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Zen and the Art of Food Production

Masanobu Fukuoka's "do nothing" philosophy makes a comeback.Frankly, I like doing nothing. I'd rather not knead bread for hours. Or dig up an...

Masanobu Fukuoka's "do nothing" philosophy makes a comeback.

Frankly, I like doing nothing. I'd rather not knead bread for hours. Or dig up an entire garden. When I make pickles, I put them in a jar. Add water, salt, horseradish, and dill. That's it. I don't sterilize the jars or boil the pickles in water for half an hour. I'm not a slacker. I just like the challenge of helping nature take its course, which involves little on my part. It's not that I'm against doing something. I just prefer doing as little as possible.

If I had a guru, he would have been the late Masanobu Fukuoka, a pioneer of do-nothing agriculture and the author of the recently republished book, The One-Straw Revolution, which Michael Pollan calls "one of the founding documents of the alternative food movement, and indispensable to anyone hoping to understand the future of food and agriculture."

On May 16, 1938, at the age of 25, Fukuoka, who had trained as a plant pathologist and soil microbiologist, gave up a career as a research scientist and headed back to his family's farm in Southern Japan.

Instead of sowing rice in the spring into a freshly plowed field, he tossed balls of seed into fields already planted with clover and grain in the fall. Come spring, those grains would mulch his tender, young rice seedlings-mimicking a natural process rather than introducing agricultural practices like pesticides or mechanical weeding. Similarly, when Fukuoka wanted to plant orange trees in a hillside of impenetrable clay soil, he grew nitrogen-fixing acacia trees and plants with long, burrowing taproots-comfrey, burdock, and daikon radish-which essentially worked to replace intensive digging and fertilization over a seven-year span.

In 1978, he wrote The One-Straw Revolution, claiming his rice and citrus yields rivaled those of conventional Japanese farmers-with far less work and money. Without chemicals, without compost, without pruning, without planting seeds underground, without plowing or mechanized weeding. Unlike conventional agriculture, where the newest technology makes the farmer's work busier, Fukuoka wrote, "I was aiming at a pleasant, natural way of farming which results in making the work easier instead of harder. ‘How about not doing this?' ‘How about not doing that?'-that was my way of thinking."

Despite its name, do-nothing agriculture is labor intensive, especially during harvests, and the ideas have not been widely applied in agricultural production. But they do appear to have won a scattering of adherents. Fukuoka has a following in India, where the organic farming backlash against the green revolution seems to be spreading and his methods have been adapted, in some form or another, by French farmer Marc Bonfils, California rice farmer Dick Harter of Cherokee Ranch, and one recent gardener in the Hollywood Hills. Fukuoka's ideas are also present in permaculture, modern succession cropping, and the guerilla gardener's seed bombs.

For me, the do-nothing concept also adapts well in the kitchen with basic, traditional canning and no-knead baking-and not just in miso and the wild herbs that Fukuoka advocates. Lactofermented vegetables and poolish bread doughs are simple alternatives to those bigger and better gadgets/ingredients, such as pressure cookers, sodium benzoate, bread machines, and instant yeasts.

While many modern food preservation books call for boiling, freezing, or dehydrating produce, the Terre Vivante cookbook includes really simple techniques for drying, fermenting, and brining. One recipe for chard ribs goes like this: Put chard ribs in a jar, add water, dump water out, add more water, then store the jar in a cool place. Other recipes require salt, like verdurette (a salted vegetable stock) that contains just herbs and salt, in a 4:1 ratio. Although the book recipes possess an Eastern do-nothing mentality, most came from traditional kitchens in rural France.

Another popular recipe that runs against the grain of modern, quick-rise bread baking is no-knead bread from Jim Lahey at the Sullivan Street Bakery in New York. Lahey's recipe requires no kneading, very little effort, and no special ingredients. And his pizza dough recipe is equally simple-three cups flour, one and a half cups water, ¼ teaspoon yeast, and oil. The only catch: The doughs take about 12 hours to develop. Because of the time and patience required, Lahey's breads sort of resemble Fukuoka's orange trees.

The book's lofty philosophical musings on how a careful attention to detail can replace unnecessary work may simply echo what many of us already know. Still, it's an inspirational read-even if you've never farmed, canned, or baked a loaf of bread. Now, if only we could all find a way to make a living doing nothing.

Illustration by Jonathan Park.

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