Mountain Farming in the Ancient World and Northern California
Wolfgang D. Rougle
Writer's comment: “Mountain Landscapes” is the only class in the Landscape Architecture major which concerns itself with vernacular landscapes—that is, common landscapes as ordinary people expe-rience and shape them every day. Instead of studying the formal art and science of landscape, we examined the ways in which humans have pragmatically or unconsciously changed their mountains. Our professor also emphasized that the definition of a “mountain” is to a certain degree subjective, and can be influenced as much by a people’s experience of topography as by its mathematical dimensions. As a farmer, I am fascinated by agricultures which can exist on marginal land. An invitation to write about one’s personal expe-rience of a subject is always welcome, so I chose to explore the an-cient relationship of agrarian humankind with sloping fields. I framed the exploration in the context of my own relationship—just beginning—with the California Coast Ranges.
—Wolfgang D. Rougle
Instructor's comment: In LDA 168, “Mountain Landscapes and Life” (formerly my Geography 168 class “Mountain Geography”), I investigate the current and former status of mountain habitat and society around the world. Students enrolled in the class have to write a term paper that has as its theme the students’ personal interaction with a mountain or mountain topic of their choice. The paper should not be a long one of fifteen to twenty pages because this is only a three-credit class. Ms. Rougle chose as her topic her desire to farm in newly purchased hill land in the Coastal Range of California. Having completed a three-year agricultural apprenticeship as a teenager in my native Scotland, I am aware of the inspiration Ms. Rougle must derive from working the land she has purchased, but I also cautioned her about the hard life it can be by suggesting she read Victor Davis Hanson’s famous book on California agriculture, Fields Without Dreams. Her essay reveals a sound literary talent that she should exploit and an open mind towards farming today. This knowledge, combined with her determination and grit, should stand her in good stead in her effort to lead a satisfiying, even inspiring, life on the land.
—Nigel Allan, Environmental Design
3 . . . Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.
My grandmother firmly believed that Christ would soon return. As a child, I was reminded daily of the need to prepare for the Second Coming, and Isaiah 40: 3–4 was a major text in our household. So it was that I came to associate flatness and smoothness with the terrible vengeance of Judgment Day.
I pictured the army of the Lord riding a fleet of steamrollers, crushing every profane hillock in their path. Understandably, then, I never liked to go to the ocean on summer vacations, but always begged to be taken to the mountains, where I could hope that the recording angel might lose track of me.
As I grew up, I noticed that the rumble of the divine steamrollers decreased as I backed away from any church door. I used the time formerly spent in Bible study to develop a passionate appreciation for this ridged and rocky Earth. Topographical variation is the geological equivalent of biodiversity, and it seemed just as precious to me as living variation. When the world could easily be a smooth sphere, it’s a kind of miracle to find it carved instead into mountains, ravines, sinkholes, plateaus, gorges, and sumps.
Flatness and diversity
Biodiversity is in trouble because of humanity’s preference for simpler, more manageable landscapes. Topographical variation is in trouble for the same reason. We tend to come up with one or two templates for land and then steamroll the world until we have approximated them. And Isaiah might have applauded the (secular) zeal with which we make the rough places plain: We channelize rivers, fill depressions, and dynamite cliffs until they are gentle and uniform slopes. Twelve years after my last dose of evangelical brimstone, I have succeeded only in exchanging Jehovah for the Army Corps of Engineers.
Imagine my horror on seeing the Great Central Valley for the first time. Back in Maryland, farmland at least vaguely rolled; here in California, it has been leveled by laser-guided graders. The fields stretch away forever, until they vanish in the blue haze produced by the tractors that flattened them.
Of course, the game of industrial agriculture could not be played on any rougher field. In one of technology’s many side curses, the most efficient farming systems require the greatest maintenance in order to continue to function. Local tomato farmers spend most of their time disking, grading, and reshaping beds—not tending the plants. The fields look more like abstract paintings, drawn with protractor and straight edge, than like living land.
Stretching the canvas for the next year’s work can take three full passes of a tractor over each acre. With each pass, the earth exhales a vapor of topsoil, which travels as far as the wind will take it. On spring days when a stiff north wind blows into Davis, so do a few millimeters of Coloma County. Farmers’ obsession with perfect flatness, then, actually frees soil to erode southward, making the plain places rough.
I complain about Valley agriculture and its stultifying flatness, but I happily tear across the table-flat Student Farm in high third gear on our big tractor. When I joined the crew at the Student Farm, my aesthetic objections vaporized as soon as I realized how much time perfectly straight rows can save. The uniformity of the flat, rich Yolo soil is a farmer’s dream come true. The Central Valley agricultural values of uniformity, precision, order, and economy of scale are not arbitrary preferences, after all.
