Korean Natural Farming (KNF) – What is it? Does it work?

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Robert Pavlis

I have been aware of Korean Natural Farming (KNF) for some time but never had a close look at it. KNF is not very popular in North America but apparently it and other forms of Natural Farming are popular in Asia. It is time to have a close look at KNF. What is it and does it work?

Korean Natural Farming (KNF) - What is it? Does it work?
Korean Natural Farming (KNF) – What is it? Does it work?

What is KNF?

I got on line and read a lot of blog posts describing the system. I then looked at quite a few YouTube videos – never did find a well made one. As I was going through this material I was struct by the fact that there really is no clear definition for KNF. Proponents do use a lot of philosophical statements like “KNF is an elegant method to join with nature to grow food” and “we go into the forest and find indigenous biology bloom” There is also a lot of mumbo-jumbo like this, “when the bloom (IMO) is added to soil it changes things”. Dr. Cho, the person who developed the system, had this to say, “plants are composed of blood, chlorophyll and fiber“.

Even Wikipedia had trouble describing it in meaningful language: “KNF is an organic agricultural method that takes advantage of indigenous microorganisms (IMO) and emphasizes self-sufficiency by limiting external inputs and relying on recycled farm waste to produce biologically active inputs.”

When Chris Trump, a leading practitioner and promoter of KNF in the United States, was asked to define KNF he said, “it is simply a “nicely packaged” and “elegant” way of tending the soil. There are two sides to the KNF coin. The first side is the collection of inoculum (IMO) and the second side is timing, using these preparations when the plant needs them. The right nutrients at the right time”. So is it about the IMO or the nutrients? Is there more to it than using IMO to add nutrients to soil? This doesn’t really describe KNF very well.

Soil Science for Gardeners book by Robert Pavlis

I have now concluded that it is a form of organic gardening where chemicals are shunned, unless they are needed, such as using vinegar to dissolve eggshells. They limit external inputs unless they help with the system, such as collecting IMO. And most important of all, it is about making various microbe concoctions that make plants grow. The production and use of IMO in KNF is so vital that most of the information I found was about making IMO, not actually doing the gardening or farming.

In short it is organic gardening that uses IMO.

It is a form of Natural Farming which is also known as “do-nothing farming” which has the following principals,  no tillage, no fertilizer, no pesticides, no weeding and no pruning. I like the sound of that system.

IMO1 made with rice
IMO1 made with rice, source: Robin Hill Gardens

The Code of KNF

One thing you learn right away is that proponents of KNF like short forms for everything. Here is a list of some of them.

JADAM – Another form on Korean natural farming that uses many of the same principals as KNF.

IMO – Indigenous Microorganisms. Preparing these is a four stem process which produces IMO1, IMO2, IMO3 and IMO4.

FPJ – Fermented Plant Juice. Shredded plant material fermented with sugar (vinegar may be added). A kind of fermented weed tea.

FFJ – Fermented Fruit Juice. Shredded fruits fermented with brown sugar. Similar to Eco Enzymes.

OHN – Oriental Herbal Nutrients. An alcohol tincture of garlic, Angelica, ginger or turmeric, licorice and cinnamon.

FAA – Fish Amino Acids. Wild fish pieces fermented with brown sugar.

LAB – Lactic Acid Bacteria. Important microbes in IMO

WCA – Water Soluble Calcium made by dissolving egg shells in vinegar.

BMW – Bacterial Mineral Water. Granite, basalt and other stones washed with IMO4 to dissolve minerals.

WCAP – Soluble Calcium Phosphate. Charged bones treated with brown rice vinegar.

BS – Bull Crap!

IMO is the Key to KNF

IMO is the soul of this technique. Boil some rice or other carbon rich source, place it in a “natural” location and let it sit for a few days to allow the indigenous microbes to grow in it. Collect the infected rice, process it through various stages until you have IMO4. You can find the details of this process here.

Here are some key points about this process.

