Call for Papers: Crises and Alternative Agriculture in a European Perspective

RHN 57/2013 | Call

Organisers: Groupe De Recherches International (GDRI),  CRICEC (Crises and Changes in the European Countryside); Centre de Recherches Historiques/ERHIMOR (France), Università degli Studia di Padova, (Italy), Centre de Recerca d'Història Rural de la Universitat de Girona (Spain)
5-7 December 2013, Treviso, Italy

3rd Treviso Conference on the History of the European Countryside:
Crises and Alternative Agriculture in a European Perspective

Organizing Committee: Gérard Béaur; Jean-Michel Chevet; Rosa Congost; Danilo Gasparini; Elisabetta Novello

The history of agricultural progress has long been a story of grain production and increased yields, an approach apparently well-suited to an agricultural economy primarily geared to cereal crops and bread-based diets. Not surprisingly, subjects like production crises and the constraints imposed by a Malthusian ceiling dominated the literature. The upshot was that the increase in cereal yields often became the criterion for evaluating agricultural development. Attempts were made to use tithes to measure long-term changes in production, the gravity of agricultural crises was measured by shifts in wheat prices and general indices were constructed to express overall production levels.

True, other forms of production were not forgotten. An abundant literature developed on wine production and on cattle-raising, in regions where they had become specialisations. But these sectors were assigned a relatively secondary place because of the overwhelming importance of cereal production for the basic survival of the population. Recently however, a radical change has taken place. Once it was recognised that the growth of urban consumption had a decisive influence on rural development and that agriculture was not always tied to a subsistence economy, and once it was accepted that peasants were not necessarily allergic to markets, students of the subject began to pay more and more attention to commercial agricultural products designed for more affluent customers, and to products of the soil which could be reprocessed by artisans or manufacturers. In this way, other forms of agricultural production such as fruits, vegetables, forage and industrial crops came under more scrutiny.

This was the broadening context in which Joan Thirsk made her plea for the study of what she described as “alternative agriculture”. By demonstrating the importance of these “marginal” crops in the peasant economy, especially in England, she drew attention to a major historical phenomenon. Her book gave rise to increasingly thorough studies on the precise importance and origins of these crops. The result is a growing belief that all towns or all manufacturing activity generated a demand which could only be satisfied by expanding agricultural activity to products not destined solely for consumption in situ, or for the grain market alone. Beyond this, Joan Thirsk’s book raised questions about why producers gave up food production or subordinated it to commercial agriculture. For Thirsk, these changes were set off by economic recessions, and the rise of alternative agriculture was strongly correlated with the difficulties of traditional crops, that is, with falling prices and hard times in traditional, mainly cereal-based, agriculture. Against this, Jean-Pierre Poussou has put forward the view that the rise of alternative agriculture is unrelated to periods of depression, and that its importance increased much more often during phases of economic prosperity and rising prices.

The published research on these crops has renewed our vision of old regime agriculture, and we propose to build on these foundations. We are looking for conference papers that will examine how alternative agriculture provided answers to the crises in the agricultural economy and, conversely, on the ways in which such strategic choices gave birth to new crises or to difficult transition periods. We ask contributors to explore three questions:

  1. Where, when, how and in what conditions did alternative agriculture develop?
  2. What links can we find between phases of recession or expansion and the success of alternative agricultures?
  3. If the link between the rise of alternative agriculture and the symptoms of crisis is not established, how, conversely, might alternative agriculture have brought agricultural crises to the regions that adopted it?

These are the themes around which the GDRI CRICEC (Crises and Changes in the European Countryside) and the University of Padua are organizing the Third Treviso conference, following on those of 2009 and 2011. The meeting will take place in the Villa Emo near Castelfranco Veneto (Treviso, Italy). The members of the GDRI will be funded by their research-groups. The other participants will be supported for a part of their accommodation.

Proposals for papers, with a title and a summary of conclusions (250-300 words), should be sent to Gérard Béaur, Jean-Michel Chevet, or Rosa Congost.