How Much Do You Actually Know About Agriculture?


By: Zoe Samuel

7 Min Quiz

Image: MakiEni's photo/Moment/Getty Images

About This Quiz

Farming is not just as old as civilization; it's literally the defining marker of when civilization as we know it became possible. It wasn't a hard marker, of course, because the line between hunter-gatherer societies and farming ones is much less distinct than we used to believe, with societies mostly using a mix of techniques for a long period. However, while early farming was almost certainly a reduced lifestyle in terms of comfort and free time - it's much harder work, for a start - a few improvements eventually meant that farming provided something that the nomad lifestyle simply can't.

That one thing is surplus. Once you have that, you have leisure and time for education, invention and all the elements that go into building a civilization. Obviously, of the roughly 10,000 years we've had it, we pretty much wasted it for about 9,800 of them, using it mostly to enslave each other and create hierarchies as a few of us hoard wealth - all things that hunter-gatherer societies simply are not set up to do. However, in the last couple hundred years, we've radically overhauled the way we operate, and a huge part of that is because agriculture improved such that the Industrial and then Information Ages became possible.

How much do you know about the miracle that puts food on the table and also provides the fuel that makes society possible? Let's find out!

What is a cover crop?

Cover crops are put on a field to anchor the topsoil and enrich it with the crops' ability to add nutrients into the soil. They are often placed on a field in the off-season after the harvested crop, and then removed in time to farm the field again.


Which of these is not a kind of wheat?

Barley is a grain but not a kind of wheat, though the others listed here are all types of wheat. Wheat is the second most important crop in the world, with rice third. The most important is corn.


In what climate is no-till farming preferred?

No-till farming is a way of putting seeds into the ground then reaping without digging up and turning over the soil with plowing. It's much better in drier situations where the soil will be chopped up and damaged by tilling, resulting in topsoil and nutrient loss, and in drought conditions, setting up larger problems like the Dust Bowl.


What is the point of a hedgerow, compared to a fence?

Hedges are the best! They connect woodland areas, providing "corridors" for multiple species, which means they don't just help species that live in them; they also have an outsize boost to all species. They're also great windbreaks, meaning they anchor topsoil and thus save farmers money on fertilizer (good quality soil needs less). Also, unlike a fence, if your hedge gets damaged, it grows back all by itself. Did we mention, hedgerows also reduce flooding? Yay hedges!


Which of these is not a root vegetable?

Beans are not a root vegetable. Root veggies are the ones where you eat the root, like celery, carrots and parsnips. You may also eat the top, of course!


Which of these is NOT a function performed by a combine harvester?

The combine harvester is three machines in one, and watching it go is an incredible sight. It cuts the crop (reaping), threshes it (to loosen the chaff from the grains), then winnows it (to remove the chaff). A combine can cost six figures, but it saves a fortune in labor and time, and means much bigger harvests can be brought in.


Why is an acre the size that it is, originally?

An acre is the size that one man with an ox can plow in a day. Considering what one man with a tractor can do these days, this makes you realize how far we've come.


What is "the level below which the ground is saturated with water"?

The water table is the level underneath which the ground is wet. It's very important to know where this is because it's how deep your wells have to be in order to get fresh water. Over-tapping of a water table will not only destroy farming in that area, it'll cause subsidence in the soil and all kinds of other problems. It is a shared resource that must be used wisely.


What is a water meadow?

A water meadow is a field next to a river that is on the floodplain. Water meadows are very often very fewrtile due to lovely nutrients from said floods, but sadly they are also often too wet to put certain crops down. They can be absolutely great for grazing, though.


What is crop yield?

It's all about how much crop you get per acre. Rising crop yields have so far managed to far exceed what anyone thought was possible 40 years ago, which is why there is far less famine these days. The population is expected to top off around 10 billion this century, which means we do need still more radical improvements, but fortunately we don't need them infinitely.


What does acaricide kill?

Pesticides are for pests which can include a lot of things, not necessarily all of them insects. Acaricides are a subset of insecticides, which are a subset of pesticides.


How many types of amino acids do plants have?

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Thus, they are one of the main things that make plants nutritious for humans to eat! Making sure plants have plenty of them is key to ensuring nutrient levels stay high.


Which of these is not a breed of beef cattle?

Some cattle are mainly bred for meat, and others are mainly for dairy. The Guernsey cow is noted for its excellent milk production, which is why it is mostly a dairy cow. It's also one of the prettiest cows.


What do you call a male sheep?

A ram is a male sheep, the same as a stallion is a male horse. A ewe is a female sheep and a lamb is a baby sheep of either gender.


What is chemigation?

Chemigation is when you put your fertilizers or pesticides etc into the irrigation system. This is very good because it reduces wastage and stops the chemicals getting where you do not want them. Think of it like putting fluoride in the water, but instead of it being in all the water, it's only in the tap.


What is crop rotation?

When you grow a crop on a field, it uses certain nutrients and can also add others. This means if you switch it up annually, your fields stay healthy and you maximize crop yields.


What is monocrop?

Monocropping was encouraged by really bad government policy, though it is often lauded as a market innovation (which is actually because these days the market has now adapted to favor it). It's actually environmentally horrible, much less pretty, ultimately degrades soil and helps drive smaller farmers out of business as they cannot compete with big agri-businesses that can scale. There is now a movement to stop doing it.


