(as told by Frederick Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture (www.leopold.iastate.edu))
“My favorite example of the shift to sustainable agriculture is Takao Furuno, a very imaginative young farmer in southern Japan. Until 1987, he was a conventional, industrial rice farmer. He was extremely successful by industrial standards; his yields were among the highest in southern Japan. But one day it occurred to him that every year, he had to put everything he earned from rice production into the next year’s crop. He didn’t want to do that anymore, so that was his motivation to come up with a new system.
What Furuno came up with was: If he were to marry the best wisdom from the past with the best science available today, could he come up with a whole new system?
He learned from the wisdom of the past that farmers in Japan used to have ducks in their rice paddies. So, he put a piece of plastic electric fence down the middle of his rice paddies, brought in some ducklings, and sat back to watch. He noticed the ducklings were eating the insects off the rice plants. Next he started to think, farmers from the past, in various parts of the country, used to have fish in their rice paddies. When farmers started to use insecticides to get rid of insects in order to increase their rice yields, it killed the fish so they couldn’t do fish anymore. Now, he’s wondering, because he’s not using insecticide anymore, could he introduce fish back into the paddies? That would be another commodity that he could harvest.
All the experts told him, ‘You have to make a choice, because if you put those little fish into the water and then you put the ducklings in, they’ll dive down and eat the fish.’ So, he got himself a tub of water and put these little fish in, put the ducklings in, and sat back to watch. Sure enough, the ducklings dove down to eat the fish. He got to thinking that the rice paddies were a little different, because in rice paddies the water is cloudy, so would the ducks behave the same way in cloudy water? So he got a few handfuls of soil and put it into the tub of water, stirred it up to get it all cloudy, put the fish back in, put the ducklings back in—and the ducklings didn’t eat the fish anymore. So then he started to experiment in the rice paddies again and found that the fish and the ducklings were quite compatible in a rice-paddy setting.
Then he began to notice something else: There’s a weed that grows in the rice paddies, called a zola. It’s a fern-like plant that grows on the surface of the water like a water lily, and it subdivides—you have two, then four, then eight—and by the time the rice paddies get half-covered, in a matter of days, they choke the rice plants. So farmers routinely kill off the zola plant with an herbicide. In Furuno’s rice paddies, both ducks and fish feed on the zola plant, so they keep it from spreading.
Then he discovered that the zola plant has a unique relationship with bacteria—it actually produces nitrogen in the water. Given the nitrogen from the zola, plus the droppings from the ducks and the fish, he has all the fertility he needs so he doesn’t need to buy fertilizer anymore. That’s more money he can keep in his pocket.
Now, he’s not just producing rice, but he’s producing rice, plus duck meat, plus duck eggs, plus fish meat, and because he’s not using pesticides, he can grow fruit on the peripheral of his rice paddies, the way the ancient farmers used to do, so he’s also producing fruit off of that same acreage. After having this new system in place for several years, he also discovered that the root crown of his rice plants was about twice the size as with the old industrial system. With a larger root crown, you get more rice. He’s not even sure why that’s happening, something about the synergy of the system he’s creating. So his rice yields have also increased by 20 to 50 percent.
That, to me, is a model of the future of agriculture. Here is a system based on agro-ecological principles and biological synergies—how they feed on one another without a lot of energy input and increase productivity at the same time. In resource-poor areas of the world, if we give farmers a little bit of capital so that they can buy their original seed stock—and they have access to the land—I believe that with this increased productivity, we can begin to address the issue of hunger in the developing world.”
[To buy The Power of Duck (Tagari, 2001), by Takao Furuno, go to www.rodaleinstitutestore.org.]