Monday, July 29, 2013

Old Timey Farming: reality check

People are always making a lot of assumptions about early agricultural practices. I found this to be of interest.

Energy in Nature and Society
Vaclav Smil, MIT Press, 2008
The most important difference between commercial agriculture, with its assured food surpluses, and vulnerable peasant farming, is not surprisingly, in their divergent energy conservation strategies. As Seavoy (1986)  argued, this difference is perhaps best elucidated by posing a seldom asked question: Why do peasant societies increase their populations to the maximum carrying capacity during normal crop years and expose themselves periodically to seasonal hunger of famine during consecutive harvest failures?  Moreover, why has this happened even in societies with low population densities, high soil fertilities, and fairly elaborate farming techniques? Despite enormous cultural differences, traditional peasant societies shared a strong preference for subsistence compromise,  in which minimum levels of material welfare and food safety were acquired with the least expenditure of physical labor.
The predilection is confirmed by the persistence of shifting agriculture [I take it he means what we would call "slash and burn"] and by the reluctance to expand permanently and adopt more intensive cultivation.  As already mentioned, shifting cultivations, with its absence of tillage, fertilization, and animals, requires relatively low and largely non-specialized energy inputs, and it has been a preferred way of food production in all thinly populated forest regions.  There it included even those populations that had long contacts with settled farmers...
The villages of Carolingian Europe [~early middle ages] were overpopulated, and their grain supplies were constantly insufficient, but except in parts of Germany and Flanders few efforts were made to create new fields beyond the most easily cultivable soils.  Later European history is replete with waves of German migrants from densely populated western regions opening up farmlands in areas considered inferior by local peasants (Bohemia, Poland, Russia) and setting the stage for violent nationalist conflicts for centuries to come.  A similar reluctance can be seen in Asia... (p 166-167).
Little House on the Prairie was a polemic peace and should not be a basis for our ideas on pre-industrial farming.


PioneerPreppy said...

The author seems to be making a generalization on a topic that would be anything but. I am not even sure he is correct in the generalization he made, nor can I make out a specific point.

Limits on European farming were often political issues not popular.

russell1200 said...

Pioneer: Don't you believe in the Protestant work ethic? LOL

Smil is the last person I would want to accuse of lacking thoroughness. Remember the book is about energy, not a history of farming per se.

If I kept going with it, you would see that it is very much not a European-only observation, and that he has sufficient basis points to make his case. He doesn't even bring in the North American example for which he would be dead on with the woodlands farming.

The American historical farming experience is an extreme outlier in any case. How often do you get a (mostly) depopulated continent of push into? Even the Russians had to work harder at it than we did.

What I find particularly surprising is that the generalization also can be applied to the Chinese until relatively late in their overall history.

My guess is that it takes a huge commitment in organization, and an immediate loss of Pasteur, wood/fuel sources, and small game, for a potential good that will not help the best off of the existing land holders. It is the type of initiative that might tend to get pushed from above; which is very hard to do to traditional peasant societies.

If you add to that, that the outlying areas of farming of slash and burn farming, are the most vulnerable to predation when times are difficult (which is constant in some societies) and you can start at least thinking of why all this would occur.