The Challenge: small margins on agricultural produce, means making a decent living from farming often requires large scale production. However most farmers around the world only have access to a small plot. Can these farms still make healthy profits?
The Solution: increased profits require more revenue and lower costs. Applying system thinking has led a Japanese Farmer to develop an elegant symbiosis, greatly expanding the variety of farm produce as well as eliminating agricultural inputs.
Higher yields, lower costs
A small-scale, organic farming system in Japan is currently providing a rice yield that exceeds industrial rice systems’ harvests by 20-50%. The higher yield combined with the production of a variety of other food stuffs, grown synergistically with the rice, means that with just six acres, Japanese farmer Takao Furuno sometimes eclipses the gross income of a typical 600 acre rice farm in Texas.
Using none of the fossil fuel fertilisers and pesticides traditionally required to grow high-yield monoculture crops, Furuno can market his rice at a 20-30% premium over conventionally grown rice in Japan. The farm, which has been modelled on complex dynamic living systems, also produces an impressive range of additional food products, including duck eggs, fish, duck meat, vegetables, wheat and figs. This very successful, organic synergy now sees Furuno enjoy an annual income of USD 160,000, while his methods have been shared and employed by 75,000 small-scale farmers in Japan, as well as South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, China, Taiwan, India, Cuba and Bangladesh.
Creating a symbiotic ecosystem
The complex multi-species system, which is completely independent of any outside farm inputs, first requires rice seedlings to be set into flooded rice paddies, before introducing a raft of ducklings. Insects that normally feed on the young rice plants, provide food for the ducklings. Mr Furuno then introduces loaches, which are a variety of easily cultivated fish (later sold to eat) and Azolla, a water fern, generally referred to as ‘paddy weed’. Azolla plays its role in the paddy ecosystem by fixing nitrogen from the air, which is important for the healthy growth of the rice, therefore providing a natural substitute for artificial fertilisers. Its growth is kept under control by the grazing ducks and fish.
The fish and duck droppings provide additional nutrients that the rice needs to flourish. The ducks have proven to be such effective and efficient ‘weeders’, that farmers currently employing this method of farming avoid an estimated 240 person hours per hectare in manual weeding every year. As well as controlling the insects and weeds, the ducks’ paddling feet oxygenate the water, encouraging the roots of the rice plants to grow. The ducks remain in the paddy field until the rice plants form ears of grain – which they would eat – so they are removed from the field and kept in another part of the farm and fed on surplus rice grain.
Regenerative and highly productive
As well as rice cultivation, Mr Furuno grows figs on the edges of his paddy fields and rotates his rice-duck initiative with vegetable crops and wheat, preventing the buildup of pests in the farm soil.
The enterprise is highly productive and Mr Furuno, whose work has been cited as a leading model for small-scale organic farming systems, now shares his knowledge and working processes with governments and agricultural organisations. Despite its acclaimed success, Furuno’s model still remains what some would describe as a ‘niche activity’. While simplified systems with cheap fertilisers and a comparatively low knowledge threshold are still predominant, hopefully the high productivity and returns to be gained from his regenerative example, which mimics complex dynamic living ecosystems, and kinder farming, will become far more appealing and lure in the larger scale operations.
Further information in this video