They really do grow more tomatoes.
Still, I continued to wonder whether we could build an agriculture which took advantage of roughness and variation, instead of laboriously tamping it down every season. Nature constantly pushes in the direction of variation and bumpiness. As one biology teacher told me, “The history of life is the history of an ever-increasing surface area to volume ratio.” It seems unwise, then, to base our food production systems on the opposite principle.
When it came time for me to look around for my own farm, my curiosity became more urgent, since it was clear the only farmland I could afford would be steep and rocky. What are my chances for successfully farming in three dimensions?
Two California landscapes: the valley and the foothills
When people think of California landscapes, they probably think of the Sierras, which gamely fulfill everyone’s idea of a spectacular mountain range. The Coast Ranges and the Sierra foothills are less photogenic, and by some definitions they don’t even qualify as mountains. But they were mountains to the people who lived in them long before European settlement; they were mountains to the miners who found life there as rugged as any above tree line; and they were mountains to the settlers who considered their formidable slopes fit only for cattle and sheep grazing. Mountains are defined not only by their elevation but by their life in human imaginations.
The California foothills, like most young mountains, are scrupulously faithful to their watershed. They’re lakeless and promptly send each storm racing down into the Sacramento River. Their creek bottoms are more given to falls than meanders, but even in those narrow canyons, jungle-dense gardens thrive, full of elderberry, blackberry, and sage. The foothill’s steep slopes, so astonishing to Eastern newcomers, are a few bunchgrasses away from being sheer cliffs. Even goats look precarious as they inch along the contours of the hills. But the oaks have no problem anchoring themselves there. Every fall, a nutritious hail of acorns rolls down the steep hillsides of California.
So the foothills which settlers despaired of cultivating were already highly productive food systems. They were just never ploughed.
Modern Californians probably think of California as neatly divided into two landscapes: the flat, unvaried valley on one hand; on the other, the hills with their microclimates and altitudinal belts and all their other ecological quirks. But the Valley was never flat or unvaried. Instead, it rolled like a slow sea, undulating in gentle ridges and depressions. These depressions gained fame in the age of pavement as “vernal pools,” ponds which fill in the spring rainy season and dry up in summer.
They’re famous because they harbor an astonishing biodiversity. Just as the hills have their altitudinal belts, the vernal pools have theirs—except that in the pools, an altitudinal belt can be only a few inches wide. That’s because a few inches of depth means several more days of inundation, enough variation to create a new niche. As the pool dries up, it blooms in concentric rings. Each vernal pool plant is fine-tuned to a certain number of days of inundation, which means that its pollinators, parasites, and predators are too. A single small pool can support scores of species because of its topographical variation.
The Valley floor, then, might as well be a mountain range to the highly specialized plants and insects which live and die in its diminutive life zones.
Of course, that mind-boggling variation is in peril. By most estimates, about ninety percent of the Central Valley’s vernal pools have been destroyed. Perennial grasslands are the most endangered ecosystems in the world, probably because farmers think they already approximate the perfect farm template. The grassland which once covered the entire Central Valley is now more gravely threatened than even the tropical rain forest we hear so much about. Still, we continue to view the valley floor as the logical place to cram in as much human habitation as possible, and the mountains as fit only for vacation homes and ski lifts. But mountains have always supported civilizations, complete with farms.
Mountain farmers in history
Mountain farmers know that success lies in exploiting, rather than obliterating, the natural topographical variation of their homeland. Take as an example the farmers of Central and South America. Landform engineers since long before the European conquest, they made wide use of check dams and terraces (Brush 122). All farmers domesticate plants and animals, but these farmers could also be said to have domesticated landforms. A terrace is a tame hanging valley; a check dam is a well-bred debris slide; a rock wall is a cultivated moraine.
Mountain farmers in Papua New Guinea also harnessed topographical variation to help them fight the grave threat of frost. Farmers planted their sweet potatoes in raised, composted mounds. The heat generated by the rotting compost was certainly a great help to the vines, but the topographical aid of the mounds was also important. In the high country, “[v]ines are planted concentrically around the top of the mounds, instead of on the sides as is the fashion at lower altitudes, to raise them above the cold air, and villagers recognize that the position of the plant on the mound is very important” (Allen 259). Furthermore, “[t]he mounds also probably serve to promote cold air drainage across fields” (259).
