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Walking in the Footsteps of Fukuoka with Larry Korn

Following the Natural Farming workshop given by Larry Korn in Chiang Mai, Larry and Roman Eisenkoelbl (who coordinated this programme on Fukuoka’s method and also joined my recent workshop on native beekeeping in forest garden systems), I had the rare opportunity to host these friends. We talked at length about Wanakaset (forest gardening and self-reliance system) and I shared some of the history of Fukuoka’s visits and his impact on Thailand.

I was very happy to connect with a current teacher of Natural Farming who was close to the late Masanobu Fukuoka, and to be able to take him to see places also linked to his sensei. My wife and I are students of a local teacher who has also since passed away. Our “ajarn” (the Thai equivalent of sensei), Pooyai Viboon Khemchalerm, developed the philosophy and practice of Wanakaset. Fukuoka visited Pooyai Viboon on his first trip to Thailand; during this visit, Fukuoka commented “What you are doing is another form of Natural Farming.”

Larry Korn and I walked through the rather small area (less than 2 hectares) of very diverse forest gardens of Pooyai Viboon, accompanied by his son, Kunchit Khemchalerm, who now stewards the land that his father first started to transform from barren monoculture fields about 40 years ago.  While Kunchit, then a teenager, recalled only a bit of Fukuoka’s visit, in talking with Larry Korn, we found many similarities between the philosophy and practice of Wanakaset and that of Natural Farming.   As I have always believed since reading Fukuoka’s books, Larry confirmed that Natural Farming is more than a set of practices such as those his sensei used to grow rice and barley; it is much deeper, and applicable in any place and situation.   Larry also confirmed my feeling–core to Wanakaset as well–that the greatest teacher of all is Nature herself. While any one garden or farm may be a place of wonder and biodiversity, that individual property is still very limited. Like Pooyai Viboon, Fukuoka wanted most of all to help develop “natural people.” People who understand and practice the deeper ideas of Natural Farming–or similar systems like Wanakaset–in their own ways and places can all play an important role to heal the earth and close the divide and separation between “humanity” and “Nature.”

Perhaps this powerful commonality is simply natural; it is a core tenet of Buddhism, and I believe, was a common world view before the influences of colonialism and the market economy.  In Buddhism, this idea describes dissolution of the “ego.”   Korn’s book One Straw Revolutionary notes this commonality in indigenous cultures.

In modern science and language, we observe a separation between us “the humans” and everything else that lives and shares space with us.   Objectivity, a key principle of the scientific method, requires the scientist to maintain a distance and separation from what is being observed. However, with contemplation, we realize the deep truth that we are in fact not at all separate.  Each breath we take is an exchange with the entire plant world.   We are fully dependent upon the rest of life on Earth for our own lives. Our own bodies have more micro-organisms than cells. The philosophy promulgated in Western culture, however, is one of separation and even hubris, a proud belief that humans are above the rest of life, able with our superior intelligence to better meet our needs and resolve difficulties. As a result, many problems are created by humans.

Both Wanakaset and Natural Farming have demonstrated a second fallacy: that to be healthy, Nature must be separate from humans, ignoring the truth that we are part of Nature and Nature is part of us.   While I continue to wonder what is the role of humans as stewards of abundance in “do nothing” agricultural practices, I am convinced that “less is more.” Nature knows far more than we do and ultimately may reveal the answers.

As a practitioner and observer of Wanakaset, I realise that there is a need to restore the land’s health and ecological conditions so that Nature can manage everything on her own. Larry agrees that Nature, once broken, needs some help. In Fukuoka’s orchard, the mandarin trees (accustomedto years of pruning) could not resume their natural healthy form simply by being abandoned. We can imagine that during millions of years of evolution, Nature has known far better than mankind how to produce and maintain abundance; when we take control and greatly alter the conditions, a natural state does not return easily.

While there is no specific objective to “do nothing,” our ambition in Wanakaset is to be as lazy as we can be. Consider as an example, a healthy natural forest which requires no intervention at all, has no significant pest or disease problems, and has great diversity and abundance. Wanakaset follows a process to restore the health and ecology of the forest gardens we help create, but our ultimate success is to be able to let go. Loong Choke, another student of Pooyai Viboon and now a well-known teacher himself, happily shared that most of his forest garden now requires no management by him, but actually manages itself.   This success came only after a process of restoring the soil and ecological health with bananas, fruit trees, forest trees, and bamboo.   And yet, much of what is growing in his forest garden today was not planted by him, but by birds, bats, and squirrels.

Images from book about Pooyai Viboon Khemchalerm showing Fukuoka’s visit

Although almost no management is needed once the conditions of nature have been restored, we cannot say there is no role for humans. Observing the wonderful integration of different species and layers of life in Loong Choke’s forest garden, Larry commented on his deep sense of the happiness of the plants. In the past, we could all communicate and hear plants and animals; we have lost this ability and sense through our emphasis on ego and “separation.”.

Loong Choke responded that on much of the trail we took (an area he now rarely walks as it has little bamboo), he could sense that the trees felt ignored. In the past, when he helped restore a large forest area that has since become prime habitat for wild gaur, he observed that the trees grew much faster along the main pedestrian path from their office up the hill.   No additional water, just the human attention and appreciation, was encouraging healthful growth.  He began to shift the paths regularly to spread the benefit of this human appreciation to more of the recently planted trees. I have long felt that the plants and all of the rest of the life in our garden are very aware of our presence and intention. While I have not heard directly from the plants, I may catch some of this communication in the subtle form we call intuition.   So I attempt to listen and heed this advice, if only through a subtle feeling that a particular procedure is what is may be wanted or what may be best for the forest garden.

