Studying agriculture, with the garage door up
I'm starting to write shorter, more informal posts, more frequently. To avoid emailing you daily, I'll send a weekly digest like this. I'm just including the first few paragraphs of each as a teaser so the email doesn't get too long.
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Starting with this post, I’m trying an experiment: I’m going to do more of my work in public—“with the garage door up”. That means I’m going to post more frequently (closer to daily than weekly), with most of them being less polished, and to be more explicit about my thinking and research process. I’ll be sharing my open questions, confusions, and tangential thoughts. I already do a lot of this on Twitter, and in private journaling, but now I’ll be bringing it to these posts. It’s actually how I used to write in the earliest days of this site.
My goals are: to bring to the surface more of my half-formed thoughts, by forcing myself to write about them; to create a new type of content for you, my audience; to model good epistemic norms; and to get early pointers, references, feedback—and pushback.
Again, this is an experiment. Risks: lowering signal-to-noise ratio; overwhelming some parts of my audience with too much content. If you don’t want to read a bunch of shorter, more informal posts, feel free to skim/skip them and just read my occasional long-form comprehensive summaries, which I will continue to write every few weeks or so.
And please let me know what you think of this experiment, one way or another!
So. Today I’m diving into a new topic: agriculture. More broadly, the technology and industry of food. It’s the one major research topic of mine that I’ve read almost nothing about (with the exception of synthetic fertilizer, a little about cotton, and I guess a bit of Jared Diamond). …
Some agricultural terminology
Every time I start learning about a new area, I encounter terms I don’t know the definition of. Usually I’m familiar with the words, but as I try to grasp what I’m reading, I realize I don’t actually know their meanings. Early examples were charcoal, steel, and smelting. Often there are two or three terms that I understand in a general way but don’t know the difference between, such as cement vs. concrete.
Concepts are the building bricks of knowledge, and without getting clear on them, you have no hope of learning any new subject. So I make the time to look things up and read multiple sources until I feel clear on definitions and distinctions. It slows me down in the beginning but speeds me up long term.
I’ve just started learning about agriculture, so I’m in that stage now. In the spirit of working with the garage door up, here are some terms I looked up recently…
Six stages of agriculture
I note at the outset that this is an old book, published 1925 and revised 1940. Probably a lot has been learned in the last 80 years and the following has already undergone revision, which I’ll uncover when I read more modern sources. But I’m starting with this because it seems to have the widest scope in geography and time, and I like to begin with an overview.
Gras outlines six major stages of agricultural development…
What's the deal with enclosures?
In the history of English agriculture there is this thing called the enclosure movement, and it’s apparently a big deal. I’m going to try to explain what I understand about it and what I don’t. Epistemic status: rough; I’ve just learned this stuff, and I have many open questions. High likelihood of at least one non-trivial mistake in here. (I’m working with the garage door up.)
Here is the context. In the Middle Ages many (although not all) villages used an “open-field” system. In this system, a village would have perhaps three large fields of arable land, rotating between different crops and fallow (known as the fallow system). The fields would be divided into many small strips. Each peasant farmer would be assigned several strips, distributed throughout all three fields. My understanding is that the strips might even get reassigned each year. In addition to this, there were some lands used in common, such as pastures for grazing livestock. Typically there was a feudal lord who provided (or was supposed to provide) protection for the village, who had a larger house or even a castle and some of his own land, and who received some form of taxes and/or rents from the villagers in the form of labor, produce, and/or money. In some villages, I think, a religious authority, such as a monastery, substituted for a temporal one.
The “enclosure” movement was the gradual transition away from this system, to a system of basically private property. Parts of the lands previously used in common, or strips of the open fields, were “enclosed”. The term is both literal, referring to physical boundary markers such as hedges or ditches, and legal, referring to the transition of the property rights in the land to a simple freeholding (i.e., what we think of today as simply “owning” land). …
Advanced stages of agriculture
In a previous post I wrote about the early stages of agriculture. These stages are defined by a succession of solutions to the fertility problem: every harvest takes fertility out of the soil; without active management, fields lose their productivity over time.
The early stages were all about crop rotation. First, fields would rotate between crops and fallow. Animals were grazed in pasture in the summer, and in winter, fed on hay harvested from the meadow. Later, crops and pasture themselves were rotated. Historian Norman Gras, whose book A History of Agriculture in Europe and America I’m reading now, identifies two further stages: “scientific rotation” and “specialized intensive”. …
And a bonus post:
“Definite” vs. “indefinite” optimism as a false dichotomy
I have started another conversation on Letter, this time with Ben Reinhardt, who interviewed me for his podcast Idea Machines. This one is about Peter Thiel’s concept of “definite” vs. “indefinite” optimism: