Norfolk four course

Oringinal painting by Harry F. Long 1895-1970, Seven Trees Farm collection.

A dinner menu? New dance routine?

Nope. But some very important information for anyone interested in diversified subsistence farming.

Crop rotation has been practiced for millennia, all over the planet. But in Norfolk, England in the 17th century, landowners and farm managers started applying some systemic principles in what crops and animals went where, and when.

In the past, crop rotation in northern Europe was as simple as planting one half the land while leaving the other half fallow, or unplanted. The idea was that this gave the land time to rest and recover some of the nutrients taken out of it by the harvested crop. Until recently, farmers didn’t have the tools to analyze the details of plant and soil biology, but they did have generations of observation and trial & error to work from. This process eventually led to a 3-field rotation system. One section was planted in the autumn with winter wheat or rye. The next spring, the second field was planted with other crops such as peas, lentils, or beans and the third field was left fallow. The three fields were rotated in this manner so that every three years, a field would rest and be unplanted.

An early seed drill.

Legumes, such as beans, peas or clover, fix nitrogen from the air into nodules on the plants’ roots. Subsequent crops can make use of the nitrogen and show much improvement over the same crops planted on ‘spent’ land. The main draw-back of the 3-crop method though, was that weed seeds built up in the soil and eventually lowered productivity. The way grains and legumes are farmed doesn’t leave spacing for weeding. Cultivation happens before planting and after harvest, and weeds adapted to the growing cycles of these plants.

What has been termed the Agricultural Revolution in England was the culmination of old-school hands on experience, and the evolving science of agriculture. By the 18th century, the four-field rotation (popularized in the Norfolk area of England) was literally revolutionizing food production. And that wasn’t all. This system was the closest thing to closed-loop sustainability humans had seen in this part of the world. More food. Healthier land. Thriving livestock.

One first hand account of the Norfolk four course is found in the published diary of Anthony Beck (1901-1995).

This rotation included two cash crops, two animal feed crops. The turnips were a weed cleaning crop, hay enriched the soil. It ensured the health of the crops: any disease in the wheat did not affect the following turnips, its germs had died before wheat was again drilled. The need for men’s labour was spread over the year: after harvest came stack thatching, then mucking out of cattle yards, carting and spreading the muck on the fields where turnips would grow, possibly also before the wheat. Ploughing lasted over autumn and winter. Some of the wheat was drilled, some in spring, then barley and finally turnips. There was hoeing in early summer, haysel in late summer; if oats were grown instead of part of the wheat shift they were the first corn to ripen before wheat and barley. Often the fat cattle were ready for market before harvest, leaving the stockmen free to help at the busy harvest time.

There were many variations of this system, depending on climate and crops adapted to the area. One constant was livestock. Growing a crop that livestock (usually sheep) could be turned out on to graze saved labor and kept weeds down. But the biggest benefit was in having the field fertilized by these mobile manure factories. No need to pile up compost for later spreading, the sheep ate the turnip (or mangel) tops, and the roots could be stored for winter fodder. In later years, the rotations often included crops that weren’t grazed directly, but harvested for off-field feed, or sold off-farm altogether. The loss of animal manure meant that alternatives in the form of green ‘manure’ crops such as rye, buckwheat and vetch were sown & plowed under. The balance of nutrients wasn’t the same, but cash-cropping over sustainability was becoming more important as Europe was increasingly at war.

As agriculture became more industrialized, farmers relied more and more on artificial fertilizers and mechanical implements. They were faster and gave a lot of bang for the buck, though modern methods didn’t replenish the land or employ people as had been the practice for most of our agricultural past. The so-called Green Revolution also drove us away from sustainable agriculture in pushing government-subsidized genetically-engineered crops, artificial fertilizers, and monocultural farming practices. Yields rose in the short term, but at the cost of dependence on corporate-controlled inputs and mechanized tools over human workers.

Now that we are learning the terrible cost of drenching our land with chemicals and GMO crops, the older ways of growing food are regaining importance. We can learn a lot from areas still farming traditionally. The wiki on crop rotation in sub-Saharan Africa says this:

“…as animal husbandry becomes less of a nomadic practice many herders have begun integrating crop production into their practice. This is known as mixed farming, or the practice of crop cultivation with the incorporation of raising cattle, sheep and/or goats by the same economic entity, is increasingly common. This interaction between the animal, the land and the crops are being done on a small scale all across this region. Crop residues provide animal feed, while the animals provide manure for replenishing crop nutrients and draft power. Both processes are extremely important in this region of the world as it is expensive and logistically unfeasible to transport in synthetic fertilizers and large-scale machinery. As an additional benefit, the cattle, sheep and/or goat provide milk and can act as a cash crop in the times of economic hardship…”

At Seven Trees, we’re definitely working to incorporate this relationship into our food-growing practice. That’s why we call what we do diversified subsistence farming. Gleaning what we can about the sustainable practices of our ancestors opens up a wide horizon for maximizing the potential of our tiny farm. We are working out our own four-course crop rotation, with the goal of keeping our land healthy and productive, feeding our critters as much as we can, feeding ourselves, and growing enough to sell sustainably.

There are a lot of benefits to sorting out a sensible crop rotation – continuous production, lessening of pest/weed loads, reduced cost from outside inputs, staggered labor needs, more widely distributed risks and costs, and something less well-defined called “The Rotation Effect” – a 10-25% yield increase in a crop grown in rotation versus monoculture.

If you’d like to dig in to some of the source material about crop rotation, here are some good places to start:

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