Over time I will hopefully learn the art of "true" natural farming. In the mean time I have to use my "discriminating mind" just to get the ball rolling and here's what it came up with: the orchard will have the trees in a grid pattern and each square of the grid will have about a 40 ft x 40 ft field in it. The soil has excellent mineral structure (silt loam), but is low in organic matter and macronutrients. It is currently covered in a poor sod, heavy in clover and dandelions.

I will occult the fields then sow green manure, soil-building crops on then with clay seed balls. The soil building will be the only thing that happens to them this year. I will simply overseed the succession crop in clay seed balls a bit before harvest. Harvest will just mean mowing the green manure down and letting that mulch itself (I'll just uses a scythe and a rake). I will rob some of that residue for mulching the raised beds. But I don't think that will impede the soil improvement effort; if all goes as planned I'll have almost 10,000 sq ft of green manure fields and less than 900 sq ft of raised beds.

After one season of soil building I'll attempt to grow alfalfa and buckwheat (for food) on half of the fields, continue soil building on the other half, and add two or three more fields (soil building). In the third season I'll finally use the most fertile fields to try my first cereal crops.

It's an orchard so this is a long-term project. Since by definition I can't be in a hurry, I'm not going to bother incorporating anything. My soil may be weak now, but the organisms ARE there, they just aren't thriving. I'll try introducing various inoculants for N-fixing this season and maybe next, too.

The long term goal is to have about 13,000 sq ft (about 1/3 an acre) of fields checker boarded in about 1/2 acre of apple orchard with black locust nursery trees and some various N-fixing, food-producing shrubs. I would like to grow all the green manure I need to mulch the raised bed garden (to the point no longer needing to fertilize them), to produce all the grain we eat, all the straw we need, and to still allow enough green manure mowings to continue to accumulate more organic matter in the soil and maintaining nutrient availability. Fukuoka-style semi-wild veggies will most definitely find a home there in time! Growing all my own chicken feed is another longer-term goal.

Okay, don't know if that matters to anyone or not. I just don't like leaving loose ends. Thanks again!

 
Bryant RedHawk
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Sounds like a good plan Bobby.

Alfalfa is a soil builder as is buckwheat so that is a double duty crop set.

Don't forget that between the trees in the orchard you have the opportunity to grow vegetables or fruits like strawberries.

I know you will make it work like you want it to work.

Redhawk
 
Bobby Reynolds
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Bryant RedHawk wrote:Sounds like a good plan Bobby.

Alfalfa is a soil builder as is buckwheat so that is a double duty crop set.

Don't forget that between the trees in the orchard you have the opportunity to grow vegetables or fruits like strawberries.

I know you will make it work like you want it to work.



Thank you so much! I had doubts that my soil was fertile enough to succeed with alfalfa out of the gate. While clover grows here, the ground cover only just covers the ground. It's not flourishing. I figure giving it one season season of soil building with clovers, sweetclovers, sudangrass, buckwheat, straw oats, and some cowpeas (and some tillage radish since I don't have a broadfork - and I'm lazy) couldn't hurt :)

100% dreaming of those interspersed veggies. I'm hoping to definitely work the fruit angle, too! One of my shrubs is silverberry (aka buffaloberry). I hope I can move in some cane fruits in a season or two and - if I'm lucky - some hardy kiwis once the trees are a little more established!
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Fukuoka san was very big on soil building through increased numbers of microorganisms, as am I.
If you can find some mushrooms that are soil dwellers (as opposed to wood dwellers), gather some up and create a slurry to spray over your soil, they will start the fungal highway which will help increase the bacterial numbers.
Using aerated compost teas will help increase all the microorganism numbers and getting that soil biota up to par is key to being able to grow things well.

Redhawk
 
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I think that the best thing under fruit trees are animals. Since most fruit trees are small these days any type of fowl. I really can see a difference under the trees with chooks and without.
I have't studied fukuoka yet but isn't there one main difference - Japan has a very active earth (volcanoes and earthquakes) which makes the soil very fertile. America and Europe come second in natural fertility and here in Australia the soils are poor and weathered. That means that the approaches have to be matched to the country. And Japan is very moist.
 
Bobby Reynolds
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Bryant RedHawk wrote:Fukuoka san was very big on soil building through increased numbers of microorganisms, as am I.
If you can find some mushrooms that are soil dwellers (as opposed to wood dwellers), gather some up and create a slurry to spray over your soil, they will start the fungal highway which will help increase the bacterial numbers.
Using aerated compost teas will help increase all the microorganism numbers and getting that soil biota up to par is key to being able to grow things well.



Great ideas! I do have a mushrooms that pop up in the "lawn" at the edges of the woods. I'll see if I can can make use of those. I also have been building up a frozen batch of future compost waiting for the thaw to get going (mostly kitchen scraps and cleanings from the chicken coop). I could definitely use to make tea as well. Thanks again!
 
Bobby Reynolds
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Angelika Maier wrote:I think that the best thing under fruit trees are animals. Since most fruit trees are small these days any type of fowl. I really can see a difference under the trees with chooks and without.
I have't studied fukuoka yet but isn't there one main difference - Japan has a very active earth (volcanoes and earthquakes) which makes the soil very fertile. America and Europe come second in natural fertility and here in Australia the soils are poor and weathered. That means that the approaches have to be matched to the country. And Japan is very moist.



This orchard will abut forest, so there should be no lack of animals near by. Protecting the trees until they're established with be the challenge

Fukuoka's work is, at bottom, a philosophy. So it can apply anywhere. You're right, the techniques he developed were in the context of a specific climate. So the techniques may not look the same in other climates, but they will have analogous counterparts. I haven't studied how much rain Shinkoku gets, but I'm sure you're right and it gets a fair bit. The trick is knowing how to work with the climate you find yourself in His work dovetailed from farming into reforestation and combating desertification, so harsh environments can be approached from this perspective.

His grain fields had very good soil, yes. The traditional Japanese agricultural practices at a minimum maintained soil organic matter content and nutrient availability. But his orchard soil was completely denuded (for a few reasons). So he had to build that soil up before the orchard could flourish.

I've paraphrased this approaching-natural-farming idea elsewhere: human activity has injured nature. If we want to practice natural farming we must first help to heal the injuries; this means giving soil health and ecology higher priority than "production." Once the natural systems are restored, they will continue to build themselves while allowing for all our production needs (if we manage things wisely). Hope that makes sense!  
 
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