What is a weed?

Weeds are just plants that are not where you want them to be. A dandelion is lovely in a meadow but annoying in your cornfield.


One way farmers make more money is using a field for two purposes. Which of these can you also have on a field currently being grazed by goats?

You can't put trees on a meadow, as the grass won't grow, you would have to move the goats to have a fair, and they would surely eat the potatoes. However, you CAN put up solar panels. You just raise them a little higher and they don't bother the grass too much (unlike trees, they don't have roots sucking up the moisture, meaning the shade alone isn't too troublesome). Sheep and goats can graze happily around them. Now that solar is cheaper than coal and will soon be cheaper than oil, it's a great source of income for farmers.


Which of these is not grown as a forage crop?

Forage crops are crops grown to feed animals. One way to improve society's carbon footprint would be to grow fewer of them and replace them instead with crops for humans, thus saving the space required to feed the animlas. This would mean eating less meat, which many people are now doing. The most important meat to avoid for this is beef, by orders of magnitude.


Which US state is known for its potatoes?

Idaho is known for potatoes, growing a disproportionate share of the US crop. It's a great place for potatoes as they don't mind a cold winter or a windy environment, and they can handle drier soil.


What is biodiversity?

Biodiversity means lots of species abound in an area. This is essential for a strong ecosystem and good soil. Thus, farming practices that promote it are cheaper in the long run. Good biodiversity practices include no-till farming, growing hedges and planting cover crops.


Who is the farming pioneer whose genetic innovations enabled crop yields in the developing world to go up enough to eradicate famine for literally over a billion people?

Norman Borlaug is the father of the Green Revolution, in which the breeding of superior disease and drought-resistant crops doubled yields in India, Pakistan and other places. This got him the Nobel Peace Prize (famine is one of the leading causes of war) and is believed to have prevented a billion deaths by starvation.


What pioneer in the world of cattle invented the most humane and decent systems for ensuring that whether they are beef or dairy, cows enjoy a fear-free, comfortable life?

Temple Grandin was an autistic teen who discovered an affinity for cattle while staying on a relative's ranch. She invented much more humane abbatoirs and other systems that not only saved the cattle industry millions of dollars, it made it much nicer to be a cow in America. As she put it, just because we eat them doesn't mean we can't treat them with respect!


What is a small cage called in which a sow (female pig) is put before giving birth?

The farrowing crate began with good intentions; sometimes sows roll over and crush their piglets! Crates were invented to hold the sows in place and stop this. However, the crates are barbaric as they stop the sow from moving much, or tending her piglets.


How might factory farming affect the taste of the resulting meat?

The jury is out on whether the difference is noticeable across the board, but there have been studies that show higher cortisol levels in factory-farmed chickens and some testers noted a difference in taste. Cortisol is a stress hormone, and our bodies already make all we need (and for some of us, more than that!). Happily, cage-free eggs and chicken are easy to get now.


What is a perennial?

Asparagus and rhubarb are good examples of perennials. These are very good things to plant because if you are patient once, you will be rewarded annually! Don't be fooled by potatoes, however; if they come back it means you missed a spud, not that you have a magic potato plant.


Why is grass kinda ... everywhere?

Most things grow from the top, like trees and shrubs. Grass, however, grows from the bottom, so if you cut the top off, as long as the root is OK, that tenacious little blighter will grow right back. That's why there is so much grass.


What is a ranch?

A ranch is not like a farm as the latter is about livestock AND crops, whereas a ranch is only about livestock. Farms are also fully enclosed whereas ranches need not be. Sometimes "ranch" is used more generically, especially the further west you go.


Which of these can make baby cows?

A bull is a male cow with all its parts intact. Steers, oxen and bullocks have been castrated. Thus only bulls can make calves!


What is timothy hay?

Timothy hay is good stuff because it doesn't suffer from mold or too many spores, which would be bad for the animals that eat it. It's thus one of the more popular winter feeds for animals.


What is it called when pipes take water to plants and release it one drip at a time?

Trickle or drip irrigation doesn't just conserve a huge amount of water. It also delivers the water right to the root where it is most needed, thus ensuring the plant has the optimal amount and is not over-watered in a way that can wash nutrients away in the surrounding soil. It's a cheaper and more environmentally sound option.


What is the name for grass or other animal feed compacted in airtight conditions to be used for winter feed?

Silage is made by putting a big pile of grass under a tarp, popping some tires on the top, and letting anaerobic (oxygen-free) disgestion do its thing. Bacteria turn the grass into a lovely nutritional mulch that is very dense and good for cows. It even smells pretty good, too.


How often do you shear sheep?

Merino, Suffolk and Rambouillet are all commonly bred breeds of sheep noted for their excellent wool.


What is the process by which plants remove CO2 from the atmosphere and store it in the ground?

What does this have to do with farming? Well, everything! It's how plants grow. It's also likely to be a major new source of revenue for agriculture in the next 100 years as carbon taxes become more common; companies that emit carbon will be able to offset that by paying farmers to plant trees that hold carbon in storage in a semi-permanent manner.


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