Changing the Way We Relate to Soil & Seed
What Natural Agriculture Can Provide
By Dena Merriam



In the years ahead no doubt we will see many initiatives to address the current environmental crisis, and numerous efforts will be made to stem our carbon output and reduce the level of resource depletion. But will these efforts be enough — will they help us reverse the damage and restore our natural environment to a state of health and well-being?  

The environmental crisis is in essence a spiritual crisis. It is the result of many decades, perhaps centuries, of divorcing ourselves from the natural forces and cycles, of thinking that we human beings are in control. It is the loss of awareness of the Earth as a living ecosystem, with its own dynamic mechanisms for maintaining itself in balance. How to regain this understanding is really at the heart of the environmental challenge.

Natural Agriculture is often described as the growing of food without any fertilizers, pesticides, or additives of any kind. But it is far more than that. It is a way of life based on a deep respect for nature and a desire to live and work in partnership with nature, rather than seeking to control it.

As one comes to understand Natural Agriculture, one comes to realize that connecting with the soil, the seed and all the elements that contribute to the growing of food, enables us to be more in tune with our own inner being, and brings a certain sense of contentment and happiness. Much of what we seek through our consumer habits can be satisfied by simply returning to the natural processes and learning to perceive in them the beauty that is all around.

Initially I didn’t understand the difference between organic farming and Natural Agriculture, and so I traveled to Japan and spent time with Shumei Natural Agriculture farmers. I came to see that organic farming is a method that can be studied and practiced. Natural Agriculture is an understanding, an awareness, and a way of relating to the land.

One of my first experiences in Natural Agriculture was when a farmer told me that each year when he was trying to decide what crops to plant, he asked the soil, and then he knew. Another farmer told me that he learned to “trust the soil,” a concept totally foreign to the modern mind. I spent a lot of time wondering what he meant and finally came to understand that the farmer has to honor the ability of the soil to supply all the nutrients crops need, and to cleanse itself of foreign substances.

There is an intuitive aspect of Natural Agriculture, but there is also a scientific aspect. Plants grow stronger when they are encouraged to live through their own resources and not become dependent on additives. Their root systems are deeper and more far-reaching, making them more drought resistant. Chemical additives act like antibiotics, weakening the crops’ natural defenses.

In Zambia, where Shumei farmers work in partnership with a women’s  farm co-operative, Natural Agriculture crops grown with local seeds fared much better during a drought than did the crops grown with fertilizers, pesticides and imported seeds.

Natural Agriculture takes into consideration all the elements that participate in the growing process — soil, seed, water, wind, sun, proximity of trees, and of course the consciousness of the farmer. Is the farmer seeking to control the process for his or her own profit only, or working in partnership with the land, supporting the forces that give life?

In my conversations with Natural Agriculture farmers, I have found two attributes not normally associated with farming — an appreciation of the beauty of the crops and a deep sense of gratitude — gratitude to all those elements that helped bring forth the crops. It takes a special eye to see the beauty in the richness of the soil, in the individual formations of the seeds, the artistry of plant forms and shapes, and in the textures and colors of the vegetables that are born.

And so these farmers often refer to the “art of agriculture.” Understanding the way the natural forces work with each other to bring forth life naturally evokes a sense of gratitude. It is this sense of deep gratitude that perhaps distinguishes Natural Agriculture farmers from others.

Ancient cultures knew the principles of Natural Agriculture, without naming them as such. They knew to preserve and treasure their seeds, generation upon generation. They knew the Earth to be a living body to be respected, honored and loved. They knew this relationship was essential for life.

The philosophy of Shumei Natural Agriculture is spreading to many regions. Originating in Japan, these farms can now be found in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and numerous parts of Asia. Shumei has three major Natural Agriculture Centers in the U.S.:  on the east coast, the Catskill Mountain Foundation Natural Agriculture Farm; on the west coast, the Santa Cruz Natural Agriculture Farm, and in Crestone, Colorado, the Shumei International Institute Natural Agriculture Farm. These farms are living models of how to change our relationship with the earth and the forces of nature. They put into practices attitudes that are at once very old and very new.

Hopefully the current environmental crises will help us rethink our interactions with nature. Conservation, using more renewable energy and cultivating a more holistic approach to the cultivation of food are important, but ultimately what we need is a radical shift in our thinking and behavior. Once we begin again to love and cherish our plant and all its life systems, everything else will fall into place.

Dena Merriam is the founder and convener of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, an international network that engages women and young people in peace-building activities in conflict and post-conflict regions around the world. She is also a Partner and Vice Chair of the Ruder Finn Group, a global communications company. Merriam has been a longtime advocate for environment causes and is the author of “The Message in a Seed.”

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