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Even simple plows made of wood represented a great advance in agricultural technology because they could be pulled by large, domesticated animals, increasing harvests. More complex plows made of iron facilitated the development of feudal society and, to some extent, Western civilization. Plows pulled by motorized tractors are still an integral part of the world’s commercial farming system.
Plows allowed humans to use the strength of large, domesticated animals—oxen, horses, water buffaloes, donkeys, and even camels—to cultivate more land than they could using their own power. The amount of grain a family could produce in a year increased accordingly, and where sufficient pastureland could be found, farmers in Eurasia and Africa were able to produce more grain than they themselves needed for food and seed. That, in turn, allowed cities and civilizations to arise. Thereafter, subsequent improvements in plowing methods and other agricultural innovations enlarged food supplies still further; using modern tractors less than five percent of the population of the United States now routinely feeds the rest of the country, with extra left over for export.
In pre-Columbian North and South America, however, domesticated animals capable of pulling a plow were lacking, so when Amerindian civilizations arose, food surpluses to feed cities depended on human labor using digging sticks, hoes, and spades to prepare the soil for planting. But even from smaller fields, Amerindian farmers provided a food surplus because their two principal crops—maize and potatoes—yielded far more food per acre than Old World grains. But the rural surpluses in the Americas were not as elastic as they turned out to be in the Old World, where breeding stronger animals, inventing better harnessing, improving plow design, and selecting better seeds combined to enlarge agricultural productivity across the centuries.
Plows were probably first invented in western Asia. Visual images left by the ancient civilizations (c. 3000 BCE) of Mesopotamia and Egypt first show ox-drawn plows, usually with their most vital working part buried in the Earth. Made wholly of wood, early plows are scarce to nonexistent in the archaeological record, so exactly when and where oxen were first hitched by their horns to a digging stick and compelled to drag it through the soil will never be known. Digging sticks had to be reshaped and made heavier before becoming efficient scratch plows, but once that had been done, the practice of plowing spread very widely. Scratch plows appeared in China along with domesticated cattle, wheat, and barley from western Asia about 3000 BCE, and a cave painting in Sweden dating from something like a thousand years later shows a similar plow in that distant part of Europe.
Scratch plows were light enough for a single man to carry on his back, but for a long time a rope tied to a wooden yoke attached to the horns of two oxen was needed to pull one through the soil. Wooden scratch plows were soon made more durable by using stones shaped into plowshares to slice through and break up the soil. Shaped stones were later replaced by thinner and less fragile iron plowshares throughout Eurasia after about 700 BCE. Wherever scratch plows worked the land, cross plowing—first one way, then again at right angles—was the usual way to prepare the soil for the seed, thus squarish field shapes became standard.
Where rain fell only part of the year, for example in northern China, western Asia, and around the Mediterranean, plowing began when the first rains softened the sun-baked soil and lasted only a few weeks, when planting had to start to give grain enough time to grow and ripen while the rainy season lasted. Wheat, barley, and oats grew wild on the hillsides of western Asia, where the large seeds that made them so nourishing for humans gave them a fast start when moisture returned to the land and allowed them to outstrip the growth of rival plants. But when humans intervened and started to grow grain where it did not naturally prevail, weeds were always a problem. This required early farmers to leave cultivated land fallow, often every other year, so summer plowing could uproot weeds before their seeds formed and so assure a good crop of grain the next season.
In semi-arid climates a single family could cultivate about ten acres of grain by using scratch plows, so surplus food for the support of cities, armies, and governments remained comparatively restricted. But first China and then Europe escaped this limitation in two quite different ways.
China’s way was to create irrigated fields for growing rice. That required an enormous effort to level, dike, drain each field, and regulate the flow of streams to supply just the right amount of water to each field for part of the year and then stop the flow and drain the field when it was time to harvest the crop. Humans wielding hoes and spades reshaped natural slopes and streambeds to create and maintain such irrigation, and human labor did not cease when the fields were securely covered by a few inches of standing water. Rice seeds had to be planted in special seed beds, watered by hand, then transplanted to the flooded fields as soon as the seedlings had grown tall enough to reach above the surface of the water.