  1. The process involves finding an ideal site to collect the “indigenous microbes”. If they are truly indigenous microbes would they not already live on your site? Surely, microbes from somewhere else are no longer indigenous?
  2. For some unknown reason it is believed that all of the microbes you gather are beneficial microbes and that they are the “right” microbes to make your plants grow. However, nobody tests or evaluates their suitability. If white mold grows on the rice, they are assumed to be right, while green growth is discarded.
  3. The process of going from IMO1 to IMO4 is quite extensive – it takes about a month. How do you know that the good microbes you collected are still in the final IMO4 mixture? You really don’t. This whole process is based on faith and the appearance of mixtures.
  4. The processes are not that exact and there are many variations. However, it is claimed they all work equally well and produce beneficial IMO. But nobody tests to see if they work.
  5. The inputs in the table below are added in step 3 of the process. These are mostly dilute forms of organic fertilizer.
Inputs added to IMO3
Inputs added to IMO3, Source: C.N. Lee, University of Hawaii

Fermented Plant Juice

This mixture is made by combining plant material with water and brown sugar, and allowed to ferment in a cloth covered container. It is claimed, by Dr. Cho himself, that “the plant’s blood and chlorophylls are extracted through osmotic pressure. The final FPJ is a rich enzyme solution full of bacteria”. Others claim the mixture contains high levels of enzymes and hormones.

The bacteria carrying out the fermentation have a high carbon source – the sugar – and need a nitrogen source. Plant proteins, including enzymes, are the most likely source of nitrogen so it is hard to imagine that FPJ is high in plant enzymes? This material is also diluted to homeopathic levels (see below) to such a point that the nutrients no longer play a major role in plant growth, but the same dilution does not dilute the enzymes and hormones to homeopathic levels. Strange!

Does KNF Work?

It is an organic gardening technique and stuff will grow; so one can conclude it works. But what we really want to know is, how does KNF compare to other gardening techniques. Or in other words, what does the science say about yield?

KNF was started by Dr. Han Kyu Cho in the 1960s but to date there has been almost no scientific studies comparing KNF to other farming techniques. In a KNF dedicated Facebook Group someone asked “Are there any published scientific articles that support KNF? ” They did find a few studies, but nothing compelling and nothing that showed KNF was better than other systems.

Wikipedia has this to say, “While this practice has grown in popularity, scientific evidence of the benefits of KNF is relatively limited“.

There seems to be no scientific evidence that KNF is better than other techniques.

Does IMO Work?

The question we need to ask is, does adding IMO to soil increase plant growth? If it does increase plant growth, is the growth due to the application of nutrients or the application of microbes?

Do the Nutrients in IMO Increase Plant Growth?

IMO is made from a grain/rice mixture which includes some sugar. As microbes grow and die they add plant nutrients to the mixture. More plant juices are added in Step 3, as outlined above. Clearly the final IMO mixture contains nutrients and one source reported it with an NPK of 0.4-0.8-0.4. Basic plant biology tells us that these nutrients help plants grow. No magic here.

I asked a KNF group about the acidity of FPJ (fermented plant juice) – remember all of these mixtures are fermentations that should be producing acidic mixtures. The answer I got from an expert in the group was, in part, “usually a little acidic, but it doesn’t matter. It’s used at 1:500 dilution so it is a homeopathic level. FPJs are not for nutrients but for enzymes and hormones”. But according to Chris Trump’s quote above, it is all about nutrients?

Enzymes are proteins and contain nitrogen. You can’t have a key nutrient like nitrogen at “homeopathic levels” and claim that enzyme levels are high. A lot of KNF discussions are illogical and contain no real evidence.

I did find one study that looked at growing corn using different concentrations of IMO. If the nutrients in IMO were key to plant growth, higher amounts of IMO should produce higher yields – it did not. In fact adding nothing (the control) produced a higher yield than treatment with smaller amounts of IMO. Only the highest IMO level performed better than the control, by a small margin.

