The Roots of Progress

Six stages of agriculture

I’m now three chapters into A History of Agriculture in Europe and America, by N. S. B. Gras. In the spirit of working with the garage door up, here’s a bit of what I’ve learned so far.

I note at the outset that this is an old book, published 1925 and revised 1940. Probably a lot has been learned in the last 80 years and the following has already undergone revision, which I’ll uncover when I read more modern sources. But I’m starting with this because it seems to have the widest scope in geography and time, and I like to begin with an overview.

Gras outlines six major stages of agricultural development:

  1. Natural husbandry
  2. The fallow system
  3. Legume rotation
  4. Field-grass husbandry
  5. Scientific rotation
  6. Specialized intensive

To understand these, you must grasp a basic challenge of agriculture: all fields lose their fertility over time. If you plant a field year after year, your harvest will diminish until you can no longer sustain yourself. The six stages above are all organized around this challenge and represent increasingly advanced responses to it.

In natural husbandry, the agriculturalist tills, sows and reaps, and may tend the field. When a field has been worked for a few years, and is starting to go barren, he moves to another field. That’s about it.

The fallow system recognizes that fields go barren, and that they will return to fertility if left fallow for a while. Rather than abandoning fields ad hoc, a system is adopted in which fields are deliberately left to rest every, say, two or three years. Since of course a harvest is needed every year, this is done by rotating fields. For instance, in a three-field system, two fields would be worked each year and a third left fallow, and the fields would be rotated each year.

The legume rotation is based on the discovery that legume crops, such as beans, peas, or alfalfa, actually help restore fertility to the soil. Thus, if they are worked into the rotation, less fallow time is needed. For instance, you can have a four-field rotation of: a grain, a legume, another grain, then fallow. Now you are working three-fourths of your land in each season, instead of only two-thirds.

Field-grass husbandry works pasture and meadowlands into the rotation as well. Previously these had been separated, for reasons I don’t fully understand. But if you alternate crops with pasture/meadow, you can reduce or eliminate the fallows—again, for reasons I don’t fully understand. One reason may be that some grasses grown in pasture or meadow are legumes, which would help restore fertility (but others are not). Also, it seems that at this stage, manure from livestock was used to help fertilize the fields. But it’s not clear to me why this wouldn’t have been used at earlier stages.

The final two stages I haven’t gotten to yet in the book. Presumably they involve more fertilizers, including eventually synthetic fertilizer. I imagine they also involve at some point mechanization, irrigation, pesticides and herbicides, and other modern techniques.

The early stages of reading on any project like this are very exploratory. I don’t know what all the topics and issues are until I’ve gotten partway in. Just reading a few chapters of one book has already pointed out to me areas I neglected to list in my initial post.

One is the topic of processing, or food products. Examples that date from ancient times include dairy products such as butter, cheese, yogurt, and cream; other fermented products such as beer, wine, and vinegar; and oils from nuts, olives, etc. I may even want to include some issues of cooking, baking, etc.; but I feel the full extent of this is out of scope for my current project.

The second topic is the interrelationship of agriculture and politics, or more broadly entire ways of life. Agriculture was part of the transition from a nomadic to a settled lifestyle. Although there are transitional states, agriculture made settled society both possible and necessary, and vice versa. A settled people can accumulate goods, both produce and manufactures. This is a great benefit, but also a great risk, because it invites attack from hostile peoples: settlers are an attractive target for raiding nomads, both because of the treasure trove of accumulated goods, and because they cannot simply pick up and run. So settled society forced the evolution of new political structures for protection, and ultimately of hierarchies of power. Agriculture is also bound up with issues such as property rights; medieval European villages, for instance, had some areas private and others in common. The evolution of political structures is also outside the scope of this project, but it’s important context that I was formerly only dimly aware of.

Relevant books

A History of Agriculture in Europe and America

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