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The Roots of Sustainable Cultivation

Ancient farmers developed methods to cultivate crops that thrived in different regions and environments. Their techniques have since been replaced by modern mechanized farming along with the use of chemicals giving rise to negative effects such as soil erosion, greenhouse gas emissions, and new threats to human health. A growing sustainable agriculture movement has emerged with a renewed interest in ancient farming techniques — the traditional agricultural practices of the Far East are an important source, particularly in the context of global climate change.


Agriculture in Ancient China

Workers cultivating rice in a paddy field - 19th century Chinese print on silk

Farming began in ancient China before 5000 BCE, with the two main crops being millet and rice. Millet was grown in the north where the climate was dry and cool and rice was cultivated in the warm, moist Yangtze River Valley.

Around 800 BCE, Chinese farmers discovered they could grow more rice if seedlings were transplanted into flooded fields or paddies, in a process called puddling. This ensured that rice got plenty of water and reduced weed growth. Due to the mountainous conditions, a pattern of terraced fields was built to increase the output of grains.

From the 6th century BCE, ancient farmers planted individual seeds in rows, which facilitated field irrigation and derived maximum crop yield. The multiple-tube seed drill, a device that plants seeds at a uniform depth, was invented in China in the 2nd century BCE which allowed farmers to plant seeds more efficiently, highly improving agricultural output.


Early Rice Farming in Japan

"Spring in the Rice Fields" by Katsushika Hokusai

Rice paddy farming in Japan dates to 600 BCE when the technique was introduced from Korea and southeastern China, during the transition from the Jomon to the Yayoi Period. The earliest paddy fields appeared in the south and spread northwards.

Rice was selectively bred to suit the natural features of each region for a bountiful harvest.


Works cited:

Woods, Michael, and Mary Boyle Woods. Ancient Agriculture: From Foraging to Farming. Runestone, 2000.

“US-China Institute |.”,


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