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I am trying to design a staple crop (preferably grain or tuber, but can be anything if necessary) that is very productive, capable of sustaining great population densities, but is also very labour intensive and very, very difficult to mechanize or automate in it's production. The objective is to create a crop that mantains high populations but also forces most of the population to remain in the fields even after this world's Industrial Revolution.

I have looked after things like paddy agriculture and thus intensive canal building and maintainance, manual polinization due to the extinction of natural polinizers, and intensive hand harvesting as seen in Saffron, but I do not know if these could be realistically be present in highly productive staple crops.

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    $\begingroup$ how far after it's industrial revolution? Mechanization of rice production only started in the 1920s $\endgroup$
    – OT-64 SKOT
    Mar 15 at 0:46
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    $\begingroup$ Try to find and watch Giuseppe de Santis's Bitter Rice (Riso amaro, 1949) to see just how much automated and mechanized was rice production at middle of the 20th century in a western European country. (And to see the beautiful Silvana Magnano in the reduced work clothes which were apparently de rigueur for female rice workers.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 15 at 1:12
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    $\begingroup$ Just for example, in 1900, 60% of the population of the USA lived in rural areas. Urban population became a mjority only in the 1930s. Rural population dropped below 40% only in the 1950s. At the middle of the 19th century the country used slave labor in agriculture! $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 15 at 1:18
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    $\begingroup$ Very productive and labour intensive are, IMO, mutually exclusive. $\endgroup$ Mar 15 at 1:34
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    $\begingroup$ Do you mean very productive per cultivated acre? $\endgroup$
    – g s
    Mar 15 at 2:32

6 Answers 6

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Incompatible with reaching the Industrial Revolution

The problem is that if the crop was that labour intensive then the society would not have survived to reach the Industrial Revolution (IR). Let's look at the pre-IR situation and then work forwards.

Prior to the IR there are one or more crops, which require considerable effort to grow. 90% of the workforce are on the farms, which is fairly standard for pre-industrial societies, with the other 10% being miners, craftsmen, ruling/administrative class etc. However, that 90% of the workforce must be doing things other than growing those crops. They need to be maintaining livestock, building and repairing houses and fences, cutting firewood and, most importantly, making textiles.

The textiles are a crucial part of this equation because humans need not just clothing but also bedding and floor and wall coverings. Depending on the pre-modern society, roughly half of the hours worked were involved in textile creation and manufacture. Harvesting the fibres (eg cotton) and/or shearing animals (eg sheep, goats) was the lesser part of this, the vast majority was spent on spinning fibres into threads and then weaving cloth. Technological advances made these time-consuming tasks much more efficient, eg the invention of the spinning wheel, with the IR providing the critical break point. The first use-case for steam engines was pumping water out of deep coal mines, but the second use-case, as soon as the steam engines were made efficient, was powering the spinning jenny. The increase in efficiency was enormous and had massive social consequences.

So, even if the society has transitioned from ancient times to modern times without somehow ever having come up with increased productivity or efficiency in the production of their staple food - which seems extremely unlikely - the IR will suddenly free up close to half the rural workforce from inefficient textile production. (It will also free up a huge amount of working capital, some of which is bound to be sunk into agricultural R&D so the factory owners can feed their workers more cheaply and keep more profits for themselves.) This is not even looking at the increase in efficiency of other areas.

TL;DR the IR will free up a significant portion of the formerly rural labour market through increased efficiency of manufacturing textiles and other goods. If all agricultural developments in crop rotation, cultivation, harvesting and refining food are somehow prevented it might be possible to keep 50-60% of the workforce involved in food production in a mature post-IR society.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is just one step away from being a workable answer. The staple crop is also a source of textiles. That's why no other single crop can replace it. You need a quantum leap: two new crops, one for food, one for textiles. $\endgroup$
    – MSalters
    Mar 15 at 23:51
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An industrial revolution matching your requirements becomes much easier if you consider not the crop but the energy source. We think of industrial revolution as a process of adopting coal power, but in more general terms it is a process of adopting any new source of energy. Before coal power, there was water power and to a lesser extent wind power, the adoption of which drove their own industrial revolutions. The 20th century had another industrial revolution driven by widespread adoption of oil power. Even the adoption of agriculture all those thousands of years ago can be thought of as an industrial revolution of sorts.

