Shumei Natural Agriculture Farm, Wiltshire
However loudly we voice our respect for Nature’s intelligence, when it comes to growing food, whether on a commercial or an amateur basis, we’re reluctant to rely on it. Instead we act as if the soil had little life of its own. The worldwide and slowly expanding network of Shumei Natural Agriculture farmers believe that it is time to let Nature show us the way. The simplicity of their methods may challenge our deeply entrenched ideas but their results are impressive. Perhaps trusting in the power of the soil could be of greater help to us than we imagine?
The ideas behind the Shumei approach to agriculture began with Japanese philosopher and naturalist, Mokichi Okada. They were part of a wider vision he developed during the 1930s, of a world transformed through our collective effort, into one of truth, virtue and beauty. An important element in this transformation was the restoration of our relationship with nature. The best way to do this, he advised, was to learn, through our food growing and consuming, to partner rather than to control the soil.
One way to approach Shumei Natural Agriculture is to see it as an extension of the ideas behind permaculture and organic growing. It takes respect for the soil one step further. Unlike the organic method, it encourages growers to avoid crop rotation. Unlike permaculture, it advises them not to fertilise their soil, no matter how sustainable the process.
There are no rules about watering, weeding or tilling. It’s believed that every piece of land is different and that each grower will develop a unique understanding of what is needed based on his or her own observations.
However, if the soil is dry, mulching with leaves and grass clippings from around the planting area is encouraged. The thinking behind this mulching is important. The grower’s intention is to keep the soil moist and soft rather than to feed it. Practitioners demonstrate in their thoughts and actions that the soil is capable of feeding itself.
Shinya Imahashi runs a small demonstration farm in Wiltshire that follows the Shumei method. After five years of trusting the Wiltshire soil to grow his crops, he sent a soil sample from his potato patch to NRM Laboratories for analysis. Rather than losing vitality, continuous cropping with potatoes had improved the health and the microbial activity of the soil. Not only that, but the potato harvest had increased during every one of those five years. Why were the results so contrary to those we’ve been taught to expect?
Mokichi Okada’s answer might have been that it is because we’ve forgotten the power of the soil. He advised his students that any initial success with feeding the soil is temporary. In the long term, fertiliser weakens the soil, damages seeds, plants and our health. If, on the other hand, we recognise that the soil has everything it needs and allow it to build a relationship with the same crop year after year, it is revitalised. The seeds collected grow healthier with each generation and develop into plants better able to resist disease and extremes of climate.
Experiments in Japan suggest that growing crops by this method may also improve their shelf life. Photographic evidence shows that after two weeks of storage in sealed containers, vegetables grown without fertiliser of any kind lasted far longer than those grown by organic or non-organic methods.
However intriguing this may sound, switching from our current way of growing to Shumei Natural Agriculture can take a season or two. The Japanese philosopher’s warning was that crops grown from seeds weakened by years of soil feeding take time to recover their inherent ability. The soil also needs to free itself of dependence on fertilisers.
In Japan, consumers of Shumei produce volunteer in the fields where their food is grown. They ‘ve begun to appreciate the complex role of Nature in the food growing process and a relationship based on cooperation and understanding has built up between them and their farmer.
As we might expect, since reconnecting with the soil and the food they eat, these consumers report an improvement in their quality of life. It’s rather more surprising to learn of the many testimonials the Shumei organisation has received about reductions in food allergies. This alone makes trusting in the power of the soil worthy of investigation.
For more information on Shumei Natural Agriculture and the Yatesbury model visit: shumei-na.org and shumei.eu/yatesbury
A longer version of this article can be found in Resurgence Magazine Jan/Feb 2016