Our ancestors were pretty darn clever

There was a post yesterday over at Samurai Knitter about how grains and beans are the foundation of civilization.  It’s true.  Eaten together grains and beans form complete proteins without which we wouldnt be where we are today.

How our ancestors grew their food is just as important as what they grew.  How food is grown has a direct effect on crop and soil health.  If your soil isnt healthy you’re not going grow squat.  Dont forget that dirt is a living thing.  The only reason dirt smells like dirt is because of bacteria.  Dirt is teeming with bacterial and microbial life and it has to be fed and cared for to produce properly.  It’s kind of amazing when you think about it.  Without bacterial, microbial, insect, other invertebrate life nothing will grow.  All that life is what makes soil fertile and what gives soil the nutrients plants need to grow.

Our ancestors were pretty damn smart.  A whole hell of a lot smarter than most modern “civilized” people give them credit for. As an aside, I work with a guy who believes aliens built the pyramids because humans at that time just wernt smart enough.   I dont know how they figured out that crop rotation, letting fields lie fallow, organic fertilizer (dead fish etc) made fertile crops, and happy soil, but they did.  Without that no one, not even aliens, would have been able to build the pyramids.  Those damn heathen In’juns taught farming to the Pilgrims and the men in Jamestown.  Partly so they wouldnt starve and partly so they would quit robbing heathen In’jun graves for grain to eat.

Crop rotation has been around a long time.  Probably about as long as people have been raising crops.  As the name implies crops are rotated during the year or from year to year.  An easy example is corn and soybeans.  Corn (for all it’s deliciousness) is pretty hard on soil.  Corn, like cotton, sucks nutrients out of soil.  Soybeans are a nitrate fixer (nitrate fixers are plants that take nitrogen from the air and fix it into the soil) and replenish what corn takes from the soil.  It’s good for pest control too.  Bugs that love one crop might not like another so much.  Without their favourite food they starve.  Woe be unto them.  Bastards.

The Wikipedia page on crop rotation has an interesting section about crop rotation during the Islamic Golden Age.  Apparently they got pretty scientific about it and wrote down all their observations.  This at a time when Europeans were too busy drowning witches and fighting over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

There are other techniques used in combination with crop rotation that serve the same purpose.  Cover crops for instance.  Red Clover is a good example of a cover crop.  It’s a nitrate fixer, helps prevent erosion, and helps keep water in the soil.  All kinds of plants can be used for cover crops: Buckwheat, red clover, peas, etc.  Cover crops also help with pest control and weed control.  Till them under, free fertilizer.

Letting fields lie fallow for a season or two is a good way to replenish soil nutrients.  Dirt gets tired of producing after a while.  It’s a living thing.  Letting fields lie fallow is a good way of giving it a break.  I saw farming change a little when I was growing up.  Farmers started to let their corn husks and stalks stand in the field through the winter instead of plowing them under.  Prevents soil erosion and improves the quality of the soil.

Ever wonder why farmers plant their rows in wavy lines?  To prevent soil erosion.  In grade school we had DNR people come in and talk about top soil and soil erosion.  The only thing that grew in Iowa before Europeans came was prairie.   God only knows how many years of plant build up there was in that dirt before it saw a plow.  It’s why the dirt there is so black and fertile and why it was so freaking hard to put a plow through.  Lots and lots of roots and plant matter just under the surface.

A good and successful look at this in action is Incan Agriculture.  Those people werent robbing any graves to get their grain.  The Incan empire would not have been possible without their very sophisticated, highly developed farming practices.  Terraced steps, the use of fish for fertilizer, carrying fertile dirt up mountains . . .  Too bad the Spanish had to save those backward, heathen, In’juns from themselves.

The lack of these techniques lead to the conditions that caused the Dust Bowl.  Yeah, there were other environmental factors too.  There was a prolonged drought because there was a change in the flow of the jet stream.  That being said, the farming practices used before and up until that point exacerbated the situation.  There were dust storms that lasted for days.  The Dust Bowl wasnt just in Oklahoma.  It ranged all the way up to the East Coast.  Here are some photos:

Look at  those dust clouds.  Could you imagine that coming toward your home and farm?  I’d be pretty alarmed and scared if something like that was coming toward me or my home.  Other than putting blankets over the windows I wouldnt know what the fuck to do.  Just think about what it must have been like if you couldnt get to shelter and got caught in that.  It’s not like being caught in a rainstorm.  The migration of Okies to CA in the 30’s during the Dust Bowl is still the largest human migration in US History.  Yes, there was a drought.  But, more importantly (imho) years before the drought the agricultural practices were sorely lacking in terms of conservation.  Cotton was intensively grown, and in many areas was the sole crop.  Cotton wreaks havoc on soil if the earth is not given a rest.  It sucks nutrients out of the soil without adding anything to it.  After a while the soil is basically dead.  If soil is abused all the microbial and bacterial life dies.  Without that the worms, other invertebrates and insects that live in the soil die too.  Years without letting fields lie fallow, crop rotation, proper irrigation, etc. left nothing to hold the soil in it’s place.  With the soil basically dead and nothing to hold it together or down on the earth all it takes is a little wind to blow it away.

In order to prevent something this catastrophic from happening again our Government encouraged farmers to engage in practices such as: crop rotation, plowing fields in wavy lines, planting cover crops, letting fields lie fallow, and not plowing their crop under in the winter.  Gasp!  Just what those unsophisticated, heathen, In’juns did so many years ago.

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2 Responses to Our ancestors were pretty darn clever

  1. Samer says:

    A very nice post on sustainable agriculture… perfect time for Earth Day. 🙂

  2. JulieT says:

    Yay! I’m not alone! Thanks for joining me in Plant Geek infamy.

    I once toured an organic farm in Hawaii. Blew me away. Just amazing. Four crops a year, no fallow season, and everything lush and huge. They grew beets between rows of fennel, because the fennel ‘hid’ the beets from the bugs. When we finally buy a house I intend to base my gardening on the stuff I learned there.

    Oh. And monocrops are evil. Just sayin’.

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