Obra de Agricultura was written by Gabriel Alonso de Herrera in Granada, Spain in 1513 and first published there in 1539.
More than anything else, what Herrera’s agricultural instruction manual managed to do was dutifully capture the previous seven centuries of Moorish agricultural techniques which made Spain the jewel of Europe, just as those same Moors were being expelled.
The timing for the publication of Obra de Agricultura also coincided with the colonization of the America’s, and Herrera’s manual was highly used among new world farmers. Even today, the lessons gleaned from the manual are considered “old-time” knowledge by any New Mexican Indo-Hispano farmer worth his or her salt.
The manual was preserved for future generations by the appropriately named Ancient City Press in 2006 with the help of the National Hispanic Cultural Center, and compiled by the late Estevan Arrellano, who also writes the introduction.
The 2006 English translation is based on the 1998 Spanish reissue of the 1539 edition by Spain’s Ministerio de Agricultura, Pesca, y Alimentación, and according to Arrellano because, “it contained additional information the author had gleaned from his travels he undertook after 1513 and because it was the final edition he worked on before he died.”
Arrellano’s introduction pulls back the curtain on seminal texts by Arab-Andalusian writers that influenced Herrera, primarily, Ibn Wafid (1008-1074) and his Compendium of Agriculture, Ibn Bassal’s Book of Agriculture (1075), and from the tenth to fourteenth century farmer-writer’s of the School of Sevilla, Ibn Luyun’s 1348 The Book of the Beginning of Beauty and the End of Knowledge Which Deals with the Fundamentals of the Art of Agriculture.
In 1502 Herrera was at the service of the Marqués de Mondéjar, working several large vegetable gardens and at the time was considered more of an expert about agriculture than anyone of the era, including the Moors.
He was persuaded to put his knowledge down in book form by Fray Francisco Ximénez de Cisneros, archbishop of Toledo, who recognized that the Christians that took over agriculture from the Moors were unable to produce enough food to feed the masses, prompting Cisneros to pay for the production of the book and distribute free copies.
After Arrellano’s informative personal introduction, Chapter One of the book delves immediately into Preparing The Soil, which includes Methods for Identifying and Improving the Quality of Soil, Benefits of Plowing or Digging, Advice on Sowing and Weeding, Effective Reaping, Threshing, and Storing, and a section that details where and when to plant grains, legumes and flax and hemp, as well as apothecary uses.
Chapter Two is an invaluable treasure trove of the ancient craft of Planting and Harvesting a Vineyard; a common-sense approach to a style of winemaking still employed by the best Organic Farmers throughout Europe and in some places in the new world.
Herrera’s Vineyard knowledge is rooted in Greek and Roman precursors and represents the old-world sort of knowledge that’s harder and harder to come by in an age where chemistry has usurped natural techniques as the lens through which winemaking is viewed.
In the section entitled Soil Conditions and Planting Technique’s, Herrera matter-of-factly states, “Soil for grapevines should be sweet, with good flavor, and a source of water that is neither bitter nor salty, since the wine’s flavor will reflect these properties.”
The section goes on to recount pertinent information on locations for vineyards and grapevine selection and leads to the Basic Planting Methods section, which includes “The Methods”, and a section entitled “From Seed Plot to Vineyard.”
That’s followed by the extensively detailed Recommendations for Cultivating Grapevines section, one of the longest in the book and consisting of such grape-growing essentials as; How to Prop and Tie Grapevines; Initial Instructions For The Pruner; Tips On Excavating; Secrets About Grafting; About Grapevine Diseases and Their Cures; Guidelines For Plowing or Excavating Vineyards, and How To Fertilize Vineyards.
The invaluable third and final chapter of the book, Using Timing Methods Based on Astrological Influences is based on the climate of southern Spain, and the publisher wisely informs readers that zones 7 and 8 of the United States Department of Agriculture Plant Hardiness Zone Map reflect that area. Readers in different zones are encouraged to make the necessary adjustments to their own zone.
While Herrera starts off the chapter in praise of the “divine” knowledge as astrology, he reveals his personal Christian bias to later state, “In the words of St. Matthew, the lord asserts regardless of visible celestial tones and signs, suggesting that we will never completely understand the complexities of upcoming seasons,” and later in that same chapter, “Only God possesses infallible knowledge, as an integral part of his absolute power.”
I’ll admit when I read such passages in the text, I was taken by surprise, as the writing seemed so contemporary and relevant to our globally-warmed world. To read such declarative, faith-based statements (as well as a few macho jabs at the outset of the book), I was reminded of the antiquated culture in which the book was produced.
However, Herrera’s first sub-heading of the section gets us back on track with its invaluable Waxing and Waning of Moon Cycles, which assigns specific agricultural tasks to be performed during the waxing and waning phases of the moon each month.
February’s waning moon is the time for placing well-ripened manure on a cold morning, surrounding late-blossoming trees and grapevines so they will produce more numerous and tastier fruit. Herrera also reminds us that it’s also an ideal time to cut canes, making the wicker available for weaving baskets and other items.
Under the section, Weather Indicators, Herrera starts off with such succinct aphorisms as, “If the sun appears fractured when rising, this is an indicator of rain,” or, “Clouds rising above mountain peaks ensures imminent rain,” yet he also offers sage advice obviously from a different place and time, “Herons sitting on sandbars far from the water, and seemingly sad, indicates an impending weather disturbance.”
Herrera’s book is an example of wisdom from a long-lost time, yet its uncanny how absolutely relevant it can be regarding current weather patterns and the global focus on land-based wisdom regarding agriculture, e.g., organics, biodynamics.
There’s an intimacy with the land that’s at the crux of Herrera’s knowledge. His type of agriculture seems a rather personal one and requires the steward to pay attention to the minute details, as well as the heavens above.
We live in a time where we face our toughest challenges agriculturally; chemicals, GMO’s, global warming, drought and over-population have our collective backs against the wall. The responsibility lie within each of us to do our part to reclaim Earth’s ecological rhythms, reading Herrera’s Obra de Agricultura would be a great place to start
You can buy it here.