Farmers of Forty Centuries


Farmers of Forty Centuries: Organic Farming in China, Korea and Japan

By F.H. King

(1911, reprinted in 2004 by Dover Publications)

Link to free PDF

Book Review

I don’t typically review (or read) 100 year old books. Farmers of Forty Centuries is an important exception. It has become a classic of the permaculture/sustainable economics movement for several reasons.

First, it dispels the myth that fossil fuel-free agriculture will produce much lower yields than industrial farming. Without access to oil and natural-gas based pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, agriculture will be much more labor-intensive. However with global population at more than seven billion (as of last October), the world seems to have no shortage of human labor. Second, Farmers of Forty Centuries paints a detailed picture of tried and true regional models of food, fuel, and construction materials production, as well as regional water and human waste management. Third, it provides detailed descriptions, almost in cookbook fashion, of a broad range of permaculture and terraquaculture* techniques.

As a backyard organic gardener and member of the lawn liberation movement, I have found it really easy to incorporate a number of the techniques King describes into my routine. I was also intrigued to see Charles Eisenstein cite King’s book in Sacred Economics (2011 Evolver Editions), supporting his argument that more intensive production techniques could easily produce the same or better yields as current factory farms.

Briefly, Farmers of Forty Centuries describes the voyage agronomist and former US Department of Agriculture official Franklin Hiram King made to to China, Korea and Japan in the early 1900s. The purpose of his trip was to study how the extremely dense populations of the Far East could produce massive amounts of food century after century without depleting their soils. What he discovered was a highly sophisticated system of water management, crop rotation, interplanting and rational utilization of ecological relationships among farm plants, animals and people.

The 248 high resolution photos of Chinese, Korean and Japanese farmers and their fields are even more remarkable (especially for 1911) than the text. Unfortunately King died while the book was in production, and it was published posthumously by his wife.

Seasonal and Rainfall Differences

King notes at the beginning of the book that much of China has a longer growing season than the US. Moreover in China, Korea and Japan, most rain falls during summer months when it’s most conducive to crop growth. He notes that China enhances their summer rainfall with an extensive system of canals and that both China and Japan have elaborate schemes to capture run-off from uncultivable mountain areas. However he also presents strong evidence that water management alone fails to explain these countries’ amazing crop yields.

Human Excrement and Green Manure

He’s equally impressed by the extensive time and effort put into collecting all human waste (even from cities), processing it by drying or fermentation and distributing it to farmers, who would apply it more or less continuously to their fields. Noting the high price human sewage fetched for the men who collected and processed it, King bemoans the incredible waste in the US system of sewage disposal, which flushes so many rich nutrients into inland waterways and out to sea.

He also describes in detail the extensive use of soybeans, peanuts, clover, pulses and other nitrogen fixing plants in crop rotation schemes, as well as “green manure,” fibrous plants (either grown in the fields or collected) that farmers continuously plowed into their soil to increase organic matter.

Succession Sowing and Interplanting

Finally he stresses the systematic effort by Chinese, Korean and Japanese farmers to maximize their limited cultivable land. In one example, he describes how land flooded as a rice paddy in summer would be planted with leaks and other vegetables as winter crops. He frequently describes the presence of three crops (for example radishes, cabbage and wheat) in the same field simultaneously at different stages of maturity. According to King, farmers in southern China would typically cultivate one plot of land continuously throughout the year. In addition to two rice crops during the winter and early spring, they would also grow rape, peas, beans, leaks and ginger as a third or fourth crop during summer and fall.

The Economic Hardship of Japanese Farmers

King’s description of farming in Japan is striking in its heavier use of chemical fertilizer (as was increasingly typical of US agriculture in the early 20th century). He notes that Japanese farmers had to be encouraged (via a contest for the best compost heap) to compost kitchen waste and green manure to provide organic matter for their farms. He also describes the fines the Japanese government levied against farmers who applied excessive lime to their fields. Japanese soils are volcanic and quite acid (like the soil here in New Zealand).

King is also extremely sympathetic to the heavy tax burden carried by Japanese farmers (to pay for the Russo-Japanese war, which ended in 1905), as well as their struggle to pay extremely high rents. It was his view that their economic hardship seemed to sap their initiative. He offers this as a possible explanation for their eagerness to use chemicals and take labor saving short cuts instead of embracing traditional organic methods.

*Terraquaculture is the practice of farming living water flowing through the landscape. It is the traditional farming system of the Asia-Pacific region where it has been practiced for thousands of years and is arguably the only truly sustainable farming system. See

Rethinking Industrial Agriculture

food forest

Small food forest

(This is the second of two posts about dramatic changes that are occurring in food production and marketing, as well as consumer food choices.  Part II addresses the application of design technology to water and soil management, which is revolutionizing the movement towards local food production.)

Applying Design Technology to Farming

Most food localization initiatives have been accompanied by radical technological advances that apply design principles to the way food is grown. The design technology employed in the rapidly growing fields of permaculture and biointensive farming is based on a radically different approach to water and soil management, modeled on nature’s ecosystem design principles. Anyone who studies natural ecosystems can’t help but notice there are no neat rows or bare soil in natural forests and prairies. Nature crams as many living organisms as possible, all with complex symbiotic relationships, into every square inch.

Ironically this “revolutionary” technology happens to be 4,000 years old. Chinese farmers discovered around 2,000 B.C. that designing their fields to replicate natural ecosystems produced the highest yields. This approach is well-described in F.H. King’s 1911 book Farmers of Forty Centuries. The US Department of Agriculture sent King to China in the early 1900s to investigate why Chinese farms were so amazingly productive. What he discovered was a highly sophisticated system of water and soil management that emphasized species diversity and rational utilization of ecological relationships among plants and between plants and animals.

The Watershed Model of Water Management

Despite King’s innovative work, it has taken English-speaking countries a full century for the lessons to sink in. Applying capitalist slash and burn mentality to farming clearly hasn’t worked. Agricultural yields in Britain and its former colonies, which all employ similar “modern” methods of water management, have destroyed tons of topsoil and essentially reduced agricultural yields by a third. In a desperate attempt to ramp up yields, chemical insecticides and herbicides were introduced after World War II. These, in turn, systematically killed off microscopic soil organisms essential to plant health.

Britain, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other former British colonies all adopted the “drainage” system of water management. In this approach, trees are systematically cleared (usually by burning) and wetlands and springs are drained. Typically land managed in this way is subject to alternating flooding and drought, creating an unending cycle of economic hardship for farmers and farming communities. Besides destroying existing crops, repeated flooding also washes away topsoil and essential plant nutrients.

In contrast traditional farmers in non-English speaking countries are more likely to use the centuries’ old “water catchment model” of water management, sometimes referred to as terraquaculture. Because they deliberately design their farms to catch and hold water, they aren’t subject to flooding, soil erosion and draught. Chinese farmers wouldn’t dream of draining their wetlands, which are always the most productive areas for high energy food crops, such as rice and other grains.

Plowing “Kills” Soil

Soil technology has also greatly advanced in the last five decades, with the discovery of complex micro-ecosystems that support optimal plant growth. These eocosystems include a myriad of soil yeasts, bacteria and other organisms that live in symbiosis with host plants. Not only do they provide nutrients to the root systems of larger plants, but they also produce a myriad of natural insecticides and herbicides to protect them against pests. Mechanically disrupting the soil through plowing kills these organisms. They can potentially recover if the soil is left undisturbed – unless the grower totally wipes them out with pesticides, herbicides or bacteriocidal GMOs.

Studies show that plant diversity is also essential to a healthy plant ecosystem. Planting a single crop in neat rows surrounded by bare soil is also perfect invitation for weeds and insects to come and attack them.

Permaculture, in contrast, discourages noxious weeds and insect pests by creating “food forests” made up of compatible food-producing trees, shrubs and ground cover crops. Unlike veggie gardens limited to annuals that have to be replanted every year, the food forest is self-sustaining with minimal input. For people worried about the economy collapsing and their gardens being invaded by barbarians from the big city, it’s also virtually indestructible.

To get some idea what a food forest looks like, check out this video by Australian permaculture guru Geoff Lawton:

Attention City Dwellers

Lawton is also a big fan of small space urban permaculture because it’s the most productive in terms of yield per square foot. The following is a video by one of his students about designing a permaculture food growing system on your balcony or terrace:

photo credit: London Permaculture via photopin cc

Originally published in Dissident Voice