In the flatlands, where we have standardized the conditions of growth, we go to great lengths to introduce variation when our plans demand it. This dry field (once a wetland) now must be seasonally flooded for rice; that silty seedbed (once pocked with rocks and pebbles) now must be made to drain well for apricots. By contrast, in the mountains, variation is everywhere, and we need only adapt our schemes to it. In that sense, hill farming saves us one step.
As Whiteman notes (56), mountainous regions are rich in advantages that flatland farmers must sometimes go to great lengths to duplicate. (For instance, young soils are well-drained and sometimes richer in minerals than the well-eroded organic soils of the valley.) Topographical variation itself is not least among those advantages. Whiteman writes:
[T]he variation in radiation owing to the combined effect of slope, aspect, and season . . . results in a corresponding variation in thermal regime . . . potential evapotranspiration . . . and photosynthetic rate. (60)
Hill farmers are experts at exploiting slope and aspect to their advantage, and learn to know the variation in their fields so intimately that (in trans-Himalayan Nepal, for instance) they even sow heat-loving varieties in irregular shapes that overlie the warmest soils (Whiteman 59). To an outsider, these cropping patterns would look meaningless and seem to represent a lot of extra work. To a hill farmer, the heroic effort of homogenizing a hundred-acre field, instead of simply growing different crops in each area, might look equally foolish.
Terrace farmers in Peru, heirs of an agricultural system which has perdured for 15 centuries, turn out to have a sophisticated system of soil classification not unlike the one used by the U.S. Soil Survey. They have 46 unique terms for different kinds of soil, and define a soil using as many as four layers of classification (Sandor & Furbee 1507). Terrace farmers in southwestern New Mexico a thousand years ago knew to site their terraces just downstream from buried hardpan, so as to reap the greatest floodwater during a rare storm (Sandor, Gersper, & Hawley 167). And terrace farmers in Tlaxcala, Mexico, who create a repeating pattern of gently sloping fields, earthwork levees, and drainage ditches, grow the most drought-tolerant plants on the upper slopes and the thirstiest on the levees beside the drainage ditches (Mountjoy & Gliessman 6). Although the variation they exploit is manmade, the diversity they encourage is certainly learned from montane nature.
For every successful and sustainable hill farming system, there are probably several which have failed. The most notable hillside cultivation endeavor of modern America might have been the Palouse prairie. Over millennia, winds deposited deep silt soils on the rolling uplands of eastern Washington. Cultivation was disastrous for the region. Wheat bonanzas encouraged settlement at first, but what the wind giveth the wind taketh away, and between 1939 and 1977, soil eroded from the uplands at a rate of 14 tons per acre per year. By 1995, the region had lost 40% of its topsoil (Ebbert & Roe). The Midwest, much of which is rolling, faces a similar problem. But even here there is hope: no-till farming, which mimics a prairie’s strategies for sowing and germinating, can virtually eliminate soil erosion even on relatively steep slopes. The perennial grassland which preceded us is the best model for our wheatfields.
I thought that buying my first farmland would be exhilarating. But when I first explored the twenty acres I had just acquired, my excitement turned to a sense of dull foreboding. Located in the Coast Range foothills of Tehama County, the land that will become a pretty good farm is already an exemplary blue oak woodland. It absorbs rain, hosts myriad symbiotic partnerships, weathers drought, and holds the soil in place like nobody’s business. I have to face the fact that nothing I could do to the land will improve it.
Permaculture and the hippie idealization of hillside farming
A new generation of American farmers and gardeners seeks an agriculture which mimics natural systems where they succeed and modifies them only where they fail—which, at least by long-term comparison with industrial agriculture, turns out to be not all that often. Permaculture, the latest hot trend in hippie farming, is based on perennial polyculture (hence the name) rather than on annual monoculture, and on an ambitious curatorship of topographical and biological diversity.
Like me, permaculturists are passionate farmers who have a sinking feeling about agriculture. Even though we humans have been practicing for ten thousand years, nature is still better than we are at averting many of our agricultural problems. Nature has a better track record at staving off epidemics, keeping pests in check, maintaining fertility, preventing erosion, and building the soil. Nature, in fact, has us beat in almost every event except yield and (sometimes) taste.
The hope of permaculture is that if we can replicate enough of nature’s form, we can reap some of her function. We don’t fully understand crop interactions—or soil formation on steep slopes—but we can imitate systems that seem to be healthy.
