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agronomic history

Posted 10/23/2014 11:34am by Judy Lessler.

I preparation for winter, we are planting the fall cover crops. We rotate our cash crops across three summer fields so that two are under cover crops each year. This builds soil and helps control diseases and pests since bacteria, viruses, and bugs have to hunt around for their favorites.  

Cover cropping has been employed for thousands of years. The ancients did not understand soil chemistry at the elemental level but had good knowledge of what worked and what did not. In spite of its ancient origin, this knowledge was not always widespread. For example, in the 1800s farmers and plantation owners moved into Alabama because they had depleted their soil by constantly planting of cotton in the same fields in South Carolina.  

Marcus Terentius Varro lived for nearly 90 years (from 116BC to 27BC). When he was 80, his wife purchased a farm and asked how to increase it fertility. In response, he wrote a treatise on agriculture for her. Presumably, his wife was considerably younger because he stated that, "while I still live, [I will] bequeath my counsel to my nearest and dearest. I will then write three books for you, to which you may have recourse for guidance in all things which must be done in the management of a farm."  

He starts the book by "invoking the divine approval...from the solemn council of those twelve divinities who are the tutelaries of husbandmen. He starts out with Farther Jupiter and Mother Earth and ends up with "Lympha, goddess of the fountains, and Bonus Eventus, god of good fortune, ...."because without water vegetation is starved and without good luck all tillage is in vain." I think Bonus Eventus is an excellent name for a god and intend to invoke his help from now on.  

Varro writes in the form of a dialog. He sets that stage by saying he went to a temple on a holiday called Sementivae because he had been invited to dinner by the Sacristan (chief caretaker of the temple). Others are there also waiting for the dinner and began a dialog on agriculture. The characters in the dialogue speak with eloquence and authority citing other writers as sources for their statements, and occasionally personal observations.  Most likely this did not happen as described--it was a method for writing an essay.

During the dialogue, a character called Scrofa states that, "Certain plants are cultivated not so much for their immediate yield as with forethought for the coming year, because cut and left lying they improve the land. So if the land is too thin, it is the practice to plow in for manure, lupines not yet podded, and likewise, the field pea, if it is not yet ripened so that it is fitting to harvest the beans. " 

This is exactly what we are doing at Harland's Creek Farm. We are planting winter rye and Austrian winter peas in Plot G and will follow pink-eyed purple peas next spring and summer. Crops will be in Plot G in 2016. Plot I will have the cash crops next year, 2015, and will be planted with clover and vetch this fall. Plot I has already had Sudan-grass and cow peas, winter rye, and Essex kale in 2013 and 2014.  

We are, as advised by Varro over 2000 years ago, planting with "forethought for the coming years."   

Posted 9/24/2014 12:30pm by Judy Lessler.

For the Chronicles of Okra, I have been reading about the history of agriculture and have found some translations of ancient writings--Varro, Pliny and so on. This week I found a very interesting contemporary article on the history of grafting. Here are some cool things I found out. The article is A History of Grafting, by Ken Mudge, Jules Janick, Steven Scofield, and Eliezner Goldschmidt. I found it with a Google search and was able to download the PDF.  

Gathering of grains and pulses began about 10 to 12 thousand BC. Pulses are legumes like chickpeas, lentils, and peas. Soon after, these were domesticated. I am not sure when the Neolithic Era, which is defined as settled agricultural communities, actually is considered to have started. The Neolithic transition includes the development of towns and settled communities, clearing of land, and other characteristics of agricultural communities. Apparently there is no start date, and the transition occurred at different times all over the world. However, food collected from trees fruits and nuts were also an important part of the diet of these more settled communities.  

Growing new trees from the seeds of existing trees was problematic in that they did not breed true. Thus the first orchards were confined to fig, olive, pomegranate, grape, and date palms which can be propagated from cuttings or division of root stock. This type of orchard production was wide spread by the 4000 to 3000 BC. It was not until about 1000 BC that apple, pear, and plum orchards were wide spread. By then people had discovered grafting. This greatly facilitated the spread of fruit orchards and the improvement of varieties.  

Grafting involves cutting a scion from the desired tree, making a matching cut on the rootstock, and binding them together by carefully lining up the vascular cambium layers of the two trees. No one knows how ancient people discovered this. Whoever did was the creative genius of his or her time and has had a larger impact on the world than either Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, or modern innovative heroes. I suspect that it was discovered in many places by many people.  

When we made our grafts for the coming pear orchard, we wrapped them with masking tape and covered the tape with a tar that kept water out and held moisture in. The ancients used a mixture of lime, bark, mud, and hair to seal the graft. They were aware of the need to keep moisture in, and not having any tape or tar, they sometimes suspended a pot of water over the graft and let water drip on the graft to keep if from drying out.  

The ancients did not know about genetics, and some reasoned that the roots of a plant determined the nature of the fruit and growth because of the liquid that flowed from the roots up into the tree. This posed a serious problem for explaining why, for example, a red rose grafted on a white rose only produced red roses. No hybrid mixing was observed. One theory was that the scion sent down its own roots through the branches and trunk of the rootstock and was, thereby, able to maintain its innate characteristics.  

So cool.

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