Practicing Natural Agriculture in a High Desert
Kenji Sakai (Crestone)
Kenji Sakai researches developing Natural Agriculture at the
Shumei International Institute’s headquarters in Crestone,
Colorado. The following is an edited and revised version of
a visual presentation and lecture that Kenji Sakai prepared.
Crestone, Colorado is situated about 8,300 feet above sea level.
The terrain is a high desert with little rain fall, with an
average precipitation of just ten inches a year. This makes
the crop season very short. If Natural Agriculture can work
in this severe environment, it will be possible in other dry
places in the world as well.
Our goal is to find a sustainable way of farming that will coexist
with the surrounding natural habitat while successfully producing
vegetables. In this ongoing pilot project, we are using Mr.
Reiji Murota’s1 model from his research on Kishima Island.2
Conventional irrigation in a dry desert requires a huge volume
of water. Consequently, after a few years this practice causes
salt injury to the soil, eventually leaving the land infertile.
As the groundwater level becomes low, pollution by chemicals
and fertilizers used in conventional agriculture creates other
Salt injury occurs when conventional irrigation of alkaline
soil causes mineral salts to accumulate on the soil’s
surface. After several years, this kills the plant.
Therefore, we try to minimize the water requirements of high
desert farming by raising the water-holding capacity of the
soil by burying a block of straw in the ground and soaking it
with water. Osmotic pressure helps it to absorb the water and
retain it in the soil. Mulching the surface also retains soil
water and soil temperature. Another advantage to be gained from
this practice is that when the straw bales begin to ferment,
they warm the soil and roots, thus promoting growth. Unfortunately,
the high cost of the straw bales is a problem, so in this project
we have tried to minimize their use.
Bales of straw are buried in the ground to absorb and retain
water in the soil.
One approach to growing vegetables in an arid climate is to
plant the vegetables in ditches, where the soil is moister.
Doing this makes using expensive bales of straw less necessary.
Clover can be grown in ridges close to the vegetables to improve
the soil and produce compost. Covering the soil’s surface
with black vinyl deters the water from evaporating. Unfortunately,
vinyl is not very friendly to the environment. So, we now are
looking for a more ecologically sound material to take its place.
Vegetables grown in ditches, clover grown in ridges, and
black vinyl covering the soil.
In another experiment, we use an approach that places the field
on which crops are cultivated in an integrated setting with
their natural surroundings. In a natural setting trees and other
plants help enrich the soil and retain water at higher elevations.
In this experiment, the field becomes a part of nature’s
scheme, replicating the way forests, shrubbery, and grasslands
interact and support each other in the wild. The plot of vegetables
is one zone among others that work together in a sustainable
system. Our plan consists of five zones: two forest levels,
a level of shrubbery, then grassland, and finally a zone of
farmland. This arrangement embodies a design for sustainable
farming that closely mirrors the natural ecosystem.
This practice avoids the cultivation of all the land. Fields
adjoin meadows and forest. In this system soil building occurs
naturally and the capillary action of the roots of the trees
and other plants suck groundwater to the surface, creating higher
water retention in the soil. In addition, cultivation will be
more self-sufficient by using grass from the nearby meadows
as natural compost.
In a natural setting, trees and plants sustain the soil
and retain water at higher elevations, while excess water runs
off in streams at lower levels
The zone system of Natural Agriculture’s high desert
research experiment at Crestone.
This is an example of the research that is now underway on the
grounds of the Shumei International Institute’s headquarters
at Crestone. After much trial and error, we hope that the best
method of cultivating crops in a high desert environment will
be found. Once it is, we are sure that our experiments will
1 Reiji Murota is one of Natural Agriculture's foremost horticulturists.
Under his guidance, Kishima Island has become a major research
facility for this form of sustainable agriculture. After practicing
Natural Agriculture for over 30 years on Kishima Island, Mr.
Murota has become a mentor to all who practice Natural Agriculture
throughout the world.
2 Kishima is an island in the Inland Sea of Japan, and one
of Shumei’s major Centers. A designated nature preserve,
the island is used as a retreat, a summer camp for children,
and for the practice and research of Natural Agriculture.