How Much Do You Know About Farming?



By: Zoe Samuel

7 Min Quiz

Image: Shutterstock

About This Quiz

When humans first evolved, if we wanted to eat, we had to hunt, forage, or scavenge. You were either a caveperson or a nomad. This actually wasn't as hard a life as it sounds: hunter-gatherers spent most of their time lazing around, and their bodies show that they were in pretty decent health. However, one thing they couldn't do is collect property or even store food against lean times, which means they could never hedge against a famine, a drought, natural disasters, climate change, or the herds just deciding they want to go somewhere inaccessible.

Enter farming. The change to growing our food on purpose wasn't as sudden as imagined: many societies we would consider to be gatherers would do things like weeding and protecting a berry patch, which are clearly farming techniques. Indeed, at first, farming was much harder work than hunting or foraging -- especially in places such as China where rice paddies require year-round work, unlike European wheat fields which at least give you the winter to relax. It didn't even mean improved diets at first, as people didn't know how to do it very well, and nutritional quality declined in some places. However, farming enabled people to get rich, to claim land, and to generate a surplus for the first time. It also invented negatives such as enslaving other humans, hoarding resources, and of course, subjugating women -- ideas that favored a small few at the expense of the many and have yet to be fully rectified. Still, we are now so good at farming that we can feed 100% of the population with only 3% of us working the land, which provides spare capacity for things like art, literature, invention, medicine, and leisure. So let's see how well you know the world's actual oldest profession!

What is a neonicotinoid?

Neonicitonoids are insecticides that are meant to protect crops. They're handy because they have lower toxicity to mammals, meaning they don't kill all the dormice. However, they're so bad for insects that they could kill enough of them - including essential pollinators like honeybees - to literally wipe out humanity. This is why they're starting to be banned.


When are blackberries in season?

Blackberries grow on brambles and are delicious and wonderful. They are in season August and September, until the first frost, known as "the Devil peeing on them". They make very good jam, cookies, fool, mousse and other delights, as well as being excellent straight off the bush.


What are crop yields?

Crop yields are a measure of tonnage produced per acre. They have gone up exponentially in the last 100 years, especially since the introduction of nitrogen-based fertilizers. One of the great fears of the move away from fossil fuels is that many modern fertilizers are made from oil in some way; fortunately new growing techniques and modern fertilizers should overcome this problem.


What is biodiversity?

Biodiversity is the measure of the variety of lifeforms in a given ecosystem. A wood that has many thousands of species of tree, plant, insect, bacteria, fungus, and animal is biodiverse. A patch of concrete isn't.


What happened to the forested area of Britain in the last 120 years?

The forested area of Britain has doubled since 1900 due to improved farming methods, globalization and the replacement of wood as a fuel sources with oil and coal, and later with natural gas - and now solar and wind. During the Victorian and Edwardian age, crop yields per acre were simply not high enough to feed Britain's exploding population without farming the whole country. Now, however, Britain imports a lot of food and uses better farming techniques to protect biodiversity without sacrificing crop yields. Thus, there are more trees than before!


What is nitrogen fixation?

Nitrogen taken from the air is a great fertilizer and necessary for successful farming. Sometimes ancient fertilizers like saltpeter can do it, but modern fertilizers do it better. Some plants also do it, like beans, using a bacterium called Rhizobium. Since about 78% of the atmosphere is nitrogen, we are happily in no danger of running out.


Who is Gregor Mendel?

Mendel was a scientist, Augustinian friar and abbot of St. Thomas' Abbey in Brno, Czech Republic. He discovered and named the concept of “recessive” and “dominant” genes by selectively breeding yellow and green peas. While selective breeding is as old as civilization, Mendel made it scientific. Thanks to him, many popular crop species are now bred to be more resilient. This means they need fewer insecticides and fertilizers, meaning we humans and our planet both get a lot more bang for our farming buck.


What is the main reason that elms are in trouble?

Dutch elm disease practically wiped out elms from Britain and also countries in the European mainland. Elms are making a comeback thanks to new treatments and breeding of more resistant species.


Who is Norman Borlaug?

Norman Borlaugh developed semi-dwarf, high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties which helped Mexico become a net exporter of food, and doubled production in India and Pakistan, who would almost certainly be in a perpetual war otherwise. Without his work, the Green Revolution which currently feeds billions would have been impossible. He was given the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of the fact that good farming saves lives and prevents wars.


What is a combine harvester?

A combine harvester is a miracle of engineering with many hundreds of moving parts. It simultaneously cuts, threshes, and cleans a grain crop, which means the grains emerge ready for grinding and backing. This means the number of people required to turn a field of wheat into food is reduced by multiple factors, enabling the modern economy whereby most people do not need to work on the land to feed all of us.


