Tracing Crop Rotations Through Time: A Search for Sustainability
History of Crop Rotations
“The most essential challenge for humanity is to learn to eat from nature’s bounty without destroying it in the process, to find our appropriate niche within nature.”
Crop rotation can be traced all the way back to the ancient Roman, African, and Asian cultures. It has evolved alongside the progress of agriculture since the first domestication of plants. The benefits of such rotation were realized early and utilized to their full potential. Even in Europe during the Middle Ages farmers followed a three-year rotation pattern, planting rye or winter wheat during the first year, followed by spring oats or barley in the second year, and then no crops were grown in the third year. Later in the eighteenth century, British agriculturist Charles Townshend developed a four-year crop rotation of wheat, barley, turnips, and clover that aided the European agricultural revolution (Bellis 2005). This rotation has implications in the United States as well seeing as Europeans brought many of their domesticated plants and animals with them when they came to the New World.
Settlement of America combined native plant and animal species with ones brought over from Europe and other world regions creating a new set of agricultural conditions. In the beginning the conditions of colonizing made subsistence farming the main form of agriculture. It was not until the frontier opened up and the idea of Manifest Destiny hit that American agriculture began down its own pathway of revolution.
For my analysis I have broken down the history of American agriculture into three sections. I determined the breaks based on two significant turning points in the practice of agriculture, which had repercussions throughout the entire nation and world. The first break occurs in 1850 when the commercial corn and wheat belts began to form illustrating the initiation of what has become our current form of industrial agriculture. The second break at 1940 displays how technology and machinery shifted our system toward more industrial farm operations. Through analysis of our historical patterns the road to our current farming practices becomes clearly established.
With the onset of new machinery and farming practices, many of the old traditions of farming, including the culture that surrounded these activities, were left behind. Gene Logsdon shares a story illustrating the community and rituals that also were lost when traditional agricultural practices were replaced with more industrial farming techniques.
"Before the industrial revolution, corn shocks were hauled in good weather to the barn, and then in harsh winter, the young people went from farm to farm in the evenings making a party out of the husking. The person who husked a red ear - and there were many red ears in the days before standardized hybrid corn - got to kiss his or her sweetheart. This was the cultural, even cultured, way of making work pleasant. It was replaced by a farmer husking corn alone in a cold December field, day after day - a misery, one he was driven to when technology made communal work impossible and obsolete, and when traditional social rituals had lost their significance (2000).”
Such enriching community experiences were replaced with more hectic and expensive lifestyles for the farmers and their families. In turn, these farmers were later replaced with more industrial agribusinesses that could shoulder the burden of mass food production. Our society has lost the local knowledge and community spirit that went hand in hand with traditional farming practices before the rise of commercial monocropping. The loss of human community parallels the weakening in the relationship between farmer and land as well.
In Minnesota small farmers trying to make a living in the harsh Midwest environment were still practicing crop rotation late into the 1800s. Through the journals of Oliver Kelley we know that he raised corn, oats, wheat, hay, sorghum, and vegetables on his farm in addition to raising different kinds of livestock. Around 1874 Mary Carpent describes the layout of her farm in a letter: "The land here is rich and productive. We have in four acres broomcorn, four of corn, one of potatoes, and beans; besides quite a good garden." Most of this farming was only being done by subsistence farmers, as the commercial monocropping wave was approaching.
Through the Homestead Act of 1862 there was a migration toward the Great Plains as people wanted land to farm and call their own. Those farmers who could prove that they had been residing upon or farming their land for five consecutive years were granted the claim to their land. Farmers could not get more than 160 acres or work more than one claim in a lifetime (Schlebecker 1975). Farming the prairies of the Midwest began to boom leading to the heavy agricultural settlement by the 1880s. Modern monocultures also dominated the Great Plains landscape now, decreasing soil fertility and depleting the soil of much needed nitrogen.
In the south, monocropping of cotton, a soil-depleting crop, had lead to soil degradation. George Washington Carver, while a teacher at the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute for Negroes, developed a crop rotation that would help revive the southern soil. Carver advocated that farmers alternate soil-depleting crops, such as cotton, with soil-enriching crops, such as peanuts, peas, soybeans, sweet potatoes, and pecans (Bellis 2005). Through this cycle the south underwent their own agricultural revolution that renewed their soil and in doing so their connection with the natural processes of the land.
As tractors became available and affordable to all farmers the efficiency with which large acres of land could be cultivated increased and therefore industrial methods of agriculture increased right alongside leading us into the era of agribusiness. Interestingly enough, World War II aided this movement by creating the conditions needed to discover herbicides and pesticides. Scientists were working to discover chemicals or other agents that could be manipulated to kill only one specific type of vegetation. Through their research they came across DDT and some of the more effective herbicides. Biological warfare helped lead the way to our modern system of agriculture.
In conjunction with the rising of industrial farming smaller family farms were decreasing. "In 1900, there were 5.7 million farms in the United States, averaging 138 acres apiece. By 1978, the number had dropped to 2.5 million, and their average size was 415 acres. (Jackson, Berry, and Colman 1984)." Industrial agribusiness has taken the 'culture' out of agriculture, as Wendell Berry would say. Food production has become a business only corporations seem to be allowed to participate in. Crops are seen as commodities and traditional farmers as we know them are all but disappeared. The local knowledge and connection to the land and its processes are on the verge of being lost as well.
As we hit the 1960s hopeful movements can be seen that are trying to renew the relationship between land and farmer, or corporation, as may be the case. The idea of crop rotation is resurfacing as the ancient benefits are once again realized. Soybeans are introduced only the first step towards a more diverse and sustainable agricultural system. The farm bill of 1985 was unproductive in that it "required farmers with highly erodible land to design approved conservation plans by 1990 to remain eligible for any government farm support or loan program, [however], other provisions still made farmers lose benefits if they used crop rotation (Soule and Piper 1992)." The 1990 farm bill changed this ruling so that farmers could use crop rotation and were even encouraged to do so.
We are currently in a period where research is being done to discover more sustainable agricultural practices as we realize that our modern industrial system is unhealthy for humans and the environment alike. Crop rotation has been a valuable method of sustainable agriculture known by ancient civilizations and historical settlers alike, forgotten through the industrial and technological revolution that has taken hold of our country. It is time to rediscover this important tradition and all its benefits in order to restore balance to our relationship with nature and save the health of our society.
Information for timeline was provided by: (Soule and Piper 1992), (Schlebecker 1975), and (Bellis 2005)