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Evolution of the plough  RSS feed

 
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Not sure which sub-forum is the most appropriate for these questions so feel free to move me to where-ever is best!

I am not a farmer at all. My interest is in history and I have ended up here trying to understand why permaculture/natural farming/no-tillage as a historical farming technique did not survive contact with the plough. I realise some parts of the world never used the plough but I would like to focus on those that did. I also realise different crop types have different requirements but if I have to give a choice we can go with wheat.

If natural farming/permaculture is possible with equivalent modern yields without any machinery, diesel or other modern day technology it means it should've been possible 1,000s of years ago.

1) If natural farming produces more and requires less physical labour compared to non-mechanised ploughing, why did the plough come into vogue in the first place? What was the evolutionary advantage that the plough had over natural farming that allowed it to be widely adopted despite lower efficiency/output? I have a working theory but would like to see what other opinions/fact are out there.

2) How many acres/hectares can 1 person (without any hired help) work in 365 days? I.e. you are trying to apply your techniques 1,000 years ago.

3) Am I right in understanding that applying these natural techniques there is no need to leave any land fallow?

 
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Staal Burgher wrote:Not sure which sub-forum is the most appropriate for these questions so feel free to move me to where-ever is best!

I am not a farmer at all. My interest is in history and I have ended up here trying to understand why permaculture/natural farming/no-tillage as a historical farming technique did not survive contact with the plough. I realise some parts of the world never used the plough but I would like to focus on those that did. I also realise different crop types have different requirements but if I have to give a choice we can go with wheat.

If natural farming/permaculture is possible with equivalent modern yields without any machinery, diesel or other modern day technology it means it should've been possible 1,000s of years ago.



Correct. And it was done, and still is by certain indigenous peoples today.

Staal Burgher wrote:
1) If natural farming produces more and requires less physical labour compared to non-mechanised ploughing, why did the plough come into vogue in the first place? What was the evolutionary advantage that the plough had over natural farming that allowed it to be widely adopted despite lower efficiency/output? I have a working theory but would like to see what other opinions/fact are out there.



Have you read Edward Faulkner? He researched this exact question for years and could find no obvious written records shedding light on the subject. Plowing predates history, it seems. But his conjecture in "Plowman's Folly" is that plowing eliminated immediate weed pressure allowing for a more successful establishment of crops. Of course plowing also damages the soil and exposes even more weed seeds for germination; but the short term gains of eliminating weeds were far more obvious than the long term drawbacks. Hence it got passed down as "the thing to do" in "modern" farming.

Staal Burgher wrote:
2) How many acres/hectares can 1 person (without any hired help) work in 365 days? I.e. you are trying to apply your techniques 1,000 years ago.


My memory is a little fuzzy but I believe Masanobu Fukuoka estimated that one person can easily keep 1/4 acre continuously cropped with reasonable effort. I might not be remembering that correctly, however. I thought he put forward the idea that all the arable land in Japan could be portioned out such that every family (of approximately four people; the entire population of Japan at the time) would have one to 1.5 acre(s) to produce everything they need.

Staal Burgher wrote:
3) Am I right in understanding that applying these natural techniques there is no need to leave any land fallow?


There are natural farmers that have adopted a zero-fallow practice with great success. Fukuoka is the one of the most famous examples. The now-decommissioned Foundation Farm in Arkansas also did this on 0.5 acres of permanent beds (including not rotating market garden vegetable crops). Those are the only examples I know of off the top of my head. I'm going to try it on my own farmlet however
 
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What you will find throughout history is, with farming "What is old is new again", and the humble plow has gotten this treatment as much as anything else.

I have been farming the 44 years I have been alive, and we are once again coming up on the the plow coming into vogue. Back in the 1980's when I was a kid everyone plowed their planted crops with a plow, then harrowed, and finally seeded down. Then in the mid-1990's we shifted to minimal till which only used disc harrows, to finally vertical tillage, and then no-till farming altogether. Now there is a resurrence back to plows, but they are different then the ones we had back in the 1990's. The new ones are designed to plow less deep, but cover the residue from the previous crop, and currently growing cover crops, to make sowing much easier. Some do not harrow at all, while others can just make a single pass with a harrow and have the ability to plant.

Either way these new plows are designed to save on fuel consumption per section. I say section, because fuel consumption surprisingly is at around 3/4 of a gallon per acre for tillage costs. People often see the massive tractors pulling the wide implements and think how much fuel they consume, but they actually have it all backwards. The big tractor in the photo with its accompanying disc can till the ten acre field this photo was taken in, in 20 minutes using 8 gallons of fuel, my tiny Kubota tractor on the other hand, took 3 days to do the same thing consuming 21 gallons. The math from the farmer comes in, not in in fuel consumption, but IF the cost of the equipment justifies the cost of the machinery. When the big tractor was bought, fuel was $4 a gallon, but the tractor cost $270,000 (that is not a typo) and the disc harrow a whopping $50,000. The Kubota...only $19,000.

However type of crop seldom has to do with the design of the plow, that has to do with the soil. Down south for instance, they use the disc plow a lot, where as in the 1800's here in New England, with our thin rocky soil we could not use disc plows at all.  We could however, use a wooden plow with a steel cladded plow point (hence the name). John Deere was merely a black smith who in the Midwest patented an all steel plow that could work in the deep prairie sod that New England wood and steel cladded plows just could not work in. Plow points on those plows were called Plow Shares, but today a plow point and plow share mean the same thing.

But not all plowing is bad. The Yeoman's Plow, or Subsoiler is a great plow and really does wonders to the soil if certain conditions exist. Farming is fixing things, and with it a person has to have a tool box filled with tools. Plows are a tool in my tool box and only when conditions exist and I use the right one, do I do good things upon my farm. Have they done damage? certainly...come on out and I can show you what plowing mistakes look like. However plows, and certain plow designs, also have their place.

Myself, today we plow a field once every 14-20 years as we crop rotate from grass ground into corn. We just have to break up the compaction that haying causes, as well as the layer of sod. But after that, we can grow corn with minimal till or no-till practices. We grow corn for 7-10 years, then sow down into grass and then bust the grass back into a field for corn again around the 14th to 20th year or rotation. Soil samples and yield can prove this works, or you can just follow behind the plow and watch as dozens of earth worms per linear foot of furrow prove, leaving the field alone for several years allows the soil health to improve. As for soil compaction, that needs a note because depending upon what is in the soil for nutrients, that may be prone, or not prone, to compaction. Plowing busts that up...

As for leaving land fallow; that depends mostly on grazing livestock and sward.

My fields are planted with nitrogen fixing legumes like alfalfa and clover, so my fertilizing needs are very low. Unfortunately legumes are not that hardy and prone to winterkill, at least here in the Northeast. This year was an easy year, deep snow cover when the cold weather hit. Yes it was cold for 3 weeks, but we had snow. That kept the legumes insulated. However my fields are exposed to the Northeast and prevailing winter winds. I can only plant my fields into a low mixture of legumes because that wind will knock my snow cover off. For alfalfa it is 10% on some fields, and on other protected fields, up to 90%. Clover is typically 50%. Because the grass itself is pulling nitrogen from the air, and putting it into my soil, my Nitrogen (the N of the P and K index) is high enough without supplemental fertilizer (manure in my case). However I still have to keep an eye on PH levels (lime) and on the phosphorous and potash (the P and K of the NPK index). Of those two, the P is the one that causes pollution.

The other side of the equation is a grazing ruminant...ovine, bovine, etc. They poo 85% of what they eat back out, so every year the loss amounts to 15%. Generally they provide enough NPK and for the grass to grow, but over time there is a loss. That threshold is reached mathematically after 7 years. Typically the way it was rectified was for the land to rest for a year, to grow, then what it yielded to die off, be taken up by the ground, then on the 8th year allowed to start the return into the new 7 year crop rotation. Today I am a bit more precise, so I can use manure stored from winter feeding in a barn to supplement my fields with the NPK it needs. This is calculated by figuring out what is in my sheep manure, what my soil lacks to adequately grow grass, and cross referencing the two. So I have two options; let the ground rest on the 7th year and go fallow, or spread my winter manure and use it every year? I chose the latter, but have to spend money on fuel and take the time to load and spread manure to do that. It is my choice however, but either way it is ethically and morally sustainable.

Forgive me for any spelling or typos, that was a lot of typing)


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Staal Burgher
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Thanks for the replies!

