How early men started farming

History of Agriculture

From the Middle Ages to the liberation of the peasants

The dependence on the weather and the fertility of the soil made cultivation difficult. Snowfall in spring or continuous rain during harvest time could bring the farmers of an entire region to the brink of existence.

Since the early Middle Ages, it was farmers in the vicinity of monasteries, but also monks themselves, who wrested new arable land from the forest, drained swamp areas or turned wasteland into heather.

The forest was cleared by half to its present size. On the reclaimed land, new rural settlements arose, which were under the protection of a landlord, a count or a monastery.

Sometimes farming communities developed, which, according to the three-field economy, tilled their fields alternately with summer or winter fruit every year, used them as pasture for their animals and left them fallow in the third year to regenerate the soil.

The aristocratic landlords themselves did not participate in the expansion of the arable land, but instead demanded compulsory labor and taxes for clearing freedom or leases.

Hard work to wrest their daily bread from a barren soil, the vagaries of nature and the feudal subservience to feudal fiefdom, which the landlords had exacerbated since the late Middle Ages, determined the lives of most peasants for centuries.

Two events caused an agrarian revolution in Germany: the peasant liberation of 1807 in Prussia, which abolished peasant serfdom and converted it into lease contracts, and the invention of mineral fertilizer by Justus von Liebig in the 1840s.

The chemist had discovered that fertilizing could replace missing plant nutrients in the soil. Through the use of organic fertilizers such as liquid manure and manure or mineral fertilizers such as nitrogen, the farmers were now able to cultivate their fields every year and significantly increase the harvest yield.

Agriculture around 1900

At the beginning of the 20th century, Germany was still an agrarian state. The farmers made up about 60 percent of the population. More than half of them worked on a plot of land no larger than two hectares.

The small and medium-sized farmers owned holdings between two and 20 hectares in size. Only five percent of all farms were among the large landowners.

In geographical terms, the way of agricultural production, which arose as a result of a cross-generational division of inheritance, showed great differences between north and south as well as west and east.

Real division was practiced in Baden, W├╝rttemberg and Hesse: every male child inherited a part, which led to the fragmentation of the cultivated areas.

In Hanover, Westphalia and Schleswig-Holstein, on the other hand, the principle of undivided court succession applied, i.e. there was only one heir who was then awarded the entire property.

In East Prussia, Pomerania, Posen and Silesia there were large manors whose owners often held titles of nobility.

Development of agriculture after 1945 in east and west

After the Second World War, agricultural policy in West Germany focused on land consolidation. The main aim was to finally overcome the food shortage that had been ubiquitous only a few years earlier.

After the Second World War, eastern Germany faced major agricultural upheavals. The communist party had decided on a far-reaching land reform in the Soviet occupation zone (SBZ) under the slogan "Junker land in peasant hands".

From 1945 forest and farmland were rigorously redistributed. The political class expropriated large farmers and large landowners who owned more than 100 hectares of land without compensation. Around 3.3 million hectares of agricultural land became the property of farm workers, smallholders and refugees.

In the mid-1950s, East German agriculture experienced a second fundamental upheaval: collectivization. The new farmers had to bring their property into so-called "Agricultural Production Cooperatives" (LPGs). The political goal was to introduce "socialism in the countryside", which was to fundamentally renew rural society.

The collectivization of agriculture led to the division of farms into animal and plant productions as well as to the specialization and creation of new agricultural professions such as milking.

After the fall of the Wall, many LPGs were converted into limited liability companies or cooperative operations, so that large, specialized farms still dominate agriculture in the east to this day.

Agriculture today

Today around two percent of Germans still make a living from agriculture, that is around 266,000 farms (source: Federal Statistical Office; as of 2019).

The widespread form of agriculture in Germany is conventional agriculture, in which fertilizers and pesticides are used in a targeted manner. Conventional agriculture nowadays operates mainly according to the rules of integrated agriculture.

This is understood to mean cultivation methods that should take ecological and economic requirements into account in the same way. The farmer should adapt his production method to the natural conditions and optimally protect the soil, for example through environmentally friendly cultivation and needs-based fertilization as well as pest control.

Organic farming, which is becoming increasingly popular, voluntarily renounces the use of chemical pesticides and mineral fertilizers.

The feed for the animals must also be generated on the farm itself. There must be no purchased supplementary feed. Animal husbandry and land use are in a balanced relationship and establish a fertile cycle.