A History of Farming

By Tim Lambert

The Farming Revolution

After 9,000 BC a great change came over the world. Previously humans lived by hunting animals and gathering plants. Then about 8,500 BC people began to grow wheat, barley, peas, and lentils instead of gathering them wild. By 7,000 BC they domesticated sheep, pigs, and goats. By 6,000 BC they also domesticated cattle.


Farming first began in the Fertile Crescent, which stretches from Israel north to southeast Turkey and then curves southeast to the Persian Gulf. However, agriculture was also invented independently in other parts of the world as well.

Meanwhile, farming spread from the Middle East to Europe. By about 4,000 BC people in central Europe were using oxen to pull plows and wagons. At about the same time, people in the Middle East began using donkeys as beasts of burden. Also, in about 4,000 BC horses were domesticated on the steppes of Eurasia.

Farming in the Ancient World

Egypt was said to be the gift of the Nile. Each summer the Nile flooded and provided water to grow crops. For irrigation Egyptians used a device called shaduf. It was a ‘see-saw’ with a leather container at one end, which was filled with water, and a counterweight at the other. When the Nile flooded it also deposited silt over the land near the banks, which made the land very fertile once the water had subsided.

In contrast, farmers in Greece were hampered by rocky soil. Nevertheless, they grew barley and wheat. Greek farmers also grew olives (which were part of their staple diet) and they grew vines. Greek farmers also raised goats and sheep.

In France and England, the Celts grew crops in rectangular fields. They raised pigs, sheep, and cattle. They stored grain in pits lined with stone or wicker and sealed with clay. The Celts also brewed beer from barley.

In Israel, farmers grew olives. They also grew crops of flax (for linen), wheat, and barley. The people planted vegetables. Grapes were also an important crop. So were pomegranates and figs. Meanwhile, shepherds looked after sheep and goats. Farmers also kept oxen and asses. Both were used for pulling plows. Oxen also threshed grain by walking on it.

The Chinese began farming about 5,000 BC. From about 5,000 BC rice was cultivated in southern China and millet was grown in the north. By 5,000 BC dogs and pigs were domesticated. By 3,000 BC sheep and (in the south) cattle were domesticated. Finally, horses were introduced into China between 3,000 and 2,300 BC.

Under the Han Dynasty agriculture improved partly due to an increasing number of irrigation schemes, partly due to the increasing use of buffaloes to pull plows, and partly due to crop rotation which was introduced into China about 100 BC.

Meanwhile, in the Roman Empire, most people continued to use the same methods of farming they had employed for centuries. The Romans grew, among other things, wheat, barley, grapes, and olives. There were some large estates worked by slaves. However, there were also many small farms worked by families.

In Roman France, a harvesting machine called a gallus was invented. It was a box on wheels with horizontal blades at the front. The box was pushed by an ox. As it moved forward through the wheat the blades cut the heads of the crop and they fell into the box.

Farming in the Middle Ages

Farming improved in the Middle Ages. One big improvement was the heavy plow. Sometime before 900, a new kind of plow was invented which plowed the heavy, clay soil of northern Europe much more efficiently.

Another important development was the 3-field system. The land was divided into 3 huge fields. Each year 2 were sown with crops while one was left fallow (unused) to allow it to recover. Each peasant had some strips of land in each field. Most peasants owned only one ox so they had to join with other families to obtain the team of oxen needed to pull a plow. After plowing the land was sown. Men sowed grain and women planted peas and beans.

Most Medieval peasants also owned cows, goats, and sheep. Cows and goats gave milk and cheese. Most peasants also kept chickens for eggs. They also kept pigs. Peasants were allowed to graze their livestock on common land. In the autumn they let their pigs roam in the woods to eat acorns and beechnuts. However, they did not have enough food to keep many animals throughout the winter. Most of the livestock was slaughtered in autumn and the meat was salted to preserve it.

There were no fundamental changes to farming in England in the 16th century. Nor were there any in the 17th century although new crops such as tomatoes and potatoes were introduced. (Both took a long time to be accepted). In England, much of the Fens were drained for farming.

Farming in the Americas

Maize was the staple crop of the Aztecs. The Aztecs also grew tomatoes, avocados, beans, and peppers, as well as pumpkins, squashes, peanuts, and amaranth seeds. They also ate fruits such as limes and cactus fruits. Aztec food also included rabbits, turkeys, and armadillos. They also ate dogs. To grow food

Aztec farmers did not have plows. However, they did use tools like a digging stick, clod breaker, and hoe. The Aztecs created small islands on marshy lakes. These were called chinampas. First plots of land were staked out with canals between them so they could be reached by canoe. The chinampa was built up in layers made of plants from the lake and mud from its bottom. The Aztecs planted willows around the edges of chinampas to make them more secure.