Why is an acre the size that it is?

An acre was defined in the Middle Ages to be the area that one person with a team of oxen under yoke could plough in a single day. Acres are still used in modern farming, and measure a "chain" (1/10 of a furlong) by a "furlong" (1/8 of a mile).


What is monoculture?

Monoculture is a horrible way of farming where all the crops in an area are the same. This depletes soil, destroys biodiversity, damages local habitats, and leaves the farm vulnerable to pests and disease. You can tell that it's not quite right because it just looks weird: miles and miles of the same crop in the same place is ugly, whereas lovely patchwork fields of barley, maize, cabbages, and potatoes all mixed up with wildflowers are one of the most beautiful sights imaginable. Monoculture is rightly regarded as a blight on landscapes. People do it because it's cheaper and because they don't care about long-term consequences.


What is crop rotation?

Different plants eat up different nutrients from the soil, and also contribute different nutrients to it. That means that you can avoid depleting soil quality by changing up your crops every year. It's also wise to give fields a year off every so often to lie fallow, or un-planted. Sometimes you might even plant a crop specially to plough back into the field later and fill it back up with delicious nutrients for next year.


What is no-till farming?

No-till farming is a great way to put a crop into the soil without the process of "tillage" or plowing, whereby soils are turned over and loosened. It is very good for the environment, using far less fuel and water, and storing a lot more carbon in the soil. The only downside is that you really can't do it for certain root vegetables like potatoes which need to go in the ground.


Which of these is a kind of wheat?

Rye is a kind of wheat, but technically barley isn't. Sorghum is one of the most-grown grains in Africa, while rice dominates in Asia. In the West, we love our rye and barley. You can tell barley apart from regular wheat at a glance: wheat is neat in its golden stalks, while barley is "hairy". They're both pretty beautiful though, and delicious.


What's a notable difference between corn and rice harvests?

Corn is harvested annually in one fell swoop whereas a well-tended rice paddy might produce 3-4 crops a year. This has been seen as influential in culture, since it means corn-growing cultures tended to get more downtime.


What are the most popular food crops in the world?

The most-farmed crop in the world by area is wheat. Rice, maize (AKA corn), potatoes are also immensely popular. Coming up rapidly are gluten-friendly and high-protein options like sorghum, quinoa, cassava, yams, and sweet potatoes. As we learned in the monoculture question, the greater the variety, the safer global food security will be - and the more delicious our dinners, since we will all have plenty of choices!


What has changed about farming in the Fertile Crescent?

Studies of preserved seeds from the dawn of farming in the Fertile Crescent show that it used to be a lot more, well, fertile. Rainfall was much higher. With climate change contributing to more drought and increasing temperatures, sadly it is likely that farming in this region will only get worse, with the result being war - as in Syria where a climate-change induced drought caused a drop of 60% in crop yields - and likely mass migration out of the area.


What is a cover crop?

Cover crops are what you put on the soil to get nutrients in and prevent erosion. In some cultures they are also added to sections of fields to provide cover for animals, especially birds which are to be hunted later on. Cover crops are good for the environment and biodiversity, and they're pretty.


What's one downside of organic farming?

Organic farming produces radically lower yields, meaning that the land area we would need to farm to feed everyone would be about 8-10 times more. This means while it is totally fine to eat organic, we have to accept that widespread organic farming will increase food prices and reduce the "carrying capacity" of the Earth - that is, we would probably only be able to feed about 2 billion people. We have about 7 billion people, and will soon have 10 billion.


What's one especially difficult skill for a tractor driver?

Reversing a tractor is already challenging, and doing it with a trailer on the back doubly so. Watching a tractor with a trailer reverse neatly onto a second trailer without having to maneuver at all is quite impressive stuff.


What three factors helped caused the Dust Bowl?

The Dust Bowl came at the end of a period of drought. The wrong crops for the soil had been planted, and the loose, dry soil of the Midwest had been ploughed up the same way you might plough richer, heavier soils of Europe and the Mississippi valley. Sadly, many farms belonged to Homestead Act beneficiaries who didn't know how to manage water supplies and weren't equipped to adapt. It was a perfect storm of bad land management, with the poor weather being the cherry on the whole tragic sundae.


What does it mean if an animal is free-range?