When all went well, irrigated rice yielded as much or more food per acre as maize and potatoes did in America. But the immense amount of human labor irrigation required made Chinese yields per person smaller than Europeans eventually attained. Nor did plows disappear from China when so many spades and hoes got to work. Cross plowing irrigated fields before transplanting the sprouted rice remained usual, and the Chinese soon invented an improved form of moldboard plow for that purpose that turned the soil over in a continuous furrow instead of breaking the surface up into loose pieces as scratch plows did. They also improved harnessing so light moldboard plows, pulled by a single animal, became usual in China after about 300 BCE. But human muscle still did the work of making and maintaining dikes and canals, and the carefully leveled irrigated fields were far too small for heavy, large plows like those Europeans resorted to after about 800 CE.
Overall, the Chinese style of wet rice cultivation was very laborious, but it was so productive and dependable that it spread far and wide from the flood plains of the Huang (Yellow) and Yangzi (Chang) rivers where it first became standard. Fields of irrigated rice gradually spread throughout the rest of historical China wherever sufficient water was available. In ensuing centuries, Chinese pioneers, fleeing from overcrowded regions, moved across the landscape like a glacier, altering natural contours and drainage systems more radically than any human population had ever done before.
Beyond China’s borders, wet rice cultivation also spread to Korea, penetrated the major river valleys of Southeast Asia and eastern India, and also crossed the seas to Japan and Indonesia. Consequently, something like half of humankind today depends on rice for most of its food, and its cultivation demands far more intensive stoop labor than farmers of northwestern Europe ever had to endure.
Through classical Greek and Roman times, scratch plows with iron plowshares tilled fields of wheat and barley in western Asia, North Africa, and Mediterranean Europe, but year-round rainfall restricted successful farming in northwestern Europe to unusually well-drained soils. On the flat north European plain, extending from France’s Loire Valley to the Urals, dank forests prevailed, and waterlogged landscapes made grain farming marginal. Cattle raising played a prominent role in the north, and where grain could be made to grow, oats and rye replaced the more nutritious wheat and barley of Mediterranean lands because they ripened more quickly. With only a limited supply of food, human populations in northwestern Europe remained thinly scattered amid the forests and could not support cities.
Heavy moldboard plows changed this situation fundamentally by spreading grain fields across the landscape after about 800 CE. Such plows perhaps existed for a long time before they came into wide use. The Roman author, Pliny the Elder, (d. 79 CE) says in his Natural History that Celts used a plow with “ears” somewhere in modern France; they may have been ancestral to the medieval European moldboard plow. But a moldboard plow casts the soil to one side only, and that was essential for its eventual success in making northwestern Europe’s waterlogged plains into fertile fields of grain. If Pliny’s “ears” scattered the soil on both sides of the plow, no such result would have followed. Of course, he may have been wrong about how many ears the Celtic plows had. But we can still be sure that plows with a single “ear,” or moldboard, did not come into common use for centuries.
Hundreds of years later, heavy moldboard plows did exist in northwest Europe, becoming common only after about 900. They had a vertical, knifelike coulter thrust into the soil close behind a pair of wheels, located above and ahead of a horizontal iron share designed to slice the furrow and regulate its depth. Then there came a large wooden moldboard lying crosswise behind the share to turn the furrow and roll it over to one side. Lastly, long handles stuck out behind so plowmen could steer the plow and keep the furrow straight.
Four to eight oxen (or even more) were needed to lift and turn the furrows, so no ordinary family could afford such plows. This must have delayed its spread as did the fact that so many oxen could not be turned around easily; plowmen needed several yards of untilled “headland” at the end of each furrow to lift, turn, and reengage the plow. Consequently, these heavy moldboard plows could not operate efficiently within the small, square-shaped fields suitable for scratch plows. They also needed a team of several men to control the oxen up front and prevent them from tangling the harness while others behind struggled to guide the plow on a straight and even course. Several families, in short, had to pool resources, each contributing an ox and one or more men to work the plow.
Draining the Fields
Yet when field shapes were altered to allow animals and men to pool their efforts on the necessary scale, the effect was extraordinary. That was because moldboard plowing had the effect of draining surplus water from northwest Europe’s plains, almost accidentally. By turning furrows one way going and the opposite way when returning all day long, plow teams created a long narrow strip that became what we call an acre, eventually defined in English law as 660 feet (221 meters) long and 66 (22 meters) feet wide. Each time a field was plowed, the moldboard rolled the furrows toward the center of each acre, thus creating a raised “land” with lower “baulks” on either side and draining each “land” quite effectively. When years of plowing raised the lands inconveniently high, furrows could be rolled downward again simply by reversing the plowing pattern.
