Book Summary: “The Plough that Broke the Steppes” by David Moon

Title: The Plough that Broke the Steppes: Agriculture and Environment on Russia’s Grasslands: 1700-1914
Author: David Moon
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 4 stars
See more on my book rating system.

Topic of Book

Moon overviews the early history of farming in the Russia steppe (grasslands).

Key Take-aways

  • The history of the Russian steppe shows strong parallels with the history of American Great Plains. Both are in Temperate Grassland biomes.
  • Temperate Grasslands have some of the most fertile soils in the entire world, but the very deep and tangled roots of grasses made agriculture very difficult until the invention of the steel plow in the 1830s.
  • Settlers who were used to farming in Temperate Forest biomes had to reinvent farming techniques and technologies when they arrived in a new biome.
  • In both regions once European settlers adapted new farming techniques, they rapidly replaced indigenous people: Central Asian steppe herders and Native American buffalo hunters.
  • Today both regions are two of the most productive agricultural regions in the world.

Important Quotes from Book

This book seeks to explain why, after worrying for a long time about the lack of trees on the steppes and how to rectify this omission, Russians went on instead to devise modern soil science, settlers on the steppes, in particular Mennonite communities, came up with techniques to conserve scarce moisture in the fertile black earth, and why this story eventually takes us to North America. These things happened because people moved from one type of environment to another, displaced the indigenous population, and replaced one way of using the natural resources with a different way. In the Russian Empire, from the early eighteenth century, growing numbers of agricultural settlers moved from regions with significant areas of forest, adequate supplies of water, but in many cases soil that was moderately fertile. They settled in the steppe region, which was predominantly grassland, with a semi-arid climate, periodic droughts, but extremely fertile soil.

Many of the settlers and their descendants, however, supported themselves in much the same way that they or their forebears had done in their previous homelands: they ploughed up the land and cultivated grain. The people they displaced, in contrast, were mostly nomadic and grazed large herds of livestock on the grassland. The central theme of this book is how, when people have moved between regions with such different natural conditions, but persisted with their previous way of life, there have been consequences both for themselves and the new environment they have settled in. In time, as the consequences for the new environment have become apparent, such people have engaged in critical reflection on the nonhuman world and the impact of human activity on that world. Some have gone on to develop conceptual and practical innovations for understanding and managing the relationship between the human and non-human worlds.

The Russian conquest of the steppe region began in earnest in the 1550s, when Tsar Ivan the Terrible defeated the Tatar Khanates of Kazan’ and Astrakhan’. Moscow thus gained control of the entire length of the river Volga that flowed from the forest heartland through the steppes to the Caspian Sea. From the late sixteenth century, Moscow also extended its power into the North Caucasus, and east across the steppes to the Ural mountains and beyond, in time towards Central Asia. But for a long time expansion across the steppes to the Black Sea to the south was blocked by the Khanate of Crimea… The decisive victories over the Ottomans were achieved by Catherine the Great in wars of 1768–74 and 1787–92. In between, in 1783, Catherine annexed the Khanate of Crimea. She sent Grigorii Potemkin to develop her new southern lands and visited them herself in 1787. The Russian conquests were part of the partition of the Eurasian steppes between the Russian, Ottoman, Persian, and Chinese empires.

Large-scale agricultural settlement of the steppe region took off in the eighteenth century. As a result of mass migration and the high fertility of the settlers, the region’s population increased considerably between the early eighteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The dramatic increase in the rural population of the steppe region was accompanied by an equally dramatic change in land use. A primarily pastoral, and partly nomadic, economy was replaced by settled, arable farming. Pasture was ploughed up and transformed into fields of grain. The two developments went hand in hand as growing grain generates several times more calories per unit of land than livestock husbandry, and many times more than nomadic pastoralism.

Thus, the change in land use to arable farming meant that the region could support a far larger, and settled, population. The nomads were compelled to settle or to leave.

The cossacks were very slow to take up grain cultivation, which they considered to be beneath them. It became an important part of their economy, replacing livestock, only in the nineteenth century.

Arable farming spread gradually among the settlers. It took them time to adapt the ways of farming the land they brought with them to the new environment. The traditional Russian horse-drawn wooden plough (sokha) could not cut through the matted roots of the steppe grasses and break the sod. In the seventeenth century, Ukrainian settlers brought their heavier, wheeled plough (plug) that was pulled by oxen, which was taken up by other settlers. Some adopted the plough (saban) used by local Tatars that may have dated back to the ancient Greeks. The settlers found that while some of their crops, such as oats, did not grow well in the new environment, others flourished. Those brought by Ukrainian settlers from the forest-steppe region and Moldavians from the west, such as types of spring wheat and maize, were well adapted to the steppe environment. Settlers also adopted varieties of spring wheat that were already grown locally, in particular girka and arnautka, which became the mainstays of steppe agriculture.

