Agricultural reform

The importance of the farmstead

Gipuzkoa found a paradoxical solution to the economic crisis that was widespread in the area at the end of the 16th and early 17th centuries: the return to a rural economy. It is paradoxical because the land has never been of good quality and was never able to produce enough grain to supply internal demand. However, during the 17th and 18th centuries the number of caseríos increased, and there was more investment in agriculture than in the iron industry shipping  or trade.

The corn revolution

This social and economic change, which didn’t question but in fact strengthened the prevailing political regime, cannot be understood without bearing in mind the role played by America. On the one hand, a large number of surplus labour went there and on the other, the money earned there was invested in improving and building new caseríos and other buildings and infrastructure. But the key players in this revolution were the new plants brought over from America. Some of the typical ingredients of Basque cuisine – such as peppers, chocolate, tomatoes, beans, potatoes - are American in origin. However, the most important plant was one that today is hardly consumed by people – maize. In Barandiaran’s dialogue, the wheat says “I am the best plant” to which the maize replies “where I am, hunger doesn’t exist”.   It was so widely cultivated in the Basque country in the 17th century that not only was starvation avoided but there was a significant increase in population.

Other aspects involved

The success was not based so much on bringing new land under the plow, as on the opportunities that this plant presented for intensive farming. The rotation of maize with other products meant that the land was almost permanently productive. With both maize and turnips for fodder, it was possible to keep a large and productive amount of livestock whose manure, combined with lime, allowed for continuous exploitation of the land. Another important factor was the laya, a simple type of hand plough that is still used, with which it is possible to work steep slopes.

In order to grind the maize, more mills were built, many of which used the water power of the foundries. It also changed the architecture of the caseríos,  which needed to devote more space for storing and drying maize. This agricultural model remained unchallenged until the middle of the 18th century, when a wider crisis arrived.

Further information here: "Baserria: the Basque farmhouse in Gipuzkoa" (Bertan Colection).

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