Often times European/Western cultures get raked over the coals for ruining agriculture around world, which perhaps is deserved. Mass-scale monocultures of annual plants have their weak little roots in the West, and the petro-chemical slurry now used to fertilise and protect them was largely developed on the coattails of Western wars. Heck, Europe is even responsible for the lawn!
All that said, there is a lot to be gleaned and appreciated from the more sustainable systems that once fed Europe.
A wonderful blend of small vegetables plots, mixed grain fields, perennial pollarded orchards, and semi-domesticated animals was once the heart of European agriculture. As we transition out of today’s destructive industrial food system, it makes sense to re-familiarise ourselves with the ancient food systems that once supported Western civilizations. This article, owing a huge debt and emphasised acknowledgement to Resilience.org, will do just that.
In reality, to encapsulate all of Europe into one agricultural system is a gross misstatement. There were many techniques throughout the continent (and its islands), appropriately designed around climate and resources. Nevertheless, these varying methodologies will likely all have elements that are useful for us to consider, regardless of whether we are in the Mediterranean or cold temperate or even tropical climates.
Living in the Eastern United States, I often marvel at the idea of the abundant chestnuts that once dominated our forests. Of course, Native American guidance played some role in this. In Europe some thousands of years ago, a similar game was being played with another temperate climate nut tree (or shrub): hazel.
Mesolithic Europeans, hunter-gatherers following the last Ice Age, relished hazels. Not only did the hazelnuts supply serious calories and fat in the form of nuts, but the wood from the shrubs was also extremely valuable. It was used as firewood, tools and housing material. Even better, hazel can be coppiced, so periodically cutting them was merely part of the routine. It even made the trees live longer! Consequently, these people carried the hazelnut game to each new location they explored.
The prominence of hazels throughout Europe demonstrates that temperate-climate societies can (and can again), in fact, exist without grains—corn and wheat, in particular—as a staple diet. Hazels grew readily, multiplied readily, and supplied abundant harvests. They did this without heavy machinery or chemical pesticides.
Ancient Grains & Legumes
The cultivation of grains in Europe arrived in fits and spurts, despite its prominence today suggesting it was a perfect fit. In fact, tree-based agricultural communities and grain-based communities coexisted for thousands of years. It was dramatic shifts in the climate, severe cold snaps, that caused the larger switches towards grains and ultimately potatoes.
Even so, large monocrop fields were nowhere on the radar in ancient European agriculture. The Neolithic farmers cultivated small patches of biodiverse grains—emmer, einkorn, barley—with legumes—lentils, peas—as well as seed/textile crops—poppies, hemp, flax. This made the annual harvest resilient, with an assurance that something would thrive.
In addition, the permanent plots increased in fertility as they were consistently amended with compost, livestock manure, and night soil. Crops were also rotated, and the land wasn’t constantly turned and compacted with heavy machinery. The growing areas, then, increased in fertility as years passed.
(not that informative, but visual cool)
Moving further away from hunter-gatherer lifestyles, Neolithic farmers also adopted animals into the agricultural fold. Rather than simply trying to take animals that thrived elsewhere and implant them, however, animals from the Near East were crossbred with wild European animals such as aurochs and wild boar to make them more suited to the climate.
Furthermore, this brand of agriculture hardly relied on the vast swaths of deforestation that occurs in modern animal husbandry. For example, in Spain, the dehesa system involved cultivating a diverse collection of oak species on grasslands such that, in addition to domesticated pigs and cattle, the landscape provided other goods—mushrooms, honey, wild game, etc.—and a richer diet for the livestock.
These silvopasture ecosystems have existed for millennia now, and they have even become an important piece of the greater environmental puzzle in these regions, supporting endangered species. They demonstrate what can happen when we integrate as opposed to dominate, when we design to enhance as opposed to exploit.
Silvopasture arrangements went beyond the dehesa system into full-blown, fully integrated food forests as well. Other guilds included diverse mixes of fruit and nut trees, as well as material generators like willow beds along stream banks. Furthermore, hedgerows that separated paddocks and fields were heavy producers.
Food forests within pastures often consisted of chestnuts. In Mediterranean regions, there might also be fig, olive, almond, carob and hazel in the assembly. Hedgerows would include native edge species like berry brambles, sloe plum, hawthorn, crabapple, and wild cherry. Perennial plants, in other words, were hugely integrated into agriculture.
These food forests and hedgerows (living fences) provided a myriad of goods, food being the most obvious. They also gave livestock a rich diet. The coppicing species provided firewood and a building material. There were medicines in the mix. And, of course, they provided things like shelter and boundaries and soil stability and wind buffers and on it goes. Forests are awesome.
Another amazing perennial system that developed in ancient times and lived on for centuries was trellising grapes on coppiced trees. Again, the trees used in these systems added to the overall yield of the main crop, and the trees selected could be altered for the environment/landscape. The grapes actually benefited from the biodiversity.
Mulberry trees were commonly used in Italy. Cherries were good for cooler hillsides. Chestnut, olive, elm (mushrooms!), and willow were some others put into the formula. Alternating rows of the trees could be pollarded year after year to provide a diversity of goods from the same planting space which supported the grapevines all the while.
Furthering the coltura promiscua—polyculture—was the introduction of mixed grain fields between the grape trellises. These cultivated strips added to the biodiversity and food security of the agricultural system. Furthermore, they supported a greater abundance of wildlife and created a more resilient landscape.
Moving Further Back to Go Forward
Many of these ancient agricultural systems of Europe linger on today, and remnants of them are notably existent in domesticated animals and surviving forests. Though we often turn to the Aztecs, Incas and other ancient cultures for routes into sustainability, there is a lot to be learned from these systems as well. They’ve just been overshadowed by the misdeeds of the agricultural and industrial revolutions of the last few centuries.
However, these older systems were successful and self-sustaining accomplishments in temperate climate food production. They benefited the ecosystems into which they were integrated and built up fertility and biodiversity. Looking at them through a permaculture lens, they make a lot of sense and provide some interesting avenues into new designs from ancient history.