Book Review- Farmers for Forty Centuries by F. H. King (1911)

It is often said that writing is rewriting, but I think it is equally true that reading is rereading. I first read this book outlining an early 1900’s tour of predominantly pre-industrial agriculture in Japan and China over a decade ago and it made a very positive impression on me at the time as a budding experimental farmer. Revisiting the work has cast it in a different light in my mind, though I will summarize and analyse the most interesting parts of the book before getting to that. You can read the book for free here-

The work outlines a journey through a landscape thoroughly dominated by human activity. In the wetter south of China hand dug canals crisscross the landscape, allowing irrigated rice and other crops to be grown intensively throughout the year. In the drier north of China this activity is restricted to river flats, with the drier fields hand irrigated from hand dug wells during droughts. A family was observed here planting sweet potato shoots in dry soil while the father carried water in buckets from a ravine 500 m away. Any steeper land is continually cut for firewood and mulching material, which is carted back to the cities and fields below, leaving a landscape mostly denuded of trees. The flat landscape is dotted with man-made hills created to house the graves of ancestors.

Frequent discussions are made with the density of humans upon the landscape, estimated at 2 acres per person (with only one acre of that arable) compared to 20 acres per person in the USA at the time. Japan at this time already had 0.3 arable acres per person. Today this has since shrunk to 0.2 acres of arable land per person in China, and 1.2 acres arable land per person in the USA for comparison (close to the global average). The author estimated Japan had 646 times the density of all animals and humans than the USA at the time (likely due to the high dependency on seafood in Japan).

These extraordinary population densities were supported by rice, with wet cultivation in paddies producing double the yields per crop and more crops per year than unirrigated upland rice. The average Japanese family farmed 2.5 acres of irrigated rice, with small paddies often scattered around the village. Foot pumps were used to raise water from the canals to flood the paddies. Other crops were grown on the paddy walls.

By starting rice seedlings in nurse beds the time the crop spends in the field is reduced, reducing irrigation and weeding labour (with the flooding acting as an effective weed suppressant), and ensuring the young seedlings rapidly absorbed the fertiliser immediately after transplantation. Legumes were grown in the fields before flooding, providing nitrogen, and transplanting gives them several more weeks to grow. One person can transplant a third of an acre in a day, yielding about 300 kg of rice. Just taking into account the transplantation labour on this space the EROEI (energy return on energy invested) is 191. If you include similar amounts of time for field preparation, irrigation, harvesting and processing the EROEI drops to 24, still enough to support a fairly complex civilisation. Annual rice consumption was about 136 kg per person, providing about 24% of total energy needs.

Paddies rent for 400 kg rice per acre, and a crop typically brings in 400 kg more for the farmer. With rice giving 5600 kJ per kilogram, this represents 2 240 000 kJ or 257 days’ worth of food. Most families farm about 3 acres of rice, giving 770 days’ worth of rice energy per year, enough to feed 2 people eating nothing but rice, or 8 people with rice providing one quarter their calories as was more typical in the region. Families owning their own land would get double the benefit from rice farming since they wouldn’t be paying half the crop as rent, so 16 people could be reasonably supplied rice by 3 acres of paddy, doubled again in places where two crops per year are possible.

These cultures also relied on consumption of large quantities of vegetables. Pigs and chickens were more common than cows and sheep since their feed conversion efficiency is much higher. Large flocks of ducks and geese kept in the wet lowlands on boats in the canals, herded out at each day and back to the boat at night allowing easy movement to new grounds. In the drier north herds of goats and sheep graze the roadsides and grave land hills, refusing to take a single bite of crops growing in the fields. Only boiled water was drunk due to disease risk from high population densities (one reason for importance of tea culture). I wonder what the effect of constant caffeination was on peasant productivity, since a comparable cultural transformation took place in Europe with the introduction of tea, chocolate and coffee at the start of the industrial revolution.

Nutrient cycling is practiced to a fanatical extent. All human and animal waste is collected in concrete lined pits and mixed with other vegetation. Almost zero flies were observed during the entire visit. Once fibre is broken down it is dried, mixed with ash then applied to the fields. Japan averaged 1.75 tons of this compost per acre of crop land, all processed and transported by hand. Liquid manure is also often carried out in buckets and applied with a long handled dipper. Canal mud is also frequently reclaimed and applied to fields at around 70 tons per acre, equivalent to a 1 cm deep layer. Flooding in the lowlands periodically makes the canals impassable, preventing compost transport. Droughts and deforestation in the north caused massive erosion of denuded hillsides, though the author observed them being protected and recovering in places (presumably due to the growing use of coal). Firewood seems to be the most limiting resource for this society with people being extremely frugal in its use. Modern societies have been ignoring forests near human habitation for a century with massive regrowth. I wonder how rapidly it would be all cut down again if we were forced to return to using fire wood?

Some interesting technologies were observed, including the foot powered water pumps used for irrigation that consumed many hours of labour. Freight wheel barrows with a single large wheel and the load balanced either side of it were used to transport goods and people long distances with just a single person pushing up to a dozen passengers. Where possible animals and sails were used to add more power. The generally flat landscape made these practical. Human porters were often used for smaller loads in more difficult situations.

The picture painted of this society might sound like the ideal end point for permaculture, or at the very least an important source of inspiration. Closer reflection on the realities of this world might cast things in a different light. The author noted that mothers typically had 7 to 11 children, but only 1 to 3 lived to adulthood. Apart from the usual scourges of epidemic diseases made possible by such high population densities infanticide was commonplace, especially for girls and especially during famine years. Famines in China were recorded at an average rate of once every year for the last two thousand years, with either drought in the north or flooding in the south. Major wars and battles also occurred every few years. The period of scientific breakthroughs from 618-1279 gave way to a prolonged period of stagnation, eventually allowing invasion by Europeans. The end of this golden age is when wet rice cultivation was developed, causing a massive population boom in the previously underdeveloped south. The massive food surpluses created population surpluses, making labour very cheap, and creating a disincentive for the further development of science and technology. The author notes with astonishment how all sorts of labour in China could be bought for a tiny fraction of that in the USA. If permaculture achieves its central dream of creating highly productive and sustainable agricultural systems what is to stop the same culture of never ending toil and exploitation befalling the people?

The take home message for me isn’t the state that the author experienced pre-industrial agriculture, as wondrous and terrible as it was. Instead it makes me cast my mind back to the first peasant farmer who shoveled some mud around and created the first paddy, then another who discovered that rice tolerates transplantation and flooding, then another who discovered the legumes that can grow in the fields before flooding, then the tinkerer who developed the foot pumps. None of these people could know the immense power of their inventions when combined together, nor the unforeseen consequences. During our current golden age of industrial plenty and leisure we have a rare opportunity to do similar experiments, confident in the fact that we won’t starve if they don’t work out to our immediate advantage. For me permaculture is about using this brief period in history to do the difficult experiments that nobody driven by hunger or profit is going to make, and seeing where they take us in the thousands of years to come.

Rice field workers in 1900. From,_Honolulu,_in_1900._(HA_photo_collection.).jpg

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