Top 10 Facts About The Rise Of Modern Agriculture
The story of agriculture is the story of man. When, thousands of years ago farmers in the Middle East first started to grow wheat rather than gather it from the wild, the people of China started to plant rice or the Incas to grow corn they set us on a path that led, inexorably from hard toil under the hot sun to the moon landings of the 1960s.
The advancements of civilization, both good and bad, became possible only because of a surplus of food. In Neolithic times early humans spent almost all their time searching for food, whether in the form of wild meat or wild grains. As both crops and animals were domesticated farmers started to create a surplus of food which they could sell at a profit and which craftsmen could purchase with their specialist goods and which rulers could demand in return for protection.
Even with early developments in agriculture it was believed, by many people such as Thomas Malthus, that population growth would eventually outstrip supply leading to famine and misery. Time and again, however, human ingenuity has managed to increase the productivity of crops and the land used to grow them.
Here are 10 things you may not have known (but really should) about the rise of modern agriculture.
10. People started experimenting with agriculture about 11,500 years ago
People first started planting crops for their own use over 11,000 years ago. The very first evidence we have for the use of agriculture was in Mesopotamia about 11,500 years ago where archaeologists found seeds taken from their normal habitat and planted in a different area. The Bible also references the use of plant and animal agriculture in the same area.
Although the varieties grown were very different to those we are used to today the Mesopotamians grew barley, wheat, peas, olives, grapes, lentils and other vegetables as well as domesticating sheep, pigs and cows. The earliest crops that we know of are two wheat varietals, Einkorn and Emmer Wheat which were wild grasses with large, easy to collect seed heads. At around the same time agriculture based on rice was developing in China and, some thousands of years later there is evidence of the development of agriculture in the Americas, New Guinea and in Africa. In fact, we know that agriculture was ‘invented’ or discovered independently at least five different times. Agriculture appears to have been developed in a remarkably similar way in each location with farmers noticing which plants were both edible and grew prolifically and then planting it on their own land. After plants were domesticated farmers started to keep herds of wild animals and gradually build their own self reproducing herds.
9. In the middle ages people farmed large fields made up of individual strips of land
While farmers in Asia were dependent on an agricultural system that relied in rice as the staple crop in the south and wheat in the north farmers in Europe had access to a much wider range of crops. Originally farmers used a two crop system which cultivated only 50% of the land in one year, allowing the other land to regenerate its nutrients and be used for planting the following year. While this was suited to the Mediterranean climate of the Roman Empire it was not the best system for Northern Europe.
Farmers discovered that they could move to a three field system allowing them to cultivate 2/3 of the land available using one field for a summer crop, one for a winter crop and leaving one to regenerate. As an added benefit the summer crop was often beans or peas which are ‘nitrogen fixers’ i.e. they return nitrogen into the soil.
Farming land in the village was divided up into large fields of strips. Farming was typically done by serfs, people who practically belonged to the lord of the village. They would each have their own strips within the field and would work that strip on their own, from this they would be required to produce the food they paid to their overlord and the church by way of tithe and the food that would feed their own family. Serfs would have had no autonomy about what to plant – they were required to grow whatever the rotation system called for that year. The system had some advantages, everyone got some summer and some winter crops and everyone had an equal distribution of the good and bad land.
As the Middle Ages progressed some developments served to make life easier for the serfs. A new, more efficient plow was created that plowed deeper and was easier to handle. Horse collars were developed that made it possible for horses to pull plows. Heavier horses were also bred that were able to plow much faster than the oxen that were originally used (oxen continued to be used by the less well off with the very poorest having to pull the plows themselves). Because the horses moved faster than oxen villages were able to cultivate more land at greater distance from the village giving them more food security and sometimes even a surplus that they could sell at a profit.
8. The agricultural revolution increased the variety of crops available
Although the initial discovery of agriculture thousands of years ago is often termed the first agricultural revolution there was a step change in the agricultural techniques used in Europe in the 17 and 1800s that made the production of food much more efficient and had a significant impact on society as a whole. These techniques spread to all parts of the world that produced European style crops or were under European influence at the time.
The first steps were taken in Britain when the Enclosure Acts forced the old three field, strip system to come to an end. The fields were bought by large scale farmers who were able to rely on economies of scale, poorer people who were pushed off the land either worked for the wealthy farmers as laborers or went to the cities to work in the factories that were starting to drive the Industrial Revolution.
At around the same time the seed drill which planted seeds far more efficiently and neatly than the old ‘scatter’ method. Allied with this the larger farms moved from a three field system to a four field system, this prevented fields needing to be kept fallow for one year but instead allowed them to be used to plant nitrogen fixers such as turnips and clover that could also be used to feed livestock through the winter. This meant that not only was more land under cultivation but farmers were able to support larger herds of livestock which not only provided fertilizer for the fields but allowed people to add more meat to their diet.
In addition to these innovations a wider range of crop plants were available, the potato was introduced to England as a crop plant and broccoli was grown for the first time. Although fewer people than ever were working the land to produce the food needed to feed the population diets were healthier and more balanced than ever with more people being able to eat meat and vegetables instead of subsisting on grain.
7. In 1793 the cotton gin made large cotton plantations economically viable
Agriculture is not just the practice of growing crops for consumption or of animal husbandry. There has always been an interest in growing ‘cash crops’, items that are not needed for consumption but which are grown solely to be sold at a profit. Clothing is, along with food, a basic human need. Cheap clothing was typically made from linen or wool with more expensive items being made from silks and furs.
Although cotton was an easy crop to grow and made a comfortable, versatile cloth, it was difficult to process because it was hard to separate the cotton seeds from the fibers. The cotton gin (engine) invented by Eli Witney in 1793 allowed the cotton fibers to be pulled through a mesh by hooks while the seeds were trapped. The cotton gin made cotton a cheap, reliable material from which to weave cotton cloth in the new textile mills of the industrial revolution and it became the major American export of its day, sadly the cotton gin also contributed to the growth of huge cotton plantations in the Southern US and the increase in slave culture in those states.
6. People began to experiment with machines to help reap the harvest from around 1800
Jethro Tull’s seed drill (see above) invented in 1701 was arguably, after the plow, the first ever agricultural machine. The drill paved the way for the increasing mechanism of agriculture by showing farmers how machines could help reduce the amount labor needed while simultaneously increasing yields.
The success of the drill encouraged people to start to experiment with other agricultural machines that would decrease the intensity of labor required to farm land. By 1799 the first ever patent for a reaping machine was filed in England. It was not successful but further attempts were made (often stymied by laborers concerned about losing their employment). The first successful reaper was made in 1826 when Patrick Bell developed a horse pulled reaping machine in Scotland. This invention spurred on several American inventors who were researching the same problem. Cyrus McCormick developed a machine which could be bought in installments and was backed up with a reliable supply of spare parts.
The machine was further refined by an attachment which bound the sheaves as they were harvested. This reaper-binder was the direct ancestor of today’s combine harvesters.