Larry knew an Indian farmer who had arrived on his own at a beautiful form of Natural Farming; the philosophy and practices Larry saw in Wanakaset seemed another example of how similar ideas and practices had evolved independently. He wondered how many people in this world had, in their own ways, come to find this path.  If this practice is a great truth, it is not strange to me that anyone who pursues a journey of learning, listening, and observing will also arrive at the same answer: Nature knows best.  And yet, because the conditions and needs in each place vary, each location may appear very different.

Pooyai Viboon was very much a revolutionary, who went completely against the ideas of his time promoting the “Green Revolution,” and completely changed his farming practices despite those people who wanted to see him fail.   Fukuoka’s “One Straw Revolution” was translated and published in Thai in the early 80’s. I cannot say how much Fukuoka impressed upon Pooyai Viboon, but I feel certain his recognition of Pooyai Viboon’s practices as another form of Natural Farming was quite encouraging.  Natural Farming was a seminal book for many people who were looking at ecological agriculture, sustainable development, and such pathways.  Because many of the current leaders of NGOs and similar movements had read this book in their youth, its popularity led to Fukuoka’s eventual Thailand visit and to his meeting with Pooyai Viboon. For Fukuoka to visit such a “crazy” farmer and pay his respects must have had great significance for the founder of Wanakaset.

When we visited Loong Choke’s 30-year-old forest garden (over 15 hectares set at the heights of Wang Nam Khiew not far from Khao Yai National Park), we had the chance to see another manifestation of Wanakaset. Larry immediately noticed a strong physical resemblance between Loong Choke and his teacher.  Loong Choke has often been mistaken for Japanese. His white beard and ordinary garb of an indigo farmer shirt in many ways resemble old photos of Fukuoka.

While their physical resemblance initially may have seemed a bit uncanny, Larry was more interested to explore Loong Choke’s experiences and views. While Loong Choke said he had already started on his path as a student of Pooyai Viboon,  Fukuoka’s lecture was not without meaning and he had learned from him as well. Loong Choke shared how he was able to attend the lecture at Thammasart University given by Fukuoka during his first visit to Thailand.  Loong Choke felt confirmed in his beliefs because Fukuoka, like Loong Choke, came from an agricultural science background and yet had found clarity on this very different path.

Loong Choke much prefers trees and forest gardens to rice cultivation, and believes that the ideas of Natural Farming is not limited to rice rotations.  (According to Larry Korn , Fukuoka may have preferred his natural fruit and food forest to his rice fields, but because Japanese farmers are judged upon their rice production, much attention was given to this aspect of his method.) Fukuoka also gave him the confidence to “not do,” despite his studies of farm machinery and chemical inputs in agriculture. Loong Choke has long maintained his three nos: no plowing, no chemicals, and no burning.  His gardens are another proof that this method works.

Loong Choke (Chokedee Paralonganond) in front of one of his many bamboo groves in his forest garden.

These days, most visitors come to Loong Choke’s garden to learn about bamboo and see his many beautiful bamboo groves.   His bamboo forest school is a place to learn about and see all aspects of bamboo, from bamboo cultivation and propagation to bamboo treatment, furniture making and construction. Everything is done on site, and there is absolutely no waste.  After bamboo becomes lumber of different sizes and stakes, small bits are used for bamboo charcoal or as feedstock for bamboo mushroom cultivation.   Loong Choke was quick to point out that bamboo is dominant in only about 20% of his garden and well integrated with other forest trees.  He also remarked that the main area of the bamboo forest school, where there are many beautiful groves of “Liang” bamboo, was planted very late.  In fact, he had tried most everything else before trying bamboo. It was bamboo, however, that took to this area and helped change the growing conditions from the previous alternations of flooded and muddy to overly dry. He really began his deep learning adventure with bamboo only a few years ago.

According to Loong Choke, the most challenging aspect of study at Wanakaset may be to find one’s niche. Pooyai Viboon found a path in self-reliance, largely focused around herbal medicine, but this path did not suit Loong Choke.  He had been looking into a sort of retirement when he was struck by the potential of bamboo. He was reluctant to cut down his forest hardwoods, but when he cut bamboo timber from a grove, he saw that it did not damage the grove which would continue to produce new shoots and timber.  This observation, along with many other beautiful and amazing qualities of bamboo, launched Loong Choke on his current journey to develop and share knowledge about this amazing giant grass.

Larry Korn’s own take on this evolution suggested that the events may not have been at all random, but that bamboo may have chosen Loong Choke.   Following the teaching of Fukuoka, and talking with Larry, this perception was my biggest takeaway from their visit.  Natural Farming is not about how to make seed balls and do relay-cropping; its essence is about listening to and learning from Nature. If we follow this journey long enough or the winds blow just right, then Nature may choose and speak to us.

I wish to thank Larry Korn both for his visit and his initial efforts to translate Fukuoka’s work, bringing awareness of this philosophy and practice to the world. His translation was followed by many other languages including Thai, and opened the minds and hearts of many to Natural Farming. Thais, including two colleagues of mine, visited Fukuoka’s farm in Japan; in turn, the Japanese sensei then made two significant visits to Thailand.

To connect with Larry Korn and the Natural Farming movement, visit  https://onestrawrevolution.net/

For upcoming Natural Farming courses, visit https://soilsunsoul.net/

To learn more about Wanakaset and similar systems in Thailand, contact me ([email protected]).

Photos by Roman Eisenkoelbl @ www.soilsunsoul.net

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Michael Commons

Michael B. Commons works to build the capacity of farmers organizations, NGOs, and social entrepreneurs from South and Southeast Asia in regenerative value chain development while practicing "Wanakaset-" organic agro-forestry + self-reliance with his family in Chachoengsao, Thailand, and he is an active member of the Thai Permaculture network and the Agricultural Biodiversity Community.

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