In the Inca Empire in the lowlands the staple food was maize. In the highlands it was potatoes. Incas also ate peppers, tomatoes, and avocados. They also ate peanuts and a grain called quinoa.

Llamas and alpacas were kept for wool and for carrying loads but they were sometimes provided meat. Incas also ate guinea pigs. Inca farmers did not have plows pulled by animals. Instead, their main tools were digging sticks, clod breakers, and hoes. In hilly regions, Inca farmers terraced the land. They also irrigated crops. Inca farmers also used bird droppings called guano as fertilizer.

The Mayans practiced ‘slash and burn’ agriculture. They cut down an area of forest and burned the trees. The Mayans sowed crops in May and harvested them in November. However, after a few years, the soil would lose its fertility. The farmers would then ‘slash and burn’ another part of the forest. Meanwhile, the abandoned area would become overgrown again.

Mayan farmers also drained swampy areas for farming. They dug canals for irrigation. Mayan farmers did not have plows but they did use digging sticks. Maize was the staple food of the Maya but they also grew beans, chilies, sweet potatoes, and squashes. The Mayans also ate fruit like papaya, watermelon, and avocados. The Mayans also kept bees for honey.

18th Century Farming

During the 18th century, farming was gradually transformed by an agricultural revolution. Until 1701 seed was sown by hand. In that year Jethro Tull invented a seed drill, which sowed seeds in straight lines. He also invented a horse-drawn hoe that hoed the land and destroyed weeds between rows of crops.

Furthermore, until the 18th century, most livestock was slaughtered at the beginning of winter because farmers could not grow enough food to feed their animals through the winter months.

Until the 18th century, most land was divided into 3 fields. Each year 2 fields were sown with crops while the third was left fallow (unused). The Dutch began to grow swedes or turnips on land instead of leaving it fallow. (The turnips restored the soil’s fertility). When they were harvested the turnips could be stored to provide food for livestock over the winter. The new methods were popularized in England by a man named Robert ‘Turnip’ Townshend (1674-1741).

Under the 3 field system, which still covered much of England, all the land around a village or small town, was divided into 3 huge fields. Each farmer owned some strips of land in each field. During the 18th century, land was enclosed. That means it was divided up so each farmer had all his land in one place instead of scattered across 3 fields. Enclosure allowed farmers to use their land more efficiently.

Also in the 18th century, farmers like Robert Bakewell began scientific stock breeding (selective breeding). Farm animals grew much larger and they gave more meat, wool, and milk. However, despite the improvements in farming food for ordinary people remained plain and monotonous. For them, meat was a luxury. They lived mainly on bread, butter, potatoes, and tea.

19th Century Farming

In the early and mid-19th century, farming in Britain prospered. In the mid-19th century, it was helped by the rapid growth of towns (providing a huge market) and by railways. (The railways made it easier to transport produce).

Farming was also helped by new technology. Justus von Liebig (1803-1873) and John Lawes (1814-1900) introduced new fertilizers. Farmers also began using clay pipes to drain their fields. Meanwhile, Cyrus McCormick (1809-1884) invented the reaping machine in 1834 and in 1837 John Deere (1804-1886) invented the steel plow. In 1856 John Fowler invented the steam plow.

However, the good times for British farmers ended in the 1870s. In the USA a network of railways had been built and steamships were sailing across the Atlantic. The result was that American farmers could now move their grain to ports and it could be shipped to Britain. Cheap American grain helped ordinary people in the towns but it meant a depression in British farming. Furthermore, at the end of the 19th century, the invention of refrigeration meant meat could be imported from Australia and New Zealand.

20th Century Farming

In the 20th century, British farms greatly increased production. There were several reasons why. New varieties of cereal were introduced and from the 1940s new pesticides were developed. Also in the 1940s farmers began using artificial insemination. Farmers also used far more artificial fertilizers.

Farming also became mechanized. In the earlier 20th century tractors gradually replaced horses. Milking machines were rare in the early 20th century but they became common from the 1940s to the 1960s. From the 1950s combine harvesters became common.

21st Century Farming

The latest development in farming is genetically engineered crops. GM crops are now being grown in many countries.

Last Revised 2024