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Fukuoka-Based Vegetable Cultivation

Experiment in reducing labor for small-scale market growing.


Annuals establishment
Annuals Experiment 1
Annuals Experiment 2

In 1978, Japanese grower Masanobu Fukuoka described a new philosophy for growing food: “The usual way to go about developing a method is to ask ‘How about trying this?’ or ‘How about trying that?’ bringing in a variety of techniques one upon another. This is modern agriculture and it only results in making the farmer busier. My way was opposite. 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?’” (Fukuoka, 1978, p. 15). He then developed an innovative “do nothing” approach to growing annual vegetables: “In growing vegetables in a ‘semi-wild’ way, making use of a vacant lot, riverbank or open wasteland, my idea is to just toss out the seeds and let the vegetables grow up with the weeds. I grow my vegetables on the mountainside in the spaces between the citrus trees.” (Id., p. 66). He later described further details of his method (Fukuoka, 1985, p. 211-216; Korn, 2015, pp. 51-55). However, Mr. Fukuoka criticized agricultural science because it allegedly “divides nature into tiny pieces and conducts tests that conform neither with natural law nor with practical experiences.” (Id. p. 74). His former student, Larry Korn, repeated some of these notions (Korn, 2015, pp. 15-19, 25-28, 65-68). As a result, there has been a significant lack of research and experimentation evaluating Fukuoka’s method.


Other studies have investigated farm labor inputs like animals, illegal workers, and machines (Wallace 2012). They have examined the labor aspect of mulching practices in small scale, organic, non-mechanized vegetable production (Schonbeck, 1999). Experiments have measured the impact of similar methods like the Native American “three sisters” practice (Postma and Lynch, 2012; Mt. Pleasant, 2016; Zhang et. al., 2014). There is also a conceptual basis for the benefits of diversified plantings (Chapin, et. al., 2009, p. 45). But there has been no study or experiment to determine the labor inputs, impact, and potential benefits of Fukuoka’s method.


This provides an interesting opportunity to design an experiment that would satisfy Fukuoka’s conception of “natural law and practical experiences” and evaluate the effect of his method on labor costs. This is important because vegetable growing in the United States is “labor intensive” and growers are vulnerable to labor costs, immigration reform, and the need for labor-saving remedies (Calvin & Martin, 2010). In addition, there has been some conflict on the potential for Fukuoka’s method. A former student reported a series of leisurely work activities (Korn, 2015, pp. 45-71).  But another author and grower evaluating low-input methods for commercial crops speculated that Fukuoka’s innovative methods may be prohibitively laborious (Shepard, 2013, pp. 31-34). Therefore, a fruitful experiment could evaluate the labor-reducing aspect of this method and its viability for low-input growing operations. This would provide unique benefits for agricultural science in terms of experimental design considerations, for extension work in formulating agricultural methods, and for vegetable growers due to the high labor cost of intensive agriculture in developed nations. The experiment would need to address a series of important questions: How can we conduct an experiment that addresses his criticism of agricultural science and conforms with his view of “natural law and practical experiences”? Does Fukuoka’s approach effectively reduce labor in growing operations, and by what mechanisms is this achieved? How does this method affect growing conditions and the potential for economic viability? Could this support opportunities for further research and experimentation of these methods? We designed and implemented a field experiment to satisfy Fukuoka’s conception of “natural law and practical experiences” and evaluate the labor-saving aspect of his method as well as the growing conditions, economic viability, and potential for research and measurement of this subject.

            In spite of the global fame that Mr. Fukuoka achieved, there has been no experiment evaluating his unique methods in a way that satisfied his philosophy and provided useful information for modern agriculture. Therefore, we hope to determine the impact of Fukuoka’s growing techniques on the labor activities required for annual vegetable cultivation, how it may impact on growing conditions, and provide support for further research. This required a design that would satisfy his criticism of agricultural science that “divides nature into tiny pieces” and his requirements for “natural law” and “practical experiences.” (Fukuoka, 1978, p. 74). But it also had to provide some form of meaningful information to evaluate the impact on growing and support further study. Therefore, the experiment followed the holistic conversion of a small growing operation from modern practices to Fukuoka’s practices with the same elements on the same site. Previous discussion centered on the labor required by Fukuoka’s method (Korn, 2015, pp. 45-71; Shepard, 2013, pp. 31-34), and Fukuoka himself described it in terms of what to do or not do (Fukuoka, 1978, p. 15). The experimental unit was therefore determined to be the existence of “labor activities” like weeding, staking, tilling, pruning, etc. This would indicate whether or not the method required doing less work for a growing operation.



A functioning vegetable growing parcel was converted to Fukuoka’s methods in order to reduce labor activities. As discussed above, this field manipulation took a unique form in order to support both the demands of Fukuoka’s philosophy and the needs of agricultural science.


