Orderly rows of plump, green tea bushes march across the slope above Kiyokazu Shitara’s farm. By comparison, his fields look like a weedy, tangled mess.

Plants of all heights and sizes grow in irregular clumps. Here okra and azuki beans, there onions, taka-kibi (millet), tomatoes and marigolds. In between, a thick crazy-quilt of dead grass, stems and plants lies, completely covering the soil.

It’s a very logical system, Shitara says.

Kiyokazu Shitara

“The marigolds eliminate microorganisms that cause disease, small insects called sen-chu (eel worm). The marigolds will get rid of such insects from the eggplants and tomatoes. Onions will get rid of kabi (mold). Beans are nitrogen fixers, so they’ll give nitrogen to the other plants.

“They will help each other,” he says, standing in the clump of disparate plants. “They will help each other to grow well.”

Shitara is the leading proponent in Japan of a system of organic agriculture called permaculture, short for both permanent agriculture and permanent culture. For the past five years, Shitara and his Permaculture Center Japan have been working in the shrunken Kanagawa mountain town of Shinobara, in abandoned fields on cool, shady slopes that were never very good for farming to begin with, to show that permaculture can be an alternative here to modern, chemical-intensive agriculture.

Invented by Australian Bill Mollison in the late 1970s, permaculture is an eclectic system of design that aims to create farms and settlements that are ecologically sound and economically viable. It calls on farmers to look at plants and animals as more than just a single product, to try to find multiple uses and functions for everything, and position them together in a way that takes advantage of those functions.

Rows of fruit trees, for example, aren’t just sources of fruit, but can be planted strategically to serve as windbreaks for crops. Cows can be kept upslope from a planted field so that gravity distributes their natural fertilizers with each rainfall; catch-ponds at the bottom of slopes that hold nutrient-rich water for irrigation may also house a cultivated fish population.

Going by permaculture’s precepts, Shitara lets his hungry chickens and ducks serve as natural pesticides and herbicides. They roam through the fields, feeding on weeds, so he doesn’t have to do much of the back-breaking work of pulling them, and insects, so he doesn’t need to lift a finger to kill them.

By keeping the ground constantly mulched with cut weeds, grasses and leaves, he provides a natural source of nutrients to build up the earth and ensures that no soil is carried away by wind or rain.

The effluent from the toilet shed at the top of the slope passes through a filtering system, and ends up filling a pond and providing fertilizer for plants.

When Shitara first came to the Kanagawa Prefecture town five years ago, his neighbors, full of advice, gave him a motorized hand-plow. It stands rusting next to the chicken shed. In five years on the land, Shitara has never tilled the soil.

“Japanese, old people especially, think that agriculture is very hard work,” Shitara says, “but permaculture shows that agriculture is not so hard to do. Agriculture becomes a joy. It’s easy to get food if you work with nature.”

It’s doubtful whether there has been much joy in agriculture for Shinobara in the past few decades. The population has fallen from about 900 to 300 since the 1970s, with the young abandoning the town for nearby Tokyo.

“Twenty years ago all the land in the area was cultivated up to the top of the mountains,” Shitara says. Now, more than 60 percent of the agricultural land has been abandoned to weeds.

The remaining elderly farmers mostly just grow food for themselves. “Most of the old people don’t have any hope,” he says.

Shitara came to the town in 1995 from Nagano, where he had been in a group trying to start a new ecologically sound community. A Canadian woman who was living in Shinobara had lectured to them on permaculture, and Shitara, intrigued, went on to study permaculture in Australia.

The Canadian had been planning to start a permaculture program in Shinobara: when visa problems forced her to leave the country, Shitara moved into town and opened the Permaculture Center Japan.

He offers day-long seminars, two-week courses and a 10-month course that meets one weekend a month, but the center of the center is his model farm.

Shitara was allowed to use two fields gratis by the owner, a young man who lives in Shinjuku.

The fields, totaling 2,500 sq. meters, had lain fallow and weed-choked for 10 years, and were of poor quality, he says. So Shitara and his collaborators, students and volunteers spent three years building up the soil through natural decay. They cut down the weeds and left them on the fields, heaped on leaves in the fall and manure in the spring.

“After three years we had a thick soil and the ecosystem was constructed in my field. This year we grew more produce on my fields than [a monoculture system could],” he says.

Shitara’s message has been gathering increasing attention. He has written a number of articles for Tokyo newspapers and magazines, and the PCCJ has been drawing an increasing number of visitors and students, about 400 so far this year, he says.

NHK is planning a documentary on a permaculture community in Australia, Crystal Waters, that Shitara leads an annual tour to.

Some of the elderly farmers in Shinobara have taken notice of Shitara’s work as well, and have started to lay down thick blankets of mulch. “I don’t think they respect our method, but some of them imitate us,” he says.

The population of Shinobara has been bolstered by an inflow of city people, including a number of artists.

The vast majority of his students have come from that demographic: city people looking to move out to the country, or who are interested in starting rooftop or terrace gardens, something permaculture encourages.

It is that population that Shitara hopes to enlist to move onto the next stage in his plans, which is to create an entire community on permaculture principles, an “ecovillage,” where the inhabitants produce as much of their food as possible and live in an ecologically sound and environmentally sustainable fashion.

The town government has expressed interest in turning the community into an ecovillage, but Shitara is cautious on the chances of pulling it off.

“I don’t know if we can do it or not here. But if an ecovillage is created in a successful way other communities will imitate us. That’s Japanese style,” Shitara says. “The first step will be hard, but if the first step goes well, the second step will not be so hard.”