Transforming Agriculture, Perennially

Issue No. 66
Spring 2000

A Medieval Art and Photo Essay

BY Wes Jackson
Pieter Bruegel the Elder's The Harvesters (1565)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Harvesters (1565)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Harvesters (1565, 461/2″ x 631/4″, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) probably represents the months of July and August. In this scene of medieval Flemish life (see photo), in the middle background on the left, a team of horses or mules draws a wagonload of wheat or rye, presumably to be threshed. Some straw may become roofing material, but likely most will serve as bedding in the barns to absorb urine and manure. Hauled from the barn during winter or early spring, this long-stem straw serves as a sponge for returning to the fields the nitrogen of the urine and other nutrients. Is the crop tall or are the people short? The standing shocks to the right reveal a relatively small head length compared to the long stem. (A plant breeder of today might say that this crop has a small harvest index, which is a measure of the grain to the straw.) The stem is cut close to the ground, perhaps because these people of the 1500s wanted to maximize the length of straw for various purposes on the farm or village. David Kline, an Amish friend from Ohio says the straw is about as important as the grain in the overall operation of the Amish. Moreover, the mechanics of harvest made cutting easier when the stroke of the scythe stayed close to the ground. Traditional barns in rural America today are usually similar in architecture to traditional European barns. If we could see where that team and wagon is headed in the painting, there is a good chance its destination is to a traditional barn. In rural America, most now need serious repair, have already been torn down, or have fallen on their own (see photo). The economic incentive to maintain the barn has mostly vanished because the energy to fuel the farm, the hay, no longer goes into the loft. The loft was the farm’s 3aa7ec8c2-93-2“fuel tank,” which housed contemporary sunlight whose energy density is many times lower than the diesel oil housed in a metal tank (see photo). 3aa7ec8c2-93-3The lower part of the barn, where animals were milked or housed, where that long-stemmed straw absorbed urine and manure, was formerly an essential feature of farm life. With the industrialization of agriculture, energy and nitrogen density greatly increased and comes in a sack or tank. So did labor productivity but only if time is the measure. The need to maintain both the loft and lower story mostly disappears. The farm no longer provides its own fuel and fertility. Perhaps a modest living could still be made with the loft and lower story if the farm was paid for, but even so, the temptation of less labor with industrialized farming was too great. Fossil fuel not only led to the loft’s obsolescence, it contributed to the reduced need for the lower story in that commercial fertilizer is fossil fuel based. The economics associated with these former low densities of resources is not there to support the barn. The cultural instructions of this ecological arrangement, which included nutrient recycling and non-global warming forms of energy, have been destroyed. So, when one sees a traditional barn in disrepair or in a heap, our eyes might wander to the diesel and anhydrous ammonia tanks nearby and even speculate on how long their tenure might be relative to the tenure of the traditional barn.

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