Bobby Reynolds wrote:
My memory is a little fuzzy but I believe Masanobu Fukuoka estimated that one person can easily keep 1/4 acre continuously cropped with reasonable effort. I might not be remembering that correctly, however. I thought he put forward the idea that all the arable land in Japan could be portioned out such that every family (of approximately four people; the entire population of Japan at the time) would have one to 1.5 acre(s) to produce everything they need.



Yes, I have seen that part. It was pretty vague though. It was something about "5 people working less than an hour a day can feed themselves for a year" or something to that effect. So if we round that up it is 5 hours per day per 1/4 acre per year for 2 harvests. Is that 250 days or 365 days?  365 x 5 = 1,850? Which is about what modern statistics will base per-worker-yields on, i.e. 8 hours per day for 250 days a year = 2,000 hours.

I am struggling to make sense of the yields. 1,300 pounds rice and 1,300 pounds wheat I read from 1/4 acre! I don't know if it is possible to do this but I did a rough calc assuming 2 wheat harvests of 2,000 pounds from that 1/4 acre.

1 acre (pounds) = 8,000 (2,000 x 4)
1 hectare (pounds) = 19,768 (8,000 x 2.47105)
1 hectare (kilograms) = 8,986 (19,768 / 2.2)

My understanding is that modern, mechanised farming yields about 3,000 kg per hectare. 3,000 vs 8,986 just doesn't seem reasonable? Or is the 3,000 kg per hectare just for one harvest? Even 6,000 vs 8,986 seems suspect.

Am I missing something?

Travis Johnson wrote:Forgive me for any spelling or typos, that was a lot of typing)



Practically none and that is a feat considering the amount of text!

My working theory is definitely that the plough came into use because it required less knowledge and was "easily" applied anywhere. The benefits of non-ploughing could not be seen unless someone spent years trying to experiment and I guess people were to busy trying not to starve. It was only in places where ploughing was less practical that non-plough methods were developed historically. The benefits regarding soil erosion etc was completely coincidental and had little to do with indigenous knowledge.
 
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Something worth noting is understanding and education. As early 1500 BC certain peoples were viewing the plow as a curse, a burden man had to bear that he shouldn't have to.

Staal Burgher wrote:1) If natural farming produces more and requires less physical labour compared to non-mechanised ploughing, why did the plough come into vogue in the first place? What was the evolutionary advantage that the plough had over natural farming that allowed it to be widely adopted despite lower efficiency/output? I have a working theory but would like to see what other opinions/fact are out there.


The plough offers the same sort of yield per acre to yield per calorie expended equation that modern machine based agriculture offers now. The ability to cultivate far more land at the cost of significant inefficiency in production.

There's an old chinese saying 'the greatest fertilizer is the gardener's shadow' which is to say that human attention and effort has a massive impact on the productivity of almost any crop. Without being out there in the fields paying attention to the plants, do you think Fukuoka would have made the discoveries that he did?

2) How many acres/hectares can 1 person (without any hired help) work in 365 days? I.e. you are trying to apply your techniques 1,000 years ago.


Depends on your techniques and methods. As a full time subsistence career with a few specialty products for the local village barter exchange/market, one person ought to be able to handle one hectare if they're in very good shape and know what they're doing and have high quality tools and know how grow and lay mulch. Especially if they used a 'plow once' method to start the system and carefully maintained it from then onwards. Especially if that Hectare isn't all annuals. Orchards/Nutteries are massive assets.


Given our modern understanding but using 1,000 year old farming implements, I would manage one hectare as follows.

Set up dual log-fenced* paddocks/'crop fields' sized to about 12 meters square [144 square meters] and arrange some form of flood irrigation that can be briefly directed to any given microfield and rotate two weaner pigs [purchased from a local pig farmer with a few sows] to 'plow'** them for me while growing useful fat and protein. With two pigs, these sized paddocks ought to never reach the point the pigs need to be moved more than twice a day, likely no more than once per day.

Choosing crops that have enough time to either reach harvest before winter or set themselves up to overwinter and flourish in the spring, we come in and seed behind the pigs [or through them in the case of tomatoes and squash and sunflowers]

The pigs will grow more slowly this way, but if born in march will reach decent size by October/November [don't want to slaughter before it gets cold anyway.] Don't forget the positive impact a family's foods scraps can have on two pigs' diet.

*Between the dual logs [which we will flatten the tops of for use as walkways when needed], we plant small productive trees. Allegheny Chinkapin and Hazels and Autumn Olive in particular. On each outer wall we leave a gap in this Food Hedge sized for a portable walkway ramp we construct to transfer the pigs between paddocks. Early on the pigs may stay in a paddock longer than a week, by the end they will be moving daily. Possibly twice a day for the last week or two but most likely not. Moving these ramps is meaningful labor, at least half an hour and possibly an hour per day, but the pigs are doing the hard work.

**Pigs moved quickly enough do a very light fluffing of the soil as they push through it to find food. Leave them too long and they will compact it.


After our first year with the pigs we have a choice. Do we transition to no-till, overseeding into the old crop fields prior to harvest and scything the debris over the new plants as mulch, or do we continue using the pigs for minimal till meat producers? With pigs we'll only get one cropping per field per year, but we get another valuable type of yield out of the system.

After the fedge between the logs gains some maturity to it [and we interweave the branches as best we can to arrange a screen of sorts] we can look into bringing a board of some kind to block the passageway between them and combine chickens [purchased/bartered-for as young poults just old enough to be independent from their mothers from a local farmer] with the pigs. They'll improve pig welfare and enhance the shallow seedbed left behind [both in terms of reducing weed and insect pressure and a finer thin tilth on top] and give us a more gradual meat yield through the year. Each week we can harvest the largest for a family dinner. When the flock starts getting very small we can introduce another batch of poults. They'll get a little beat up by the big ones remaining but we choose ones big enough to survive the sorting of the pecking order.

As we gain experience and the system matures, the overall yields will continue to increase both from soil improvement and the maturation of the hedge.

EDIT: note this is dependent on not having hydric soil in the intended fields.
 
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Staal Burgher wrote:If natural farming/permaculture is possible with equivalent modern yields without any machinery, diesel or other modern day technology it means it should've been possible 1,000s of years ago.

1) If natural farming produces more and requires less physical labour compared to non-mechanised ploughing, why did the plough come into vogue in the first place? What was the evolutionary advantage that the plough had over natural farming that allowed it to be widely adopted despite lower efficiency/output? I have a working theory but would like to see what other opinions/fact are out there.

2) How many acres/hectares can 1 person (without any hired help) work in 365 days? I.e. you are trying to apply your techniques 1,000 years ago.




1) You might be interested in James Scott's Against the Grain, which goes into this very question. Essentially, he argues that cereal cultivation was the result of population pressure: groups of people that originally depended on a wide range of extensively collected food sources ran into the twin trouble of dwindling supplies and more limited ability to move about, essentially forcing them to turn into full-time arable/cereal specialists. This process was aided and abetted by the rise of the state: cereal farming is an activity that allows a great deal of control, measurement and taxation, to an extent that is much more limited with other crops or other ways of farming (mostly because the crop is visible, easily storable and transportable, and ripens all at once). In turn, state bureaucracies sought to make this process even more legible and controllable (by, for instance, mandating certain ploughing techniques, crop rotation schemes, uses of granaries,...). So you cannot explain the rise of ploughing and related agricultural practices without also taking into account the political institutions that benefited from their use.

2). This depends, of course, on a wide range of factors, including the availability of land and domesticated animals, the type of underlying soil, and the degree to which you're integrated into a market system. Are you producing for the market or for your own consumption? Are you trying to maximise yields or trying to maximise profits? The context in which you're working will dictate the extent to which it makes economic sense to invest labour or capital into your fields. As a rough guide, in 18th-century Belgium, a ploughman working with two horses could be expected to plough about half a hectare per day. Cultivating your field with a spade instead would take you about 55-65 days per hectare although you could expect subsequent yields to be higher. Weeding, too, was an activity that could absorb an essentially endless amounts of labour although its effect on increasing yields was clearly a matter of diminishing returns. So the choice whether to invest the time and hard work to maximise yields per hectare to the utmost depended on the size of an individual's holding and his opportunities to engage in other profitable activities. Most smallholders had holdings of 5 hectares or less (sometimes much less), supplementing their incomes with e.g. flax cultivation or weaving.

