What is Natural Farming?

PART 12: Korean Natural Farming

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Korean Natural Farming


In this introduction to Natural Farming and Korean Natural Farming (KNF) series we have mentioned inputs a number of times. Now let’s take an overview of what these inputs are.



One large goal of Natural Farming is to turn the farmer from being a consumer back to being a producer. We want to eliminate the need to buy stuff, particularly since most of what is needed to produce food is already found on or near the farm. The bottom line is to save money, with the ultimate goal of spending zero, or as close to zero as possible.


Materials found on or near the farm are local, meaning they are indigenous, they are “from here.” The microbes found here are already adapted to local growing conditions and local plants & creatures. This is particularly important because microbes are the foundation of the Natural growing system. These microbes form the foundation of the soil and also play a role in fermented products. Microbes from outside the ecosystem will be different strains, different species, and different mixes of species.


Mixing cultures that are from different areas with different microbe populations will create a disruption of balance. While diversity is encouraged too much unbalanced diversity detracts from the efficiency of the system. It is better, especially in the beginning, to establish a solid foundation. It is best to get your microbes from close to home. It is best to use plants that come from close to home. They are all part of the same system. They are used to working together effectively and synergistically. And because they come from on or near the farm you should always have access to the materials you need without relying on supply chains.



In Korean Natural Farming we use a few techniques to make inputs. This introduction covers what these basic inputs are. These basic inputs are really all you need to practice KNF. Once you understand how they are made these inputs are easy to make. Most only need to be made once per year.




Technique                                           Product            Description

Soil Microbial cultures                      IMO                  Indigenous Micro Organisms from local soil

Lactic Acid Bacterial cultures         LAB                  Lactic Acid Bacterial Serum

Aerobic Wild Fermentation             FPJ, FFJ            Fermented Plant & Fruit Juices

                                                            FAA                   Fish Amino Acids

Fermented Vinegar                         BRV                   Brown Rice Vinegar (or banana)

Alcohol Extractions (after fermentation)    OHN                  Oriental Herbal Nutrient, a tonic

Vinegar Extractions                        WCa, WCaP     Water Soluble Calcium & Calcium Phosphate

Sea Water                                        SW, FSW           Seawater and Fermented Seawater



The most important component of KNF is Indigenous Micro Organisms, IMO. This is the foundation of the entire KNF system. IMO is a culture of the entire ecosystem of the soil, not just bacteria and fungi. All manner of life forms are found in the soil and we want to capture the entire system. Starting with a complete and balanced ecosystem we know that the system is stable and robust. While scientific studies have offered the names of a few specific examples of microbes that are helpful in producing food, Nature works with a full palette, an entire ecosystem. IMO offers farmers a way to install a complete soil ecosystem, just like Nature, not just a handful of beneficial species. If you want to harness the Power of Nature, use all of Nature.


A sample culture of the soil microbes is collected, typically on hard cooked rice (IMO-1), then stabilized for storage with dry raw sugar (IMO-2), which binds up any available water so the microbial culture remains dormant. Before application to the soil this stable microbial culture, IMO-2, is amplified by first activating the stable culture in water with specific nutrients. This active solution is then applied to a neutral starchy substrate, typically rice bran or wheat mill run. This takes a spoonful of culture and grows it out on a large pile (IMO-3). This active and amplified culture is then mixed and grown out with an equal amount of soil from where the crops will be planted (IMO-4), acclimating the collected microbes to the local soil. At this time additional ingredients, such as biochar, can be added to the culture pile (IMO-5).


There is information online about adding additional ingredients, such as sawdust and manures when building IMO-3. This is not advisable as it will alter the natural balance of your microbial ecosystem. Remember we want all the players, not just a few. The best approach is to think of making IMO as a culturing microbes in a huge pile for a petri dish. However, thinking of IMO-3 as a compost pile, adding additional ingredients too soon, will alter which microbes survive. The ones you kill off may be the ones you need most, negating the beneficial effects of using the entire, balanced ecosystem.


It takes a few days to collect an IMO culture, depending on temperature and other conditions. The steps to amplify, acclimate to local soil, and add additional ingredients each take a few days, depending again on temperature and other conditions. It is best stored in its dormant form, as IMO-2, and can last for two or more years. This stage is also the smallest, and easiest to store.



