The landraces were a miscellany of mongrels

The peasants used their crops in a variety of ways. Generally speaking, wheat, barley, rye or oats were grown within separate fields, but the farmers had learned the dangers of being too dependant on any of them. Quite often there was a casual mixture of three or even four cereals, sometimes with peas, lentils, and even buckwheat growing among them for good measure. The wheat and barley reached to the men’s waists, and reapers in the fields of rye were almost hidden from view among the standing straw.

People had learned to live with both the good years and the bad. They had known years of plenty and years of shortage – and from time to time abysmal years when drought, pests or diseases decimated the crops and famine hovered in the background. Yet thrifty, low-yielding kinds of barley or rye were able to survive droughts which reduced their more luxuriant cousins to thin shadows. Scrawny specimens of primitive wild wheat or oats would escape infestations of insects or mould infections that thrived on their fatter cousins. The landraces were a miscellany of mongrels, composed of infinitely varied combinations of genes. These glorious mixtures yielded less than pedigree strains in favourable conditions, but in adversity, when rains failed, bugs bit or fungi flourished, somewhere among them would be plants with just the tolerance to this or the resistance to that needed to produce a small crop. In parts of the world where people’s lives depended on subsistence in bad years, that was much more important than the extra yield of pedigree strains under favourable conditions.

– From ‘Seeds, Sex and Civilization: How the hidden life of plants has shaped our world’ by Peter Thompson, p168-169.

Advertisements