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

reviewed by Craig Soderberg

The material in this book is eye-opening. For more than 4,000 years, Asian farmers worked the same fields repeatedly without sapping the land’s fertility and without applying artificial fertilizer! How they accomplished this miraculous feat is described by author Franklin Hiram King, a former official to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. King traveled to Asia in the early 1900s to learn how farmers in China, Korea, and Japan were able to achieve successful harvests century after century without exhausting the soil — one of their most valuable natural resources. This book is the result of King’s research.

Containing more than 200 photographs, this book represents a valuable resource for organic gardeners, farmers, and conservationists.

In the introduction of the book, King mentions that the Mongols save their sewage and apply it to their fields. King believes that this organic matter allows them to have longer growing seasons. The collection and sale of human manure is actually a big business in parts of Asia. It is shipped by boat out to the fields in Shanghai, China. The Asians also practice crop rotation since they grow two, three, and even four crops on the same piece of land each year.

King starts his research with Japan and discusses how they dry seaweed that is then used for food. He has an excellent photo of a pear orchard in Japan where the horizontal arbor allows the farmers to pluck the fruits within easy reach by hand. Paper bags are tied over the fruits to prevent the insects from eating them. Later in the chapter King discusses how a peach orchard is intercropped with cabbage, beans, and peas. He also discusses the use of the foot-power pump for irrigation.

In Hong Kong, King shows that many women are engaged in heavy manual labor along with men, where both carry crushed rock and sand and concrete in house building on the farms. The Chinese also used foot-powered irrigation in the early 1900s just like the Japanese. In addition, fish are raised in both deep and shallow basins. The fish feces fertilize the nearby plants whose leaves provide food for the fish.

The author has some great photos of vegetable markets in Shanghai and he shows how the farmers in Korea use water buffalos for carrying wood and other cargo into the fields. Green manure practices are mentioned as well.

The author illustrates how a stone mill is used for grinding soybeans and peanuts in China.

King also devotes a chapter to the cultivation of mulberry plants for the purpose of raising silkworms, which is a big business in Japan.

In a later chapter, King discusses the tea business and the cotton business in Asia and how it is very different since it did not rely on modern machinery.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in organic farming or to those interested in knowing how farming was done before the age of modern agricul-tural equipment.