While IMO is focused on an entire microbial ecosystem, there is one group of microbes that KNF does use specifically, and that is Lactic Acid Bacteria, LAB. Lactic Acid Bacteria are an order of bacteria that produce lactic acid when fermenting carbohydrates. In KNF they are collected, then grown out in a culture of milk. Milk is high in lactose, or milk sugars. Using milk insures that the collection is specifically Lactic Acid Bacteria. LAB can be used fresh. It can be stored in the fridge, or unrefrigerated if dry raw sugar is added. It should never be kept longer than 3-6 months. The byproduct of making LAB is curd, or fresh cheese. This is edible. Some people like it, others do not. Your LAB should make cheese good enough to eat whether or not you choose to consume it. The cheese is also safe to offer to animals.


LAB is used as an ingredient in formulas designed for when the plants are young, and is good for the formation of large productive leaves. It can be helpful in correcting microbial imbalances, such as the presence of powdery mildew. It is also used in conjunction with animals.


LAB can be added to animal water as a probiotic, much like people use yogurt. Adding LAB to animal bedding can control odors. Lactic Acid Bacteria are able to live in aerobic (preferred) and anaerobic conditions. Smells in animal bedding typically come from anaerobic microbes. Adding LAB forces the microbes into an aerobic state, eliminating the anaerobic odors.




Inputs for KNF are made bioavailable through the process of fermentation. We live in an aerobic (oxygen breathing) world. We want our microbes to be from our side, the side of aerobic, oxygen breathing organisms. Most pathogens come from the anaerobic side, places without oxygen. Deadly Botulism, for example, comes from an anaerobic bacteria that is odorless, colorless, and tasteless. Utilizing aerobic fermentation keeps the microbes on our side, makes the inputs safe, and makes quality control easy. The only time an anaerobic system is deployed in KNF is when making silage, which is vegetation anaerobically fermented with Lactic Acid Bacteria, which we know is also safe.


Plant matter is fermented with wild, naturally occurring yeasts. All plant matter has natural occurring surface yeasts. When a leaf or a fruit falls these associated yeasts are able to start decomposition immediately. We use these omnipresent yeasts rather than adding commercial, domesticated yeasts, which will not be fully adapted to the plant material being fermented. Wild adapted yeasts give a more complete fermentation. They are also free and require no work to add to the fermentation.


Store purchased plant matter is never appropriate. Store produce may be coated with biocides to prevent rot during shipping and selling. Many are being sprayed with toxic chemicals after harvest. They are often coated with waxes or other materials to appeal to shoppers. They are subjected to all matter of molds, microbes, and disease organisms from being shipped around the world, and being handled by people who do not wash their hands. Do you want to drink that?


Better to find a clean local source for plant material. Which materials are chosen depends on the use. Basically you give a plant what you want it to do. For leafy growth, fresh tender tips are plucked from fast growing plants before sunrise, when growth factors are at their peak. A ferment from a ripe fruit, picked when the sun is shining and the sugars are high, will ripen a fruit so that is sweet and juicy. And so on.


Plant materials are used raw and unwashed to retain wild yeasts. The plant material is processed, cut smashed, kneaded etc. as appropriate, and layered with dry raw sugar. It is critical to leave one third airspace in the container, and cover with a breathable cloth. One third air is needed for the aerobic organisms to breathe. Too much airspace and mold will develop. Too little air and the culture will suffocate, which can lead to anaerobic growth. One third air is the ideal ratio, like many things in KNF.  


The dry sugar creates osmotic pressure which pulls out the plant juices. The plant saps collect in the jar and are fermented by the wild yeasts. There is no set timeframe to tell when fermentation is completed, a process that takes a few days, depending on the plant material, temperatures, and local conditions. The fermented liquid is then removed from plant material and stored in a clean container. All solid matter should be removed as it will lower the quality, eventually leading to putrification.  Once fermentation has stopped it can be brought into dormancy by adding dry raw sugar up to the saturation point. The sugar binds with all available water which provides the conditions for dormancy.


Fermented Plant Juices should be stored away from extreme temperatures, light and vermin. The aerobically fermented juices of plant materials are called Fermented Plant Juice, or FPJ. When the plant material is a fruit it becomes FFJ, a Fermented Fruit Juice. They are technically all Fermented Plant Juices, so each one needs to be labeled with the type of plant (mugwort, purslane, pear etc.), the plant material collected (leaf tip, fruit etc.), stage of growth (green fruit, ripe fruit, flower bud etc.), and a date.


The FPJ & FFJ inputs contain hormones, enzymes, growth factors, co-factors and other synergetic biochemistry. Rather than directly feeding plants the nutrients they will need (N-P-K, Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium), we give the hormones and associated biochemistry (found in FPJ inputs) to signal the plant to perform specific functions. These functions include leaf and young plant growth, the development of flower buds, the setting or ripening of fruit, and so on. If you want to direct plant growth in a specific way, you do not need to know the any of the chemistry involved. Instead you find a plant material that already performs the desired function. The exact biochemistry will be there Naturally. The nutrients come from the Soil Foundation and the soil microbes, IMO, insure that the plants are able to selectively uptake whatever is needed. This is how we direct growth with biochemistry.


Having a library of specific solutions made from specific plant materials, means problems can be addressed immediately. This library is how to direct the growth of plants using biochemistry. When made and stored properly most, but not all KNF inputs improve with age and can be stored for two years or more.



In a similar process fish are processed with dry raw sugar. The fish ferments in the same way as traditional fish sauce, but uses salt rather than sugar. The fermentation process breaks down into a liquid of complete, bioavailable amino acids. This input is referred to as FAA, Fish Amino Acid. Dark, blue backed ocean fish are considered best. Unused scrapes, such as scales, fins, head, guts etc. can be used rather than the entire fish. Fresh water fish and poultry can be substituted if ocean fish are not available. It can take as long as six months to a year to produce a batch of FAA. It can be stored for many years.


Fish Amino Acids are used as an ingredient in formulas for young growing plants, and whenever a plant seems weak. It can be used in the kitchen as a substitute for fish sauce, offering complete amino acids to any wet dish. Add just enough that it remains under the level that can be detected by taste. It can also be added to provide nutrition and strength to animals when appropriate.




A living vinegar is added to basically every formula. It is specifically omitted when ripening and sweetening fruit. The vinegar should be made from brown rice or banana. Brown Rice Vinegar is referred to as BRV. I refer to Banana Vinegar as BV. Industrial vinegar (white vinegar and most flavored culinary vinegar) is made using chemical reactions, not using fermentation, and should not be used. Industrial vinegar is actually applied as an potent herbicide. It is also an effective household cleaner. White industrial vinegar does not belong in KNF.


Brown Rice Vinegar acts as an ionic buffer, but in a very different manner than other vinegars. Banana Vinegar is the only acceptable substitution to Brown Rice Vinegar according to Master Cho. Apples (homemade apple cider vinegar and brands “with the mother”) have been substituted in the USA but comparative studies have not been done. Brown Rice Vinegar buffers the formulations and balances the sugars in the fermented juice inputs. It can be thought of as rounding out the flavors of a recipe, like adding a little bit of salt can do. This is the input that stabilizes the chemistry of your formulations. 


Brown Rice Vinegar is made using sweet brown rice, an almost round grain. It is brewed into Makgeolli, a Korean rice wine, Makgeolli is left, covered with a breathable cloth, to turn naturally to vinegar, a process which takes about six months. Banana vinegar is made by making a banana FPJ then storing with a breathable cloth it until it turns to vinegar, about six months.




The one ingredient which is added to all formulas is the tonic, OHN. Oriental Herbal Nutrient, referred to as OHN, is a specific tonic recipe developed by Master Cho. The ingredients are angelica, licorice, cinnamon, ginger and garlic. This tonic is used to support immune systems and tonify the body. It is used on plants, given to animals, and taken by people.


To clarify the term OHN, Oriental Herbal Nutrient:

If any substitutions to the recipe are used it cannot be referred to as OHN,

which is a specific recipe as developed by Master Cho.