A free-range animal is one that gets to live in an environment like a meadow or moorland that is suitable for its species' wellbeing. For a cow, this means a meadow (though any dairyman can tell you that cows are just as lazy as humans and really like coming back to the barn). A sheep might be happiest in a field, or perhaps out grazing on open hillsides. For a chicken, it means being able to leave the coop and peck around a field, though chickens don't need a lot of space to be very happy. Free-range farming is not just more humane: since the animals are not miserable due to living in cramped conditions, they don't produce as much of the stress hormone cortisol, meaning they taste better. You can ensure you don't contribute to animal cruelty by only eating free-range certified food.


What is bone meal?

Bone meal is actually not the worst thing in the world to use as fertilizer. However, using it on cows might be how they get BSE - AKA "mad cow disease - and is a really bad idea. Cows are, unsurprisingly, healthiest when they eat grass and grains.


What is diatomaceous earth?

Diatomaceous earth is a finely ground powdery substance that is harmless to a human if you consume it, but is actually made of jagged tiny particles that slice up the exoskeletons of insects. Farmers use it in grain silos, where it protects the grain from critters while leaving it safe for humans. It's an environmentally friendly way of keeping the fruits of our labors from being munched up. It also kills critters in the house, so sprinkling it on the floor under your kitchen cabinets is a good way to avoid roaches without endangering your kids or pets.


What's unusual about buckwheat?

Buckwheat is called "wheat", but it's actually a fruit! It has a beautiful flower on it that can be used to produce a rare and expensive honey. Buckwheat is the saving grace of a good diet for a person with grain sensitivity, since technically it's a fruit. However, while it is a fruit, once you've made it into bread, you can't count it as one of your five a day.


What is marginal land?

Marginal land is the poorest quality and is often on the edge of a desert or has only a meager or brackish water supply. It's considered very bad for farming and it's hard to make a profit on it.


Who is Temple Grandin?

Temple Grandin is the hero of the world of cows. She was diagnosed with autism at a time that the spectrum was not understood at all. She first came out of her shell after a summer on her aunt and uncle's farm, where she bonded with cattle. She used her bond with cows to revolutionize the way that the cattle industry works, making abattoirs, transport and stockyards far more humane, and improving profits (since calm cows do not need as much supervision). Temple believes in eating meat, but only if you respect the animal and understand that we are all part of the same circle of life, not one species dominating another and treating it however we want. She has also been a leading light in the movement to show what autistic people can achieve if they are given the proper support.


What is the top university in the world for agricultural sciences?

The top agricultural college in the world is currently Wageningen University and Research Center in the Netherlands. Agricultural colleges are where the next generation of land managers train, learning how to get the best out of the land, and these days, how to protect the landscape they love just as much as they depend on it.


What's one downside of genetically engineered crops?

One big downside of genetically modified crops is that once they are in the field, you can't guarantee that a bee won't pollinate them with another field, and thus genetic variations might get out into the world before we know whether they're useful. What's especially controversial is when farmers have been sued for "taking" these modifications because a seed blew onto their land and sprouted.


What's one upside of organic farming?

Organic farming means no insecticides or pesticides, no genetic modification, and most importantly, no fertilizers. Despite its boosters' claims, it shows absolutely no benefits in terms of health or nutrition, and in blind taste tests, most people cannot tell the difference. However, it does help with biodiversity within the farmed area, as the lack of pesticides and insecticides allows critters and weeds to flourish. Due to lower crop yields, though, widespread organic farming would reduce biodiversity as it requires forest clearance in order to expand the farmed area to meet humanity's needs. However, since organic farming remains fairly niche, this is unlikely to be an issue, which means in its current form, organic farming is good for biodiversity.


What's one upside of genetically engineered crops?

GMOs get a terribly bad wrap, which some say is odd when farmers have been splicing species for more than 12,000 years. Upsides of genetically engineered crops include: improved biodiversity due to eliminating the need for pesticides and insecticides; higher crop yields meaning more food on less land, which protects habitats; higher nutrition "programmed in"; and the ability to adapt to climate change by growing crops that need less water, survive in hotter temperatures, and even photosynthesize 50% more carbon from the air (which helps halt climate change in the first place).


What is the role of farming in climate change?

Farming is both a cause of climate change and a potential ally against it. On the downside, farming means habitat clearance - which is doubly bad where the habitat was a lovely big "carbon sink" like the Amazon rainforest or the peat soils of Scotland. It also uses fuel and water, and bad farming practices can contribute to soil erosion, which affects localized weather patterns by messing up the hydrology, and also releases carbon, feeding the overall problem.


What is a water meadow?

A water meadow is an area of a farm that cannot be planted with most crops as it is simply too wet, often flooding seasonally. It is often very good ground for grazing, though, as it tends to have very lush grass.


What is "arable" land?

Arable land is land on which crops are grown. It is distinct from pastoral farming, which is the raising of sheep, cows, chickens, etc.


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