Thus, in a permaculturist’s garden you might see a desert suite of dry beans, corn, and squash growing on a slope which sheds its rainwater downhill to soak a fruit tree in a loamy swale. The beans fix nitrogen into the soil, the squash shades out competitors, and the corn provides a trellis for both. All three can do with little irrigation, so they leave the lion’s share for the fruit tree, which has been provided with a tiny niche a little moister than the surrounding hillside. The fruit tree’s cradle is a knockoff of the Coast Range’s creekside niches which are always choked with green. (The swale is to permaculture what the column was to Roman architecture.)
It doesn’t take long to notice that a permacultural planting scheme mimics the vegetation patterns of the hills. Evolution has filled each niche of the world with an exquisitely adapted organism. There’s no reason we can’t imitate that diversity on our farms.
Indigenous farmers, like the terrace agriculturists of Tlaxcala, have practiced permaculture for millennia. But now that it has the fancy name, the industrialized world is just returning to it.
Like my grandmother, permaculturists have a strong sense of a fall from grace (except that their Eden, evidently, was hillier), and they never seem comfortable defining their relationship to the land. “Farmer” and “homesteader” conjure images of slaughtered buffalo, and the extremely politically incorrect “landowner” turns their sacred soil into chattel. Instead, they tend to call themselves “stewards.” They don’t confine their stewardship to their homes, either, but feel free to designate themselves the stewards of whole river systems and mountain ranges.
While I appreciate that every natural feature needs its political advocates these days, I’ve never been pleased with the term “stewardship.” The land does not need our help in order to carry on its elegant and mysterious performances. If we were to vanish, the land would be forever altered, but that is true of every species, a lesson I hope we never learn more painfully than we already have. The land suffers enough from our depredations: must we also subject it to our smugness? Let’s just call ourselves residents.
Learning to reside in a hillside farm
As I walk my twenty acres, I try to visualize the farm in ten years. The slopes are still steep; the shaggy coat of yellow grass is still intact. But a few fruit and nut trees, selected for their ability to thrive on the blue oak’s semiarid turf, stand in their miniature cradles carved into the hillside. Year by year, they drink the hillside’s runoff, the gift of steepness. The savannah beneath them is a jumble of perennial grain plants like slender wheatgrass and annuals like barley. The former endures the long California drought by retreating to its deep roots; the latter lives only during the rainy season and slips into seed dormancy when the drought comes. Both are adapted to semiarid, well-drained mountain soils.
Presiding over it all is an army of blue oaks, the amazingly tenacious trees whose fierce verticality only makes the Coast Range’s inclines seem dizzier. They are well-suited to the heat and steepness of the hills: they can lose thirty percent of their moisture without wilting, and their roots are three times as long as their trunks are tall. And their acorns, falling at the rate of up to six hundred pounds per tree, are sweet and nutritious. I will forgo the fast tractors and the endless tomato rows of the flatlands, and adapt my agricultural ambitions instead to the durable precedent of the blue oaks.
The best part is that I’ll never have to climb a hill to harvest them. Acorns roll.
Allen, Bryant J. “Adaptation to Frost and Recent Political Change in Highland Papua New Guinea.” Human Impact on Mountains. Eds. Nigel Allan, Gregory Knapp, and Christoph Stadel. To-towa: Rowman and Littlefield, 1988. 255–64.
Brush. Stephen. “Agricultural Strategies in Tropical America.” Human Impact on Mountains. 116–126.
Ebbert, James C. and R. Dennis Roe. “Soil Erosion in the Palouse River Basin: Indications of Improvement.” USGS Fact Sheet FS-069-98, 1998.
Mountjoy, Daniel C. and Stephen R. Gliessman. “Traditional Man-agement of a Hillside Agroecosystem in Tlaxcala, Mexico: An ecologically based maintenance system.” American Journal of Alternative Agriculture 3.1 (1988): 3–10.
Sandor, J. A., P. L. Gersper, and J. W. Hawley. “Soils at Prehistoric Agricultural Terracing Sites in New Mexico: I. Site Placement, Soil Morphology, and Classification.” Soil Science Association of America Journal 50.1 (1986): 166–173.
Sandor, J. A. and L. Furbee. “Indigenous Knowledge and Classifi-cation of Soils in the Andes of Southern Peru.” Soil Science Association of America Journal 60.5 (1995): 1502–1512.
Whiteman, P. T. S. “Mountain Agronomy in Ethiopia, Nepal, and Pa-kistan.” Human Impact on Mountains. Eds. Nigel Allan, Gre-gory Knapp, and Christoph Stadel. Totowa: Rowman and Little-field, 1988: 57–82.