Site conditions: A small suburban growing area about one-tenth of an acre in size. Located in rural Connecticut on the edge of a small town surrounded by forest and farmland. USDA hardiness zone 6a (USDA, 2012).


Design: The land was used for annual cultivation for three years This included soil amendments like compost, raised beds, and monoculture plantings. Labor activities included weeding, pruning, staking/tying, sowing, transplanting, end-of-season mowing, and applications of soap/water, pyrethrin, and diatomaceous earth. The site was then mowed to prepare for conversion to the Fukuoka method, leaving chopped plant material covering the area, and a mixture of annual vegetable seeds were sown densely onto this mulch. This was repeated over two growing seasons. Labor activities and overall growing conditions were then evaluated.


Techniques applied: Sowing was performed in very early spring (winter radish, spinach, kale, rapini, etc.), in late spring (peas, beans, tomatoes, etc.), and in summer/fall (bolt resistant lettuce, fall radishes, seeds to sprout in late winter). Mowing was performed once at the end of the growing season. A scythe was used to cut plants down at the base and leave them in place. This provided mulch to cover the soil, support microorganisms, and germinate new seeds. The final sowing was performed into this mulch.


Several labor activities disappeared entirely while others were significantly reduced and no activity was increased:

  • Sowing consisted of randomly scattering the seed mixture over the growing area and lasted for under one minute. This was an enormous reduction from hand sowing with dowels or using a machine.

  • Mowing was also reduced to a single pass in a sloppy manner that left all of the material on site. Thus, the activity was performed, but only once and in an easy form.

  • Thinning disappeared due to competition and the act of harvesting. Plants appeared to naturally germinate and grow in a favorable location with the disadvantaged species failing to germinate or quickly deteriorating. Harvesting left room for neighboring plants to quickly fill without a significant opportunity for weeds to germinate.

  • Weeding was reduced significantly. Undesirable plants had difficulty competing with the cycle of sowing, dense growing, chopping, and sowing again. There was rarely an opening in the system. The weeds were then naturally suppressed by the simple chop-and-drop mulch, then by the germinating seeds sown onto the mulch, then by the taller, faster growing combination of domesticated annuals. The occasional act of weeding was reduced to simply stepping on the plant or snipping it at the base, disadvantaging it and causing it to deteriorate under the competition of the neighboring cultivated plants. The design of the system therefore exerted pressure against the introduction of weeds and reducing human intervention.

  • Staking consisted of planting bamboo rods into the ground for vines to discover and climb. There was no tying or other maintenance.

  • There was no spraying, row covering, landscape cloth, or any other attempt to reduce weeds, pests, or disease.


Other growing conditions:

There was a significantly increased cost of purchasing seed to fill space and maintain dense growth. However, this was more than offset by the lack of modern industrial machines and labor. Seed was also purchased affordably in bulk, directly from distributors, with grower discounts, at end-of-season sales, and through on-site seed saving. In addition, some plants re-seeded themselves naturally at no cost while others overwintered for a couple of years as a biennial or even short-lived perennial. Many varieties in the brassica family offered a second crop when they produce sweet, juicy broccolettes in their second spring.


Vegetables often had irregular shapes. This lacked the uniformity required for machines and mass production. Notably, radishes required more room to grow into the desired form. However, carrots, turnips, and parsnips worked well in the tighter spacing. Many of the shapes were aesthetically interesting and fun, which could be marketed to food cooperatives, farmers markets, roadside stands, and some grocery stores. Fukuoka opined that these vegetables had “a taste and appearance quite different from that of the original vegetable… a garden of surprises… but depending on how they are prepared, these vegetables can make for very flavorful and interesting eating.” (Fukuoka, 1985, p, 212).


The site had an irregular design. Once again, this was not suitable for large machines or mass production. However, it was still possible to harvest large amounts of produce with relative ease, especially by hand, which would work for small-scale growers. Output was high, probably due to the health of the overall system, but a commercial grower would have difficulty guaranteeing a certain amount at a desired time.


Vegetable persistence: Some species expressed perennial or self-sowing annual behavior in this system, especially parsnips, cilantro, and potatoes, which appeared for years after the experiment ended with no further assistance and continued harvesting. This behavior further reduced competition with undesirable species. Many growers experience the occasional volunteer tomato or squash plant, but this created a range of plants, especially frost-sensitive cilantro, persisting and reappearing again in this cold region in spite of the subsequent conversion of the area to weeds and stronger perennials. Interestingly, the cilantro appeared to revert from the desired leafy green morphology to focus on reproduction with significantly more flowers and seeds. This was probably how it remained competitive in the system. The adjustment produced extremely aromatic coriander pods.



Fukuoka’s method significantly reduced labor activities. The entire growing season required only a couple of easy sessions of work and strongly favored the desired plants. This could work well for market growers, roadside stands, or home gardeners. Due to the extremely low input, it could be financially viable for supplemental income, a form of reserve production, or permitting less workers to maintain greater areas. However, it may have issues with large machinery-based operations focused on mass production.