The first generations of settlers practised shifting (perelozhnaya), long-fallow (zalezhnaya) agriculture. They ploughed up an area of steppe and sowed crops. After a few years, yields declined, so farmers ploughed up new land, and left the previous fields fallow for twenty or thirty years. At any one time, only one-fifth or one-sixth of the land suitable for cultivation was sown with crops. This extensive system of farming, which the settlers also borrowed from the local population, was possible because of the relatively low population densities that lasted into the nineteenth century. Central Russia, where many of the settlers or their forebears came from, was more densely inhabited and the population used more intensive systems of farming, in particular the three-field system. Shifting, long-fallow agriculture remained common throughout the steppe region well into the nineteenth century. It persisted longest in the less heavily settled, outlying parts. As the population increased and opportunities to market grain grew, farmers made more intensive use of the land. They reduced the fallow period to fifteen, ten, five, or fewer years. In time, in much of the region, shifting, long-fallow agriculture was replaced by various more intensive systems. Some farmers introduced the three-field system.

by the turn of the twentieth century, the steppes had become one of the world’s main grain producing and exporting regions.

Its chief competitor in the international grain market was the USA, where the Great Plains had a strikingly similar environment and environmental history to Russia’s steppes.

Compared with the climate of the lands to the north and north-west, and Central Europe, where most of the migrants to the steppe region came from, the steppe climate was more arid and hotter. Annual precipitation ranged from around 400 to 600 mm in the forest-steppe and forest regions, but the winters there were colder and longer, and the summers cooler and shorter, than in the steppe region, and so less moisture evaporated. In the European part of the Russian Empire, adequate supplies of heat and moisture coincided with fertile soil to create good conditions for arable farming only in the forest-steppe region. The conditions to the north, in the forest, and to the south and south-east on the steppes, approached the margins for growing crops. In both the forest and the steppe regions, moreover, in some places and some years the conditions exceeded those margins. On the steppes the crucial limiting factor was availability of moisture, which meteorologists now measure by subtracting evaporation from precipitation.

Debate focused on the value of deep ploughing. In the forest-heartland of Russian settlement, for centuries farmers had used the light, horse-drawn wooden plough—the famous sokha—with which they ploughed to a depth of 2–3 verskhi (3.5–5.15 inches). Settlers from the heartland found their wooden ploughs and ploughing techniques of little use on the steppes. The black earth was deeper (the topsoil was 1–2 feet deep), as well as more fertile, than the soils in the heartland. Wooden ploughs could not cut through the roots of the steppe grasses in virgin land or long-fallow fields. Ploughing to only the shallow depths possible with wooden ploughs left the soil liable to dry out in the hotter, drier, and windier climate of the steppes. Instead, settlers adopted heavier, wheeled ploughs used by Ukrainians, or sabans used by Tatars (i.e. peoples with longer experience of cultivating black earth), pulled by several pairs of oxen. Ukrainian and Tatar ploughs could deal with the steppe grasses and plough to a depth of about 4 vershki (7 inches).

Nevertheless, in the second half of the nineteenth century, many steppe farmers bought heavier, steel ploughs that were capable of cutting furrows to a depth of over 5 vershki (8.75 inches).

There was a persistent view among steppe farmers that ploughing was of little importance.

It may come as no surprise that among the advocates and practitioners of deep ploughing were the Mennonites of Molotschna. After they introduced their four-field rotation in 1837, they used Saxon ploughs drawn by four horses or heavy ploughs pulled by three pairs of oxen to plough their fields deeply, and carefully, to assist in accumulating moisture. In the late summer, they ploughed the fields for the winter crops deeply, and then harrowed them to help absorb moisture as well as cover the seeds to protect them from frost. Specialists, such as Tsin, as well as the Mennonites themselves believed deep ploughing contributed to their success.

The experience of droughts in the region seemed to confirm the value of deep ploughing.

Resistance to change among peasants, especially those living near the margins of subsistence, is often interpreted as an aversion to risk, or to additional labour that is perceived as unnecessary. Commentators on agriculture in the steppe region noted that peasants were suspicious of experiments and preferred their own experience. Official reports over the nineteenth century from the Don region regularly referred to the ‘primitive’ level of agriculture among the cossacks. ‘Improved’ agriculture was practised by only a few estate owners and leasers of large estates.

If you would like to learn more about the role of agriculture in history, read my book From Poverty to Progress.

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