The Roots of Progress

Advanced stages of agriculture

In a previous post I wrote about the early stages of agriculture. These stages are defined by a succession of solutions to the fertility problem: every harvest takes fertility out of the soil; without active management, fields lose their productivity over time.

The early stages were all about crop rotation. First, fields would rotate between crops and fallow. Animals were grazed in pasture in the summer, and in winter, fed on hay harvested from the meadow. Later, crops and pasture themselves were rotated. Historian Norman Gras, whose book A History of Agriculture in Europe and America I’m reading now, identifies two further stages: “scientific rotation” and “specialized intensive”.

The term “scientific rotation” seems to me a misnomer; it’s not clear how it depends on science, especially since Gras says that versions of it arose in places including ancient China and medieval Lombardy. Perhaps it could be called “optimized rotation” or “advanced rotation”. In any case, Gras identifies a number of advanced rotation techniques, including:

In English agricultural history, a well-known “scientific” rotation was the “Norfolk rotation”: clover, wheat, turnips, and barley (in that order). Again, the clover was plowed under for the wheat. The turnips were fodder for livestock.

Gras is less clear on what “specialized intensive” means, although one key sentence reads: “By watering, fertilizing, and heating the ground, by soil pulverization, seed selection, treating seed chemically or bacteriologically, transplanting, protection by glass, and intertillage, enormous crops can be attained.”

Owing to techniques including the above, agricultural productivity grew so fast in Britain from the mid-1600s to mid-1800s that the period is known as the British Agricultural Revolution. Gras is sketchy on details, but a few key ones include:

I’m going to have to do more research into the above topics.

(As a reminder, I’m experimenting with a style in which I write shorter and less polished posts more frequently while I’m in the middle of researching a topic. If you don’t have time for these posts, feel free to skim or skip them; at the end of this process I’ll write a more authoritative longform summary of the topic.)

Relevant books

A History of Agriculture in Europe and America

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