As for 3), fallowing as a practice died out in the most intensively-farmed European regions from the 16th century or so, replaced by (variations on) a fourfold crop rotation cycle that included e.g. clover and turnips as fodder crops in order to sustain a very high number of manure-producing animals.
 
Travis Johnson
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Staal Burgher wrote:Yes, I have seen that part. It was pretty vague though. It was something about "5 people working less than an hour a day can feed themselves for a year" or something to that effect. So if we round that up it is 5 hours per day per 1/4 acre per year for 2 harvests. Is that 250 days or 365 days?  365 x 5 = 1,850? Which is about what modern statistics will base per-worker-yields on, i.e. 8 hours per day for 250 days a year = 2,000 hours.

I am struggling to make sense of the yields. 1,300 pounds rice and 1,300 pounds wheat I read from 1/4 acre! I don't know if it is possible to do this but I did a rough calc assuming 2 wheat harvests of 2,000 pounds from that 1/4 acre.

1 acre (pounds) = 8,000 (2,000 x 4)
1 hectare (pounds) = 19,768 (8,000 x 2.47105)
1 hectare (kilograms) = 8,986 (19,768 / 2.2)

My understanding is that modern, mechanised farming yields about 3,000 kg per hectare. 3,000 vs 8,986 just doesn't seem reasonable? Or is the 3,000 kg per hectare just for one harvest? Even 6,000 vs 8,986 seems suspect.

Am I missing something?



You are missing two things in my opinion, and I say that respectfully. I am shy on time here so I am in a bit of a hurry. That is good though, I tend to get wordy...

The first thing is, it is often hard to compare modern agricultural yields to potential yields with alternative methods. That is because crops are often planted in rows, even seed drills for cereal grains. Because of the spacing between the rows, a lot of potential food crop is lost.

Years ago we planted our 1600 acres of corn at 36 inch spacing, but now we use "narrow rows" which is 30 inch spacing. That 6 inch per row gives us much greater yeild per acre, but studies have shown we can actually can get almost twice as much yield if we had no rows at all. The corn would NOT be crowded out by competion and a lack of light....but we just have no way to tend the crops without them being in rows. Non-traditional agricuure does not have that issue, so it can get a lot higher yields!! However trying to find these studies on the internet is crazy-difficult because few people are doing them.

The other issue is that you are comparing monoculture agriculture. We all know the 3 sisters method of farming produces and abundance of food per given acre, the problem is not that it cannot be grown, but that it cannot be harvested on a large scale for modern agriculture to do so mechanically. Sadly engineers have jumped upon the "form the crop to the equipment" idea, instead of designing better equipment that can harvest crops like the 3 sisters method of farming! We are farming backwards!

But that rolls into he first point; why should studies be done on ways to farm if there is no practical way for most farmers to harvest how they are sown? That leaves the job up to Permiculture. Think outside the box.






 
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A lot of the discussion in this thread centers around efficiency — how much productivity per amount of land or amount of effort. But the history of plows, monoculture, pesticides and fertilizers are all about one thing: consistency. Large scale agriculture is almost entirely about consistency — how can we predict the revenue of sales for a given piece of land/equipment/labor? Plows are a great example of this since they literally make the ground consistent.

If you read One Straw Revolution, you will remember that it took Fukuoka years and years and years to get any kind of productivity before he found a method that resulted in a higher productivity than his neighbors. That is exactly the scenario that large scale agriculture avoids like the plague. Even if the returns on investment over a 10 year period were higher with natural farming techniques, that would be less desirable than a predictable low margin, profitable business every year. Large scale agriculture is about cash flow, and cash flow favors the predictable.

Now here's the twist: those that lived 1,000s of years ago had the same exact motivations as large scale agriculture. It is far more important to feed your family every single year than it is to maximize crop yields per acre over a ten year period. Consistency is an extremely desirable trait in agriculture because humans require a constant source of food to survive. So long as your results are consistent, you can always get more people to farm and produce more food.
 
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First of all, let me start by saying that I make the assumption that we are really talking about tillage here and not plows. Plows are a specific form of tillage equipment.

Still I disagree with plows making farming consistent. Tillage equipment did not make for constant farming 9000 years ago, and it does not make farming constant today.

