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.