IMO does contain nutrients and they will help plants grow. There is no evidence that these levels are any better than say compost, manure or synthetic fertilizers and since proponents of KNF don’t brag about their “high nutrient” levels, I think it is safe to say they are not high.

Do the Microbes in IMO Increase Plant Growth?

As you probably know by now, adding microbes to soil does not increase their population and that it has, at best, a very small effect on population dynamics.

KNF is all about making IMO so the microbes are key to this farming practice. Do they affect the microbe population in soil? Do they make plants grow better?

Some practitioners of KNF use a light microscope to try and evaluate the microbes in KNF, but these techniques do an extremely poor job of this. We have only identified about 20% of the species in soil and a microscope can only identify a fraction of these.

I did not find a single scientific study that showed IMO changes soil microbes. If you find one, let me know in the comments.

Do the microbes help plants grow? This is easy to verify. Make a batch of IMO and use half as is, and use the other half after sterilizing it. This would show the effects of the microbes, but no such study exists. There is no evidence that the microbes in IMO make plants grow better.

YouTube video

Does KNF Work?

Fermentation is a way of decomposing organic matter to release nutrients. We know adding these nutrients to soil will improve plant growth, so KNF will certainly grow crops. Its general philosophy is good for the earth. It is an organic process and has some environmental benefits, but as with most organic farming techniques, it does it make good use of land (see above video).

How does IMO compare to compost? Compost has higher levels or organic matter and nitrogen and slightly lower levels of phosphate, which is a good thing for most soil.

Making IMO is a slow, tedious process. Composting is also slow but is less work.

Until we have a lot more scientific evidence, I would not recommend KNF as a farming or gardening technique.

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

16 thoughts on “Korean Natural Farming (KNF) – What is it? Does it work?”

    • “led me to two new radical theories about organic farming. The first is that nitrogen is not a crop requirement but a symptom of microbial activity.”
      That is nonsense – Crops do require nitrogen to grow – we know that as a fact.

      “Water can be added to dry material to create even more pounds of fertilizer because the water becomes incorporated within the microbial bodies”
      False. If you add water to anything, the amount of nutrients in the pail remain exactly the same. The small exception are nitrifying bacteria which can take nitrogen from the air and convert it to nitrite. But then other bacteria in the pail are converting nitrate to ammonia, which escapes into the air.

      Rodale is NOT a reliable source of scientific gardening information.

      Assuming their testing is actually valid – there is no evidence in the article that it is – then it can be explained by the fact that pre-composting it speeds up the release of nitrogen, so plants get more nitrogen faster – and we know that nitrogen makes plants grow.

      Reply
  1. JADAM methods only bear superficial resemblance to KNF; Cho Young-soon (Cho Han Kyu’s son) created JADAM in part as a reaction against KNF’s complicated methods and costs. KNF inputs can be 50% sugar by mass and use of air bubblers at scale–those two things JADAM mentions explicitly as being too expensive. The JADAM book’s cover has “ultra-low cost” and “pennies an acre” on it.

    JADAM dispenses with the IMOs (they do have a single microbial formula but it is not central to the method unlike KNF) and advises anaerobic composting of crop residue (and urine, manure, fish processing waste etc) in water, has guidance on making wetting agents and sulphur disease control without a full complement of equipment or electricity (these are downright dangerous and more or less explicitly oriented around developing-world usage).

    JADAM like KNF, though, doesn’t have any guidance on turned compost. Cho 2 suggests letting crop residue stay in place which is probably part of that.

    Reply
  2. You state that JADAM uses “the same principles as KNF”. This is only true maybe in an abstract sense. It also smells far fouler than the cute KNF recipes

    JADAM methods (created by Cho’s son) are in part a reaction to how time-intensive and expensive (these KNF inputs can be 50% raw sugar by mass) KNF methods and equipment (KNF at scale uses air bubblers and tumblers) involved in it can be. It throws out all the sugar ferments and IMOs and relies on putrefied/anaerobic compost liquids (including manure and urine) as inputs.