As they spread, therefore, moldboard plows powered by animals reshaped the north European plain almost as drastically as hoes and spades changed China’s landscape. Each day’s plowing lay alongside another acre to be plowed the next day, thus creating large open fields around each village. European farming still required human hands to sow and reap, but that was done by separate families. To begin with, newly plowed long acres were assigned to each member of the plow team in turn, so each family would have access to more or less equal amounts of land. But rights to each acre soon became hereditary, and before long different families came to possess different amounts of land, and some villagers became landless and had to work for hire.
Year round rainfall permitted European moldboard plows to keep going most of the year, plowing down weeds in summer on fields left fallow, preparing others for sowing in the fall and in the spring. Working year round, except when sowing, reaping, or hay making (and during the frosty twelve days of Christmas), European plowmen were able to cultivate as much as 30 acres per man, roughly three times as much as seasonally restricted scratch plowing allowed. That assured larger surpluses of grain in most years than scratch plows yielded.
It is not surprising, therefore, that by about 900 CE moldboard plows started to spread rapidly, and, as forests were cleared, population and wealth multiplied in northern Europe. This coincided with the end of Viking raids, and it is very probable that the initial establishment of long acres and open fields depended on the disruption of older patterns of rural life in France and the Rhineland by Viking raiders. It is easy to imagine how a handful of survivors, emerging from the forests to find almost everything gone, might be willing to forget about older property lines and pool resources to form plow teams while accepting the orders of military men who offered them protection in return for a share in the harvest. At any rate, the open fields did support a class of armored knights from the beginning, and when they became thick enough on the ground, even a handful of knights could arrive quickly on horseback and repel a Viking ship’s crew quite easily. As a result, raids came swiftly to a halt. Thereupon villages surrounded by open fields, together with knights, feudal overlords, and increasingly populous towns soon created a distinctive medieval society and civilization in northwestern Europe.
The heartland of moldboard agriculture lay between the Seine and Elbe rivers and extended eastward toward the limits of German settlement. Scratch plows remained standard in Mediterranean lands. Further east, diminishing rainfall and frozen soil in colder winters made moldboard plows only marginally worthwhile. Most of Scandinavia, Ireland, Wales, and western Scotland remained too cool and moist for grain to ripen in most years. So French, German, and English populations were the main beneficiaries of the open fields and cooperative plowing that created them, and they became the main shapers of what we call European or Western civilization.
Subsequent improvements in plows and agriculture always mattered. The invention of horse collars, for example, permitted horses to supplement and eventually displace slower oxen from European fields after about 1300. New crops, most notably fodder crops—hay, clover, turnips—meant more and stronger animals for plowing and overland transport after about 1600. In the eighteenth century, maize and potatoes spread across European fields, enlarging the food supply enormously when summer cultivation between the rows of these crops put an end to fallowing. At the same time, Europeans learned from Jesuit missionaries in China how to replace flat, wooden moldboards with curved, iron moldboards, and, in the 1830s, steel plows, fusing plowshare and moldboard into a single piece of metal, began to turn the furrows far more efficiently, thus reducing the force needed to pull the plow. A single man driving a pair of horses could pull such improved plows even when breaking the sod on virgin prairie land in North America and southern Russia.
By then, European settlers had carried their the style of agriculture overseas to the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, and other lands, with whatever modifications local conditions required while the enhanced productivity of European fields sustained an industrial revolution after about 1750 that is still spreading around the world. The principal impact of industrialization on agriculture was the advent of tractors in the 1890s, powered by internal combustion motors. They quickly transformed plowing, planting, and harvesting on a worldwide scale. Enormous plows with multiple shares or disks pulled by giant tractors became capable of cultivating many hundreds of acres in just a few weeks. Such plows, combined with other machines for sowing and harvesting, dwarfed older scales of farming. They swiftly displaced horse power from the fields and provoked widespread rural depopulation in North America, Russia, and a few other lands after the 1920s.
Throughout most of Eurasia and Africa, however, small internal combustion motors attached to various specialized machines began to do some of the work human muscle had performed previously, but, for the most part, public policy and custom preserved something like the traditional scale of farming to the present. Of late, large-scale, tractor-powered plows and other heavy machinery have shown an unexpected vulnerability when fuel prices rose sharply after 2007. Such price fluctuations surely suggest that present methods of plowing and other agricultural work will change very rapidly in times to come, just as they have been doing around the world for the past century or more.
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