What ‘Do Nothing’ Farming Can Teach Us About Living a Good Life

What could grow if we stopped forcing everything to be perfect?

Kristin Wong
Forge
Published in
6 min readAug 30, 2021

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Photo: Kathrin Ziegler/Getty Images

In 1937, a Japanese agricultural scientist named Masanobu Fukuoka was hospitalized with a terrible case of pneumonia. Confronted with the possibility of his own death, Fukuoka spiraled into an existential crisis that lasted long after he was discharged from the hospital. At night, he couldn’t sleep, so he wandered aimlessly. One evening, he fell asleep against the trunk of a large tree. When he woke up, he noticed a night heron flying toward the harbor — it sparked an epiphany. “All the concepts to which I had been clinging, the very notion of existence itself, were empty fabrications,” Fukuoka later wrote. “My spirit became light and clear.”

In short, Fukuoka realized how futile it was to try to understand and control one’s environment. As the Taoist saying goes, “the world is won by those who let it go. But when you try and try, the world is beyond the winning.” It changed his life.

It also inspired him to establish a new way of farming. Instead of controlling the land by flooding it and forcing crops to grow during certain seasons, Fukuoka designed a technique that worked with the land’s natural biodiversity, life cycles, and ecosystem. Though it took time and patience, this new technique required less effort and allowed local plants and animals to thrive with relatively little intervention. He called the concept “do-nothing” farming. “I was aiming at a pleasant, natural way of farming which results in making the work easier instead of harder,” Fukuoka wrote in his book, The One-Straw Revolution. Do-nothing farming doesn’t mean farmers abandon the land entirely — they maintain the crop but only when necessary and without over-engineering it with pesticides, weeding, and fertilization. Do-nothing farming requires farmers to work with the land instead of against it. Put simply, it’s about going with the flow.

It feels good to have a sense of control and command over the environment. It feels good until it doesn’t.

If my life were a farm, I would be a do-everything farmer. I do not go with the flow. I flood my life with tasks and engineer my…

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Kristin Wong
Forge
Writer for

Kristin Wong has written for the New York Times, The Cut, Catapult, The Atlantic and ELLE.