The Future of Farming

The Future of Farming

December 3, 2006

Sorry for taking a while off there. I see that the dollar has been breaking down in a notable fashion against both gold and other currencies, suggesting quite a bit more excitement to come on that front. This week, however, we will look a bit beyond such things to broader “economic” topics.

As I have been saying, my vision of the future is both more urban and more rural. Urban means dense enough that one does not need a car and indeed keeping one is a major burden. Think Manhattan or Amsterdam or Hong Kong, not Phoenix or Miami. There is nothing unnatural about urban living, and humans have been doing it since the time of the Sumerians (3500 BC). The Assyrians lived in cities, as did the Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. The Great Suburban Disaster (1945 — ), in which humans were so stupid as to build cities so spread out that they required motorized wheelchairs to get around them, will likely, some decades in the future, be regarded as a temporary aberration, like Maoism in China.

This week, however, we will look more at the rural side of the plan. Rural basically means farming. The rural areas will of course provide food for the urban areas — commercial farming — and also there could be a significant subset of people who are simply subsistence farmers. In other words, they grow food only for their own consumption, spending only a bit of time at this, and also have some other occupation. Indeed, it is not necessarily any more difficult to grow enough food to largely satisfy one’s own consumption than it is to maintain a typical exurban yard. One acre per family is more than enough.

Of course, since we’re dreaming here, it would be nice if our farming techniques were very Earth-friendly, and we could do away with all the artificial inputs and basic land abuse so common today.

There are two basic techniques that may be useful for our “family farms” of the future. One is generally known as Permaculture, and the other is sometimes called Natural Farming. Permaculture is more commonly recognized. Some permaculture advocates say that a person can grow all the food they need to live with about an acre of land and six hours of work per week, which is a lot less than most people spend commuting.

I am not a permaculture expert or indeed an expert of any sort of farming, but I will attempt to describe the philosophy behind the system. In short, Permaculture imitates nature by mixing together a variety of plants, which can then grow together. It is rather the opposite of today’s crop monoculture ideal. There are quite a few books on permaculture, which one can read if they are interested.

Natural Farming is a name applied to the farming methods of Masanobu Fukuoka of Japan, who embarked on a multi-decade project to find out how to grow food while letting nature do as much of the work as possible. While Permaculture “imitates” nature, I would suggest that Natural Farming is nature itself, or a sort of dance with nature in which the farmer guides natural energies toward the desired outcome. Fukuoka jokes that his Natural Farming techniques can support a person with three days a year of work. Fukuoka has also consistently produced the highest yields-per-acre of rice in Japan, and quite possibly the highest yields in the world, with continuous cultivation (no fallow periods) and no fertilizers, natural or artificial. There is no tilling of soil, minimal weeding, minimal pest control, no irrigation, and not much else being done either.

Oddly enough, there are not a lot of books about Natural Farming out there, perhaps because it is a plan that emphasizes “not doing” instead of “doing.” The heart of the technique is seedballs. “Just make seedballs” is Fukuoka’s advice. A seedball is a small ball (about 2cm) of clay and humus mixed with seeds. The “dirt” protects the seeds from birds and other seed-eaters, and when the seedball is “activated” by rainfall the seed is already slightly “buried” because it is surrounded by a bit of dirt. One can use a single type of seed, as might be typical of a rice field, or a mixture of dozens or even hundreds of seeds, as might be used for a vegetable garden. You just throw the seedballs out and let nature do the rest. This will create a natural mixture of vegetables growing together. They just grow like weeds. Whatever tends to grow best in a particular microlocation, with its mixture of sun exposure, soil qualities, water exposure, etc, will multiply while less appropriate species fade away. By mixing hundreds of seeds together, you give nature hundreds of options for what to grow there. That’s about all you need to know. “Just make seedballs.” Everything else can be learned, apparently, from personal experimentation based on this foundation.

Seedballs can be used for many things besides vegetable gardens. Fukuoka has suggested that deforested areas could be reforested by making seedballs of seeds of the natural plants found in a forest, and then dropping them from airplanes.

Here’s a good site about “Fukuoka Farming”:

Here’s a site about Permaculture: