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Marcus Cato De Agri Cultura and Soil fertility

The Traditional Roman Farmer in the Second Century BC

Marcus Cato the elder or the censor was kind of old schoolin his day and represents an excellent example of traditional Roman values in Italy before the onslaught of Greek culture, but to sustainable farmers everywhere, he is a kind of father figure that reinforces the importance of soil fertility and economics in agriculture.

What is good cultivation? Good ploughing. What next? Ploughing. What third? Manuring. Cato De Agri Cultura (61)

The book De Agri Cultura is an ancient text written in Latin prose, the very first Latin to be written in prose in fact and teaches through observations and notations how to take care of a traditional Roman farm, economically.

Meant to be read aloud, and discussed with workers, this book is just about as low-tech as your going to get; the biggest problem with it however, is the use and recommendations concerning slaves. If you can get over that bit, this book is a must read for anybody into low-tech sustainability.

Just imagine for a moment an elderly Roman man, head of his household, once a great General who had fought wars beside his men, dressed as they would dress, would ride as they would ride, eat, sleep and drink as they.

Now he sits, dressed as a simple farm hand, in his study at home, on his olive plantation in the Sabine Territory about 160 years or so before Christ was born after a long hard day of digging manure trenches around olive trees and scrounging for dry leaves and bedding for the animals; quill and ink in hand before a precious piece of parchment, thus his woolen tunic is filled with the smell of work and he writes about life on the farm:

See that you carry out all farm operations betimes, for this is the way with farming: if you are late in doing one thing you will be late in doing everything. If bedding runs short, gather oak leaves and use them for bedding down sheep and cattle. See that you have a large dunghill; save the manure carefully, and when you carry it out, clean it of foreign matter and break it up. Autumn is the time to haul it out. During the autumn also dig trenches around the olive trees and manure them. Cut poplar, elm, and oak leaves betimes; store them before they are entirely dry, as fodder for sheep. Cato De Agri Cultura (5(7-8))

It sounds almost as if he is giving himself, or his great grandchildren, directives to follow upon inheriting the family farm that once belonged to his own grandfather, and his incessant fingers continue in the reverie that will one day be immortalized:

Divide your manure as follows: Haul one-half for the forage crops, and whenyou sow these, if this ground is planted with olives, trench and manure them at this time; then sow the forage crops. Add a fourth of the manure around the trenched olives when it is most needed, and cover this manure with soil. Save the last fourth for the meadows, and when most needed, as the west wind is blowing, haul it in the dark of the moon. Cato De Agri Cultura (29)

Suddenly, a change in the wind and his mind goes out to the vineyard, he remembers how the soil out there had been so lean, and he thinks, What to do? ah, yes:

In an old vineyard sow clover if the soil is lean (do not sow anything that will form a head), and around the roots apply manure, straw, grape dregs, or anything of the sort, to make it stronger. Cato De Agri Cultura (33)

The day seems to be going afoul and a new idea comes to him; that maintaining soil fertility is so important, and yet, composting almost seems to take care of itself, how often should it be done? He thinks, and the quill moves once again with subtle detail:

When the weather is bad and no other work can be done, clear out manure for the compost heap; clean thoroughly the ox stalls, sheep pens, barnyard, and farmstead; and mend wine-jars with lead, or hoop them with thoroughly dried oak wood. Cato De Agri Cultura (39)

What of cypress, it is in much need of yearly fertility is it not? His mind wanders back to the parchment:

Turn the ground with a trench spade where you are going to plant cypress seed, and plant at the opening of spring. Make ridges five feet wide, add well-pulverized manure, hoe it in, and break the clods. Cato De Agri Cultura (48)

And on that same thought:

Manure meadows at the opening of spring, in the dark of the moon. When the west wind begins to blow and you close the dry meadows to stock, clean them and dig up all noxious weeds by the roots. Cato De Agri Cultura (50)

His mind is at peace and the quill stops its immortal motions.

Cato was a wise Roman, one who knew how important is was to keep a lock on time frames and make the best use of both the calendar as well as help allow those who work with you to feel like you are one in the same.

He took frugality to heart, he thought of the Roman farmer as the greatest example of a decent Roman citizen of true roman ideals, roman philosophies and the least of threats to civilizations, but rather, the backbone of it.

Cato knew soils like he knew his army, or the Roman people, he knew their strengths and their weaknesses for which crops at what seasons would need what kind of treatment, and many of his ideas about economy of resources, hold true to this very day.

Cato has left us an example of what low-tech sustainable practices were really like in the second century before Christ for the Roman farmer, and his thoughts eco out such a deep religious understanding of cycles, especially those that speak of soil fertility.

Marcus Cato the elder has preserved for us in De Agri Cultura, what it means to truly be a Roman farmer and respect soil fertility with the religious honors due to the gods.