Top | The Culinate Interview

Larry Korn

(article, James Berry)

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p(blue). A landscape designer and permaculture instructor, Larry Korn is best known as an editor and translator of Masanobu Fukuoka’s book The One-Straw Revolution, an eco-farming manifesto and spiritual memoir. (See an excerpt here.)

p(blue). Out of print for more than 25 years, this seminal text (championed in the 1970s by the likes of Wendell Berry and Frances Moore Lappé) has just been republished. 

p(blue). Fukuoka’s rice-cultivation methods influenced organic pioneers such as Lundberg Family Farms. He re-popularized the ancient seed-ball technique, in which clay-encased pellets of vegetable seeds and mulch, simply scattered on the soil’s surface, sprout after rainfall melts the clay.
p(blue). After studying soil science at UC Berkeley, Korn apprenticed for two years on Fukuoka’s farm in southern Japan. The two men remained close until Fukuoka’s death, at age 95, in 2008. Korn continues to lecture frequently on Fukuoka’s natural-farming concepts. 

Describe Fukuoka’s farming philosophy.
His goal was to develop an agricultural system that would pretty much run itself. He called it “do-nothing” farming. That doesn’t mean no work, just no unnecessary work. He lamented the fact that farmers had a lot more time to, say, write poetry before the advent of “labor-saving” devices. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Larry Korn"]In nature, trees aren’t pruned; branches fall off. He first tried not to prune anything. Within three years, he killed about 200 citrus trees. Because people had already pruned those trees, they needed to be taken care of. If nature’s already been affected, you can’t just walk away. People have a responsibility after that. 

He said it’s the same with soil. If the orchard has no topsoil, people are to blame. For soil improvement in his orchard, he planted burdock, daikon, and all the brassicas, ones with deep taproots that bring nutrients back up to the surface. Then he mixed in nitrogen-fixing ground cover: white clover and vetch. When he cut it, the clippings became mulch. Over time, that rehabilitated the soil.

Usually people create a new method by going, “How about if I try this? How about if I try that?” But his way was exactly the opposite: “How about if I didn’t do this? How about if I didn’t do that?” (Read about Fukuoka’s four farming principles — no plowing, no fertilizer, no weeding, no chemicals.)

What was life like on his farm?
He had two acres of rice and barley fields and 10 acres of \[Satsuma orange\] orchards, where students lived in mud-walled huts, working the farm chores. There were about 10 or 12 of us there at the time. He gave us 10,000 yen, about $35 a month at the time, to buy cooking oil and soy sauce, things that were very difficult to make on a small scale. Everything else we produced ourselves or gathered from the mountain around the orchard. He thought if you lived like that and got close enough to nature, you developed the sensitivity necessary to farm using his natural techniques.

What made Fukuoka’s rice unique?
His rice plants looked completely different than the rice grown by conventional farmers. They were two-thirds as tall, short and stocky, really dark olive green instead of a pale color. There were more grains to the head. The field was messy, with beneficial insects everywhere, and clover and herbs growing all over. 

The reason the rice looked that way was because the field hadn’t been plowed for 25 years. He stopped flooding his rice fields all season, like they’ve been doing for weed control in Japan for 2,000 years. He only flooded the field for 10 days, during monsoon season. He thought rice, even paddy rice, grows much better without all that water in a flooded field.

He grew rice and barley in the same field, each year, without plowing, without chemicals or prepared fertilizer, yet the soil actually improved. He got yields that were comparable to his neighbors, without using the tractors and the fossil fuels, without creating pollution or running the soil down with each passing season.

[%image rice float=right width=400 caption="Larry Korn and Masanobu Fukuoka, in a field of barley, in 1973."]How did he cultivate other crops?
To plant vegetables, he’d shake up a bag of seeds, scatter them here and there, and then cut the surrounding weeds down for mulch. He knew that 95 percent would not make it, but five percent would. He wanted to take out the human intellect, that process that says tomatoes are going to like it here, and the greens, because it’s shady, will like it there. He went in whatever direction nature told him to go. 

A patch of daikon or cucumber, for example, reseeded itself. They could be anywhere. The flavor of those vegetables gradually became more bitter, reverting back to the flavor of its earlier predecessors. But you actually start loving the bitter flavor and the way it makes your body feel. 

Explain the book’s title.
Most people think straw is useless, but it is crucial to Fukuoka’s way of farming. He generated huge amounts of straw growing the rice and barley crop and then spread it everywhere  in his grain fields and in the orchard where it became soil-building mulch. 

If people would only realize the value of this thing that most consider so insignificant, he said, we could start a revolution. With this one straw, we could change the whole degenerative momentum of modern agriculture. 

p(bio). Laura McCandlish, a food writer and radio host, blogs at

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