Given what you are looking for, I would suggest an industrial revolution which adopted water and wind power but not coal power. Perhaps your world, or your society, does not have as much easily accessible coal, and burning it in an engine is uneconomical? Since water power is tied to watercourses and wind-powered machines are generally stationary, this would prevent agriculture from becoming mechanised and it would still require most of the available workforce. They will then continue to grow whatever crops are suitable for the local climate in ways which are necessarily as labor-intensive as ever. But even just mechanising textile production (doable with water power, and we can be sure about this because this is what has happened historically) frees up a quarter or so of the workforce for non-agricultural jobs, and that's plenty to build a sizable industry with.

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    $\begingroup$ The rice-paddy was a good starting point. You can get three crops a year if you are careful. A traction-engine would not get far in a rice paddy, so rice was planted by hand in much of the last century. Bias things further against the machines. Make fossil fuels scarce. Have sloping land with rice terraces. Have a stable economy, so the careful farmer who gets a little extra yield has an advantage that is not wiped out by other factors. $\endgroup$ Mar 16 at 11:34
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Take something like yam, which grows a tuber deep in the ground, needs a stone rich soil to grow well and whose tuber likes to curl around said stones.

Add that the tuber spoils quickly if it gets damaged or hit during harvest, and you are very close to something with labor intensive harvest.

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nihamanchi is a drink made from fermented maniok, the fermentation starter is human saliva. You can automate this, but it does not scale or get more efficient.

Also, you can have a food that is "over-nutrious"- as in it kills the worlds natives to have a industrialized, sedatary life-style and this high-energy food. This is a problem for some members of some native american tribes. There whole bio-setup diggestion etc is hyper-efficient, to be supplied with some grass seeds gathered while hunting. Now they are forced into a sedetary life style with highly processed energy dense food, resulting in health problems and adipositas.

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  • $\begingroup$ Salvia is cultivateable for a highly industrialized science-based society. But not for a medieval times living agrarian society. $\endgroup$
    – Pica
    Mar 15 at 9:04
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I read your requirements as meaning a crop needing lots of labor but little land. Another idea could be a cereal where some grains are toxic, and they have to be manually separated.

We actually have that https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ergot and people used to get violently sick from it. The https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dancing_plague_of_1518 is suspected to be partially caused by Ergot poisoning.

In a highly automated society infected grain is sorted via optical inspection by machines, but in a agrarian society, that is to time consuming and a harvest may have to be thrown away - or at least fed to lifestock.

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  • $\begingroup$ Great answer, but people need to have it all layed out, they can not read minds, unfortunatly. $\endgroup$
    – Pica
    Mar 15 at 14:17
  • $\begingroup$ "violently sick" - You spelled, get fatally high as hell from the "lysergic acid derivative" ergot, aka LSD, wrong. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Mar 16 at 19:00
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If it can't be industrialised, it will stop being a staple

It does not matter how staple a food source is in the pre-industrial time period, if other foods can be industrialized better than it can, then the old staple crop will lose popularity.

While you might argue that the the old staple has a flavor that is highly sought after, this does not guarantee its continued use in an industrial society. As a general rule, any plant that can't be mass produced experiences one of two fates: it is replaced by a similar tasting, cheaper plant like how "horseradish" is usually just ginger in deceptive packaging... or worse: we come up with synthetic flavorings to fill the demand like how vanilla extract is often replaced with petroleum based vanilla flavoring.

The problem with this question is that you don't just need to describe why there is this one plant that is hard to industrialize with, but why there are not better alternative plants you can switch too. So, instead of designing a new staple crop, you need to design an environment in which all farming is labor intensive, regardless of what they try to grow.

Designing a setting to meet this goal

The most obvious choice will me mountain terrace farming. If your terrain is not flat enough to retain soil, then your people may need to carve thier hillsides into narrow terraces in order to accommodate any sort of agriculture which is often inaccessible to heavy farm equipment. This style of agriculture is commonly used in places like Vietnam where large flat landscapes are uncommon... but keep in mind that if you do this, your economy will generally lag behind the rest of the world that is not mountainous; so, your civilization, though technically industrialized, will still fall 100+ years behind other nations in your setting as a whole, not just in thier agriculture.

If you need the whole world (or a very large part of it) to require a lot of labor to make food, then your best bet is to introduce an invasive species that you can not chemically eliminate. A really big part of pre-industrial farming was during the growing phase, the farmer would have to walk his plot removing weeds, diseased plants, and killing pests like caterpillars to prevent major crop failures. This was a manual process for much longer than tilling, planting, harvesting, and processing because it requires food safe herbicides and pesticides rather than machines to do. So, you can still limit the labor efficiency of farming by quite a bit if you limit your civilization's access to agricultural chemicals.

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