The method created a powerful cycle of sowing the desired seeds, growing them very densely, chopping them in place to serve as mulch, and then sowing again in fall for the next season. This appeared to confirm Fukuoka’s claims: “If the seeds sprout before the weeds, the vegetables become established before the weeds and overwhelm them. Sowing a good quantity of fall vegetables such as daikon, turnip, and other crucifers will hold back the emergence of winter and spring weeds” (Fukuoka, 1985, p. 212).


Observation revealed that the soil had no exposure, erosion, or compaction. Plants seemed to flourish in favorable locations while others less suited to the area would fail to germinate or wither away. The cool, shady, moist under story harbored many beneficial organisms, especially spiders, frogs, and fungi, which appeared to massively reduce pest and disease while cycling nutrients and building rich soil.


Weeds did appear in a couple of small spots that were not effectively covered by the annual plants. However, they did not appear to significantly impact the growth, health, and production of the cultivated plants. Their ability to reproduce and proliferate on the site was significantly reduced. The mulch and sowing cycle converted them back to the cultivated system for the next season.


There also appeared to be a significant increase in the amount of output over a more extended period of time with increased diversity year over year. Further study is recommended for improved methods, experimental design and measurement, disease resistance, nutrient cycles, and potential adaptation to larger, more commercial level growing.

Indications for Further Study


This study only evaluated the impact on labor activities and easily observed growing conditions. However, research on the similar native American “three sisters” practice of planting of maize with legumes and cucurbits indicates potential additional benefits from dense annual cultivation methods:

Nitrate uptake and biomass production were up to 7 % greater in the polycultures than in the monocultures, but only when root architecture was taken into account. Enhanced nitrogen capture in polycultures was independent of nitrogen fixation by bean. Root competition had negligible effects on phosphorus or potassium uptake or biomass production.


(Postma and Lynch, 2012). Output appears to increase: “The Three Sisters yields more energy (12.25 x 106 kcal/ha) and more protein (349 kg/ha) than any of the crop monocultures or mixtures of monocultures planted to the same area.” (Mt. Pleasant, 2016). The dense structure appears to be beneficial:

The maize/bean/squash and maize/bean polycultures had greater yield and biomass production on a land-equivalent basis than the monocultures. Increased biomass production was largely caused by a complementarity effect rather than a selection effect. The differences in root crown architecture and vertical root distribution among the components of the ‘three sisters’ suggest that these species have different, possibly complementary, nutrient foraging strategies. Maize foraged relatively shallower, common bean explored the vertical soil profile more equally, while the root placement of squash depended on P availability. The density of lateral root branching was significantly greater for all species in the polycultures than in the monocultures.


(Zhang et. al., 2014). In addition, diversity of crops and “natural enemy” species can enhances pest resistance and lower pest populations (Chapin, et. al., 2009, 45). In this project, the seed mixtures similarly included diverse and complementary species regarding root systems, shapes/heights, nutrient requirements, and nitrogen-fixing abilities.


Field manipulation should be performed to further measure this method against a control of traditional growing methods in market growing conditions, especially regarding precise labor costs, yield, incidence of pests/disease, plant/soil nutrients, and the ability for fewer individuals to manage larger areas. It should be compared to analogous techniques like permaculture mixed annuals and perennials, alley cropping, and “three sisters”.


Calvin, L. & Philip Martin, P. (2010). Labor-Intensive U.S. Fruit and Vegetable Industry Competes in a Global Marketa. Amber Waves, 8(4), pp. 25-31.

Chapin III, F. S., Kofinas, G. P., & Folke, C. (Eds.). (2009). Principles of ecosystem stewardship: resilience-based natural resource management in a changing world. Springer Science & Business Media.

Fukuoka, M. (1978). The One-Straw Revolution (L. Korn Ed. & Trans., C. Pearce & T. Kurosawa, Trans.). New York Review of Books.

Fukuoka, M. (1985). The Natural Way of Farming: The Theory and Practice of Green Philosophy (Metreaud, F. P. Trans). Bookventure.

Mt. Pleasant, J. (2016). Food Yields and Nutrient Analyses of the Three Sisters: A Haudenosaunee Cropping System. Ethnobiology Letters. 7(1), 87–98.

Postma, J. A., & Lynch, J. P. (2012). Complementarity in root architecture for nutrient uptake in ancient maize/bean and maize/bean/squash polycultures. Annals of botany, 110(2), 521-534.


United States Department of Agriculture (2012). 2012 USDA Hardiness Zone Map.


Shepard, M. (2013). Restoration Agriculture. Acres U.S.A.

Zhang C., Postma J. A., Larry M. York, & Lynch J. P. (2014). Root foraging elicits niche complementarity-dependent yield advantage in the ancient ‘three sisters’ (maize/bean/squash) polyculture. Annals of Botany. 114(8), pp. 1719–1733,

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