What will happen when Grantville introduces nineteenth century farm equipment to seventeenth-century farmers? Will there be a rapid adaptation of the new machines followed by a similarly rapid increase in productivity? Will this in turn lead to an equally rapid decrease in the numbers of farm laborers? What factors will shape the mechanization of USE farms and how will mechanization shape the USE? All these are questions that occur in the background of the 1632 series. This article attempts to explore these questions and make my estimates at the correct answers.
The seventeenth-century farming methods were labor intensive and time consuming, requiring large groups of people to plant, care for, and harvest the crops. Despite this, in normal times, the farming villages of Germany were producing enough food to support themselves and had extra produce for sale to the cities. Economically these villages ranged from very poor villages that barely managed to stay above subsistence level to quite wealthy surplus farming villages.
One thing to remember always is that the early modern German farmers were not ignorant, stupid, illiterate, or superstition-ridden. Books and pamphlets on farming were very popular and widely read. While translations of Roman texts on farming were considered the authoritative texts, farmers did not slavishly follow the advice found there. Three Field Crop Rotation, not mentioned by the Romans, had been practiced for centuries by farmers throughout Europe. In this method each field was left fallow every third year. The village livestock grazed on the fallow field, fertilizing it with their dung. After harvest the village animals were set to graze on the remains of the harvest, again fertilizing the fields. Farmers might not know why it worked but they could see the results. The German farmers will be interested in Grantville's knowledge and machinery.
Disease and destruction has reduced the available labor in many areas. Add the pressures of the growing industries around Grantville competing for what labor exists and the farms will remain short of people to work the crops. This lack of farm laborers will be a driver for mechanization.
At any time farming is a balancing act. The difference between successful harvest and starvation is dependent upon numerous factors. Bad weather and insect invasions may destroy the crops. Outbreaks of disease could remove enough manpower to make planting and harvesting difficult to impossible. Diseases among the livestock might kill off or debilitate enough animals to edge the farmers into starvation. During the Thirty Years' War, additional stresses were added when scavenging parties from one army or another would steal or destroy crops and animals. Farmers who fled the armies could not tend their crops, leading to losses. When the farmers did return to their villages, often they did not have sufficient manpower to plant or harvest.
A few things need to be made clear about German farming villages in the seventeenth century. Unlike the USA model of single family farms, Germans farms consisted of a village—known as the Gemeinde—farming as a whole. Physically, the German farming community more closely resembled a fried egg on a plate than the USA model of neatly laid out individual farms of rectangular fields bounded by straight roads crossing at right angles. Consider the yolk to represent the village and the white to represent the fields and land around the village. Village land sizes ranged from roughly six hundred and forty acres to nearly six thousand acres with the average size around one to two thousand acres. This average village would have roughly two to three hundred acres in crops and about another one hundred acres in pasture and hay growing. Villages also had fishponds, forests, and meadows held and used in common. Villages normally ranged in size from ten to ninety households.
The village was run as a communal corporation, complete with elected officers. The farmers decided communally what to grow in which fields. Each farmer had a strip of land assigned to him from which he took his profits and food. The amount of land an individual farmer had the rights to could vary in size. Also, each farmer had the rights to pasture a certain number of cows on his share of the village commons. A farmer was by definition a person who held enough land in the village corporation to support himself and his family by farming, using a combined work force of his own family members and a couple of hired men or girls. A farmer who held this kind of share in the lands had a full vote in the village Gemeinde, was expected to do his share in holding local offices, etc. The average farmer leased around forty to eighty acres of arable land. Finally, draft animals might belong to individual farmers but they were used communally.
The villagers were not serfs. The village lands were held by written lease from the landowners. A common lease ran for 99 years or three lives, whichever came first. A village usually owed rents to several landowners, as land rights could and often were subdivided, leased, sold, inherited, etc. Think of it as somewhat equivalent to the landowners as shareholders of stock and the rents as dividends. Thus a village mayor and council would collect the revenue and send 1/16 to X, 1/8 to Y, 3/32 to Z, and so forth.
The harvesting of the 1631 crop using up-time machines to replace the missing farm labor would have given the down-time farmers a glimpse of what mechanization can do for harvesting. The use of Grantville's machines to aid in the following spring's planting would drive the lesson home. Mechanization allows you to farm with fewer people and, as many of the machines do not require adult strength, you can now use younger family members. By the fall harvest of 1632 those farmers around Grantville know that mechanization does reduce labor requirements and costs. Some local down-time farmers may begin to see how Grantville's machines and knowledge also improves the yield per acre.
Grantville brings with it practical and theoretical knowledge, mechanized farm machinery, and up-time livestock. The introduction of Grantville's farm machines will by-pass, to some degree, several centuries of slow development and mechanization of the farm which were required in our time line. ("Our time line" will be henceforth abbreviated as OTL.)
That does not, however, mean that farm mechanization will necessarily develop very rapidly or evenly. In OTL, mechanization of farms in the United States required around one hundred and twenty to one hundred and fifty years—and even now, in the twenty-first century there are still large areas of the world where farming is not mechanized at all or is only minimally mechanized. Before galloping off with grandiose ideas about how fast mechanization will spread in the 1632 universe, we should look at why it took so long in OTL and why it has not completely spread even in the twenty-first century OTL.
One reason OTL mechanization did not spread faster was that the equipment itself developed slowly. As Grantville has examples of fully developed draft animal and tractor-powered mechanized farming equipment, this developmental phase will be by-passed. Time factors on the machinery side will primarily be how fast the horse-drawn equipment can be copied and adapted for manufacture with available resources. Tractors must wait until the tools and materials are available to manufacture engines. Still, farm machinery at least to an OTL 1930s level should be available by 1650-1660.
Aside from availability the major factor retarding mechanization was the cost of the new farm machinery. To a single farmer, the OTL model in the USA, cost was often the biggest problem in mechanizing. In modern OTL examples of non-mechanized farming it appears that cost remains a major factor for the lack of mechanization.
Usually the speed of mechanization comes down to costs, infrastructure problems, and some social factors. Farm costs, regardless of the time period, include the cost of the land, of labor, of livestock, of the farmer's subsistence, and the purchase and upkeep of any implements or machines. Against these costs are the profits from each crop or animal raised. Profits must exceed the operating costs or the farmer loses. Farmers tend to be very fiscally conservative because of these factors.
The cost of the land is something our down-time farmers obviously already know. The farmers have been able to produce sufficient crops and livestock to pay their land rents. Baring sudden increases in rents the down-time farmers have no incentive to mechanize from land costs.
Land costs can be considered as a neutral factor for mechanization. Labor costs, the number of people required to raise and harvest a crop using down-time methods, are also known.
Infrastructure costs include those concerning the initial machinery costs, maintenance and repair costs of the machine, the power source and its fuel, maintenance, repair, and upkeep cost, and costs associated with storage and shipping of the crops.
Social factors tend toward the universal desire to not be seen by neighbors and relatives as backward and unfashionable. This factor has led OTL farmers into financial trouble and will undoubtedly ruin some down-time farmers also.