Consistency comes from soil fertility and that is a combination of factors, the largest being soil type, and soil amendments. This just stands to reason; no matter what I use for tillage equipment, if I bust sod on my biggest field, I am inevitably going to traverse different areas of soil types, not to mention migration of soil through the years, access to light, etc. The biggest factor of these is soil type as that dictates uptake of nutrients for my crops. This is why soil mapping by the USDA-NRCS is so important, from people looking to buy land, to land values, and obviously to the farmers that use this land for crops. In fact the only true way to get farm consistency today, is to farm in no-soil environments and feed the plants exacting nutrients through liquid nutrients and mediums.

Today great strides are being made due to the information age. We can scan fields as never before, generate computerized maps of areas of a field that are not as productive, and then counter that with specific amendments using GPS guidance. In layman's terms, the areas with the worst soil types are going to need fortification of nutrients to get the crops to grow at the same level of yield. This is the only way to get better consistency across a field. Even then we are getting better at this, but it is just in its infancy at this point.

Tillage may, or may not destroy soil health however. It depends upon the lesser of the evils. On my farm, I have gravelly loam that is ideal for root crops, but is prone to compaction. For me, busting up that compaction achieves higher yields, yet for people in the mid-west, it is not so much of a concern. However, unlike them I have organic matter levels that are almost an unheard of 6%, where as mid-west farmers are typically down to 1%. Soil health is thus not a one-size-fits-all application, and why people experience poor results sometimes when applying techniques from other farmers. This is why observation of a farm is so important, and the top priority of a permicultural Farm.
 
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Soil life has to be present in quantity to be able to kill it through tillage; if there's little to no organic matter in the soil, there's little to no food for your soil. In those cases, dropping a bunch of organic matter and tilling it in to the top three inches of soil with a single pass will do more good than harm, and compost extracts can be used after to inoculate the soil at need.

But in cases of thriving soil, dragging tools through it and turning it upside down will kill off soil life.

Careful tillage is definitely a tool in the permacultural toolbox, but just like on-contour swales, a steep grade, and hugelkultur probably won't go together well in most circumstances, tillage is one tool with a specific function not suited to all situations, and brings with it massive disaster potential.

As to corn spacing, I recall reading in one of Redhawk's soil threads that he definitely saw stunting in his more closely-spaced corn experiments (or it might have been someone posting on one of Redhawk's soil threads). I would be shocked if increasing the stocking rate, which is effectively what is being done with minimal spacing, didn't result in a greater plant resource uptake, causing scarcity after a while. I think really well-developed fungal networks would need to be in place to move that many resources around, which, except in the case of limited disturbance for remediation, would be less likely in a tillage free-for-all.

I think it's important to keep in mind what these individual tools, down to specific types of tillage tool for particular applications, are designed to do and what they do well, along with what the soil needs. I don't drive fenceposts with an entrenching tool, and I don't dig ponds with a broad fork.

-CK
 
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Staal Burgher wrote:Not sure which sub-forum is the most appropriate for these questions so feel free to move me to where-ever is best!

I am not a farmer at all. My interest is in history and I have ended up here trying to understand why permaculture/natural farming/no-tillage as a historical farming technique did not survive contact with the plough. I realise some parts of the world never used the plough but I would like to focus on those that did. I also realise different crop types have different requirements but if I have to give a choice we can go with wheat.

If natural farming/permaculture is possible with equivalent modern yields without any machinery, diesel or other modern day technology it means it should've been possible 1,000s of years ago.

1) If natural farming produces more and requires less physical labour compared to non-mechanised ploughing, why did the plough come into vogue in the first place? What was the evolutionary advantage that the plough had over natural farming that allowed it to be widely adopted despite lower efficiency/output? I have a working theory but would like to see what other opinions/fact are out there.

2) How many acres/hectares can 1 person (without any hired help) work in 365 days? I.e. you are trying to apply your techniques 1,000 years ago.

3) Am I right in understanding that applying these natural techniques there is no need to leave any land fallow?



https://www.amazon.com/Revolution-Down-Farm-Transformation-Agriculture/dp/0813192420

I found that Revolution Down on the Farm by Paul Conkin to be a good read if you're interested in getting some context on the plough and its evolution and impact on agriculture. I recall that one of the earlier chapters goes into some depth on the topic. The book also does a nice job summarizing the decline of American agriculture if you're curious on one dude's point of view.
 
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