    That said some JADAM recipes are downright dangerous and not intended for backyard use, like DIY wetting agents using lye. And obviously putrefaction can brew some nasty stuff

    JADAM still doesn’t use aerobic compost (but does leave crop residue in place).

    As far as personal practice I use this as a way to scavenge nutrients out of plant matter from exotic invasives or other undesirables that could have seeds or re-root if they don’t get adequately cooked in a hand-turned compost pile. But have really struggled to find much data on actual mineral/salt/nutrient values of anaerobic compost teas.

    Reply
    • Both systems cultivate microbes and assume that what is cultivated will improve plant growth. Neither system does any testing to verify what they are actually cultivating and neither system has much supporting research.

      Reply
  3. Boy, it must be more than frustrating to ‘invent’ a new way of gardening or ‘boosting’ garden production, only to have a scientific mind blow it out of the water.
    Well done, Robert………..as usual.

    Reply
  4. Nowadays fruits vegetables are hybrids with favourable fertilizer response which needs chemical supplimention.The best may be compromising organic and chemical. It works for me.Thanks for unbiased review.

    Reply
    • “fruits vegetables are hybrids with favourable fertilizer response which needs chemical” – All plants even species have favorable response to nutrients – and since the nutrients from synthetic fertilizer and organic sources is identical – they respond to both.

      Breeding may be making new cultivars that depend on symbiotic microbes less, but that is a different story.

      Reply
  5. I think it’s human nature to create mystery about other cultures that we’re not intimately familiar with. Thankfully, there are people who don’t follow their hearts with these things, but put their faith and trust in the scientific method.

    Reply
  6. I’m sure the pilgrims laughed when the native people added a fish to the planting hole when planting corn a d other crops.
    Like you finding information on KNF is frustrating and the “practice “ has been corrupted by the gardener unicorns. Still I felt thousands of years of farming practices had to have some merit.
    I bought and trialed the EM1 gallon size product from Terraganix.
    It is simple to use. Tried landscape plants, turf, vegetable crops, and house plants. Yes…it’s anecdotal…but I see better looking plants especially house plants which I am so good at killing.
    I love it and I suggest you try this product and see how you do.
    I do not have the patience for fermentation but the gallon of final product suited me.
    You know full well that nobody in the US is going to scientifically evaluate KNF. We bought nearly $2 billion worth of RUSSIAN fertilizer last year. You can verify that if you want.
    It’s so easy to hide behind peer reviewed stuff and I’m still waiting to see someone peer review your book.
    Again, like you I found the KNF information extremely frustrating. That’s why I’d love someone like you to debate the US people who espouse it.
    There’s a lot of organic pursuits that have left me flat but EM1 on my whole property has been a great investment and cheap!

    Reply
    • It’s pretty simple to add the EM1 to some plants and not others (side by side) so that you have a control group for comparison. Until you’ve even done that *minimal* test for a season, you’re not really even qualified to suggest you have anecdotal evidence.
      As for something practiced for thousands of years, that doesn’t mean it works *at all.* You had might as well just pray for your plants- you’d be throwing away time instead of throwing away money.

      Reply
  7. This concept is being utilized on a very large scale by what is known in the agriculture arena as regenerative ag. No till, or low till, cover crops, biological reparation, all to increase soil organic matter, which increases water carrying capacity, increases yields, and reduces the need for chemicals.

    Reply
      • Look up Dr. James White and Rhyzophagy – lots of benefit to IMO and IMO inoculation. Peer reviewed too, and major Ag Universities and research institutions are receiving millions in funding to study this (Iroquois and Cherokee and loads of others no doubt have been doing this for centuries if not millennia). Poor scientific background and ignorance on your part, but no biggie, easily correctable.

        Reply
        • I know Dr. James White’s work very well and even wrote about it in my new book, Microbe Science for Gardeners.

          I have never heard him mention IMO or anything about KNF. So please post links to this information.

          I am quite sure you don’t have any links and that you just did not read his work properly.

          Reply

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