The Roots of Progress

Some agricultural terminology

March 24, 2020 · 4 min read

Every time I start learning about a new area, I encounter terms I don’t know the definition of. Usually I’m familiar with the words, but as I try to grasp what I’m reading, I realize I don’t actually know their meanings. Early examples were charcoal, steel, and smelting. Often there are two or three terms that I understand in a general way but don’t know the difference between, such as cement vs. concrete.

Concepts are the building bricks of knowledge, and without getting clear on them, you have no hope of learning any new subject. So I make the time to look things up and read multiple sources until I feel clear on definitions and distinctions. It slows me down in the beginning but speeds me up long term.

I’ve just started learning about agriculture, so I’m in that stage now. In the spirit of working with the garage door up, here are some terms I looked up recently:

Plowing, tilling, and harrowing

What are these things? I had a vague idea that they were all different ways of preparing the soil, and that’s basically right.

Tilling is the most general term; it refers to any mechanical agitation of the soil. Plowing and harrowing are types of tilling.

Plowing specifically refers to taking the top layer of the soil and turning it over, flipping it upside down. I think this is done to bury anything that was growing on the surface (such as weeds), and to expose nutrients that are below the surface, and probably for other reasons I’m not quite clear on yet.

Harrowing seems to be more like cutting or scraping the soil, and is used for multiple purposes including, I believe, preparing the seedbed.

To make things more confusing, there is a tool called a tiller that does a specific type of tilling, which is also basically combing or raking the soil, and sometimes “tilling” seems to be used in this narrower sense. So far the only difference I can see between a tiller and a harrow is that the harrow is wider, agitating many rows at once.

Wikipedia has a general article on tillage, and a site that reviews agricultural machinery has helpful explanations of tilling vs. plowing and tilling vs. harrowing. (As a side note, I love how some of the most helpful online resources come from these niche industry content marketing sites.)

Spring vs. winter crops

A quote from A History of Agriculture in Europe and America:

In the three-field system, as noted above, one field was fallow, the second planted with winter grain (wheat or rye), and the third with a spring crop (barley, oats, beans, peas, vetches).

Why are some crops “winter” and others “spring”? Does this have to do with the biology of the plants? Is it a convention for some social or economic reason?

Turns out it is mostly biology. Every plant has an optimal temperature range to grow in, a range in which it might grow but might taste bad, and a range in which it won’t grow or will die. (Penn State and The Scientist Gardener were helpful resources here.)

To make things more confusing, “winter” crops are planted in the fall, and can actually be planted again in early spring, a bit before the last frost; “spring” crops must be planted in late spring and grow through the summer. Actually, it’s even more confusing than that, because this is all relative to local climate—in a hot, dry area like California, “spring” crops can be planted in fall. (The Penn State page helpfully uses the less-confusing terms “cool-weather” vs. “warm-weather” plants.)

Arable land, pasture, and meadow

Sure, you know the word “meadow” and you can probably picture one, but can you define it? Can you distinguish it from a “pasture”, or “a big field with, like, grass and flowers and stuff”? I couldn’t.

Arable land is basically farmland. Broadly, it can refer to any land capable of growing crops; in a narrower definition, especially for the purpose of agricultural statistics, it is land currently being used for crops (even if temporarily fallow). Here we are talking about the kind of crops that have to be replanted each year; arable land is distinguished from permanent cropland such as orchards or vineyards.

Pasture and meadow are both fields where grass and similar plants are grown to feed livestock. The difference? You let the livestock graze in the pasture, but not in the meadow—you save the grass in the meadow to make hay, presumably to feed the livestock in the winter.

(“Hay”, you might be wondering at this point, “hay… what is that? And how is it different from straw?” Straw is the dried stalks of cereal crops; it has uses as rough bedding, or for weaving into products such as hats or baskets, or for thatching roofs. Hay is food. Specifically, it is food for livestock, typically made from grass or alfalfa.)

Wikipedia has a good summary of the different types of agricultural land.

Intensive vs. extensive agriculture

This term also came up in the book I was reading, and I was wondering, is it self-explanatory? After reading Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica, it seems self-explanatory. Extensive agriculture just means you’re not very efficient and so you use a lot of land to produce a given amount. Intensive agriculture means you get more efficient and use less land per unit output. Modern industrial agriculture is of course the most intense.

Unclear to me if there’s any kind of qualitative difference here or if it’s just a matter of degree.

Comment on Reddit or debate me on Letter.

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