Cultures of Growing
The idea of “culture” is complex, and one that people
have defined and redefined many times. Often it is used to mean
the whole set of practices and beliefs that people in a particular area
develop and share and pass down through time. This includes
language and music and food and ways of dressing and living and
thinking. It also includes the ways that people interact with
Another meaning of culture is tied to a related
word, cultivation, and refers to the set of ways that people learn to
produce food. Different
“cultures” have done this in different ways.
Agriculture is often thought of as
the production of food,
but it originally has a more specific meaning.
The first part of the word, agri-,
the Latin word for a field of grain (ager).
agriculture specifically refers to the cultivation of grain
crops. This growing method is used for the production of cereals,
like wheat, and also for growing food for domestic animals like cows
and horses. Usually this produces a large crop all at once that
has to be stored for later use.
Horticulture comes from the Latin
word for garden (hortus), and
it is often used today to indicate home gardening and landscaping in
contrast to the agricultural production of food crops. But in
many parts of the world, especially in the tropics, people were
primarily horticulturalists, and grew most of their food in carefully
tended gardens. Horticulture often requires giving greater
attention to individual plants, rather than managing a whole field at
once. It also often produces food over a longer time span, rather
than all at the same time.
Arboriculture means growing
trees (from the Latin arbor).
is also called “agroforestry” but this doesn’t make as much sense
given the root of the word! Arboriculture is practiced widely
across the world, and takes many different forms. Sometimes only
a couple of trees are grown, like the trees you might have in your
yard. Other times, many trees of the same kind are grown in
straight rows and other plants are eliminated. However, many
different kinds of trees can also be grown together, and can benefit
each other. These mixed groves can resemble forests.
When European explorers, who came from a predominantly agricultural
background, first visited other parts of the world, they were often
unable to see that people were growing crops, because there weren’t the
fields of grain that the explorers expected to see. For instance,
in the tropical Pacific, people were growing breadfruit, coconuts, and
other tree crops using arboriculture, and taro, sweet potato, and other
plants using horticulture. When explorers walked among the trees
they thought they were in a wild forest, although they were really in a
cultivated orchard. Similar encounters happened in other parts of
These misunderstandings had unfortunate
consequences. European settlers, who thought that only
agriculture mattered, saw land cultivated in other ways as being
“unused,” and tried to take control of it through the violent process
of colonialism. Hundreds of years later we are still
dealing with the repercussions, and trying to “decolonize” the land so
that people can live as they want to.
Part of this process of recovery is recognizing what
makes various cultures so unique, including the many distinct
strategies of growing plants that were developed to make the best use
of the conditions in each environment. One of the ways to help
different cultures survive is to support local ways of growing.
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