When all ingredients are not obtainable (ideally they should all be grown on the farm), the next best practice is to use just the ingredients that are available, just ginger and garlic, for example. The function of OHN is to act as a tonic and should be used as an ingredient in every formulation. It is not a good ingredient to skip. It has been demonstrated that if OHN is omitted when making IMO-3 then growth of the culture suffers. We expect similar results throughout the KNF system.


OHN (or any other tonic) in KNF is made in two stages, first fermentation, which makes the nutrients bioavailable, and then a series of alcohol extractions. Each material in the recipe is processed in a separate jar. Prior to fermentation dry ingredients are first rehydrated with rice wine (preferred) or beer, ideally that has not been pasteurized. I have used both homemade rice wine and homebrewed beer. When commercial pasteurized beer it the only thing available shop by price and get the cheapest one. Wet ingredients are smashed thoroughly. To start fermentation each jars has sugar added for fermentation, in a manner similar to FPJ, with the critical one third air space and a breathable cloth cover.


After fermentation, unlike when making FPJ, the plant materials are not removed. Instead alcohol is added to the plant material and the fermented liquid, filling each jar. Shoji, a liquor made from rice wine, is said to be the best liquor choice. Any liquor, such as vodka, can be used. It should be 35-40% alcohol, 70-80 proof. This mixture is stirred daily for two weeks. After two weeks some of the solution is removed, leaving one third. The jar is then filled again with alcohol to perform another extraction. Materials can be extracted up to five times for two weeks each. Each ingredient is stored in separate storage jars during this process. The five ingredients are combined when ready for use. Each fraction extracted will carry different biological elements and should be combined together before use.




There are a couple of mineral inputs that are made into water soluble solutions by dissolving in vinegar. Water Soluble Calcium, WCa, is made by cleaning and roasting egg shells, then extracting the calcium with vinegar. Water Soluble Calcium Phosphate, WCaP, is made by completely cleaning hard bones, such as from cattle, charring them, and then dissolving in vinegar. These water soluble mineral inputs are used as ingredients in formulas at the appropriate life stages of plants, and can also be given to livestock.





Seawater is a critical input in the KNF system. When taken as a whole, all minerals found on Earth are found in the ocean in solution in the same ratios. Providing seawater insures that all minerals found on earth, including all trace minerals, are available to your crops, livestock, and fields. Seawater is added to the system in very small amounts so no buildup occurs. The microbes in the soil insure they can be taken up by the plants. Adding seawater means that your plants will always have access to all minerals, making mineral fertilizers unnecessary. To collect seawater choose a location site that has a rocky shore and wave action. This will provide seawater with higher levels of oxygen and higher levels of minerals. If seawater is not available, then a salt substitute, as designed for the saltwater aquarium industry, can be mixed according to directions and then diluted in the KNF recipes as though it were seawater.



Estuaries are among the most productive ecosystems on earth.  In areas of brackish water, fresh water enters the sea and carries with it land microbes and nutrients to mix with seawater and seawater microbes. Where this mixing occurs life explodes, both in biomass and diversity. The power of brackish water can be transferred to the land for use on crops. To collect seawater for microbes, collect from the surface of water where fresh water enters saltwater. These waterborne microbes are found mostly in the top couple of inches, with the majority found within the top centimeter. If there is no access to brackish water collect from the surface of a healthy, vibrant lake.



Fermented Seawater is made by adding a carbohydrate solution, such as the water used to wash rice before cooking, along with Fermented Plant Juices, FPJ (made with mugwort and dropwort, and a fruit such as pear). This is left to ferment in the summer for half a day (2-3 days if cloudy). A white haze will form. This should be used right away, before the haze gathers together. It cannot be stored after fermenting.



Seawater and Fermented Seawater are used as an ingredient in formulas for Soil Solutions, SOS, and in the Seed Solution (SES) for treating seeds and seedlings, and is particularly helpful for allium bulbs (onions, garlic, leeks etc.) It is added to formulas to increase the sugar content of fruit, 15-20 days before harvest, and to enhance ripening, in crack prevention formulas, and bee helper formulas. It is given in a formula for chickens to prevent feather loss in summer.  To prevent anthracnose a Fermented Seawater, FSW formula is used.




There are other inputs in the KNF toolbox. However, with these basic inputs, you can fully practice Korean Natural Farming.