View Full Version : How big should farms be?

05-17-2009, 12:35 PM
I've been trying to track down information on the sizes of different farms in a historical context.

The closest I've found to anything pre 1980 is...


I'm wondering how large farms should be for periods in, say, the 500ad-1000ad period for...

1. single families out on the frontier - producing enough to support that family
2. a community farm for a primary crop - e.g., community shares field for wheat/potato, then family grows own support vegetables (and how big their garden/farm would be)
3. size for a people to maintain a herd, etc...

Any ideas of where to look?

05-17-2009, 12:40 PM
I found this text here (http://web.missouri.edu/ikerdj/papers/SmFmHowBig.html), and thought it was interesting.

How do you know if your farm is too big? Your farm may be too big if…

If the fence rows are either gone or so clean you no longer hear the birds singing.

If gullies appear on slopes and road ditches are filled with muddy water after a rain.

If the soil feels like pavement under your feet, or you don’t like walking across it anymore.

If the farm begins to look more like a sea or desert, rather than a patch work quilt.

If your cows no longer have names and your children wouldn’t know them if they did.

If your animals never feel the sun, don’t have room to walk, or never touch the dirt.

If your farm no longer smells like a farm but stinks like a sewer or a factory.

If it’s no longer safe for anyone but an adult to work with your machinery or chemicals.

If you work harder and harder, but it always seems there is more work to be done.

If a bigger tractor, combine, or new pickup truck seems like it might solve your problems.

If your banker or contractor owns more of your farm than you will ever own.

If the farm is keeping the family apart, or tearing it apart, rather than bringing it together.

If your children begin to dislike farm life and vow not to return to the farm.

If you no longer feel good about asking your family to live on a farm.

If you’re too busy to bother with community affairs, and rarely go into town anymore.

If you drive right through “your” town to buy things in the city, just to save a few dollars.

If neighbors complain about dust, noise, or odors from your farm, and you don’t care.

If caring for the land no longer gives purpose and meaning to your life.

If continuing the farming tradition feels more like a burden rather than a privilege.

If you’re too busy to notice changing seasons, to watch the sunset, or to feel the wind blow.

If farming is no longer exciting, no longer fun, if it’s hard to face a new season.

If you have forgotten why you wanted to be a farmer in the first place.

If very many of these things ring true, odds are your farm is too big.

05-17-2009, 01:59 PM
From this web page: http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/history/middleages/farm.html

A family of four needed about 35 bushels of grain a year. Of the seven to ten bushels that a peasant harvested on each acre of his land in a good year, two or three had to be saved for the next years seed, three or four had to be given to the lord as taxes and to the church as a tithe. In the end, a peasant would have between two and four bushels per acre to feed his family with. If the harvest was not good, he would have even less, and his family might face hunger or starvation during the winter months.

This information describes farming methods using a three-field system and a heavy plow. So if a family needed 35 bushels for the year and got at least two bushels per acre, the minimum farm size to support that family would have to be 17 acres of arable land, plus pasturage for oxen and other livestock and the peasants' cottage(s).

According this site: http://home.olemiss.edu/~tjray/medieval/feudal.htm :

Yardland - A peasant holding in the common fields, usually 25-30 acres of arable land with appurtenant meadow, pasture and common rights.

Those numbers roughly line up, particularly as the average family size was probably larger than four.

The Romans did not know crop rotation or the heavy plow. Those things came into use over the course of the five centuries after the collapse of the Empire (~AD 400. Alaric sacked Rome in AD 410). They were both in use throughout northern Europe by the time of Charlemagne, though, in AD 800. The heavy plow was largely responsible for the northerly shift of power in the Middle Ages. Prior to its introduction, much of that land was not arable, limiting population growth.

Hope that helps!

05-17-2009, 02:03 PM
It's a start! thanks! :D

05-17-2009, 02:07 PM

Two interesting parts of this text:

1. In England, the ideal farm size for a family was a "yardland" (24-30 acres) in size. Only about a quarter of the English farm families had this much land (or a bit more) before the Bubonic Plague , most had ten or fewer. Those farmers possessing a yardland were able to work their land efficiently enough to feed themselves and produce a surplus for sale.

2. An acre of barley could, in an average year, produce about 500 liters of grain (after making allowances for taxes and seed for the next crop). This was enough to feed one adult for a year at a very basic level. A farmer with a wife and two children could get along with five acres. Everyone would have to work, especially for other sources of food like the vegetable garden and rummaging in the woods for mushrooms, nuts, and berries. But a five acre holding left little margin for bad weather. Several bad years in succession could lead to widespread famine.

05-17-2009, 02:28 PM
For a contrast to the traditional European agricultural style, there is also swidden agriculture, otherwise known as "slash and burn." Data from here: http://lucy.ukc.ac.uk/sonja/rf/ukpr/Report62.htm

indicates that the Semai of Malaysia require approximately one acre of land to feed two people. The fields are cleared and burned over a three-month period, then planted continually for 1 - 2 years, then left fallow for at least 12 years to allow the forest to grow back.

This kind of agriculture is practiced by a number of aboriginal people in South America, as well. Among the Waorani, each family is responsible for feeding itself, and very little food is left over for sale or sharing. Among most of these societies, no one owns land—whoever prepares a swidden owns it only as long as they are cultivating it. The next time around, a different family might be farming on that land.

05-17-2009, 03:23 PM
Don't forget that farmers are not the only ones that eat from the harvest. To feed the gentry and the higher ups, you need a lot of farms.

Oh yeah, also Bill Stickers ate my baby!