Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Grain Into Gold FAQs

We had another email asking for some GIG details, so here are the answers:

How much can an ox plow in a day? an acre - Maybe its an old wives tale, but that was how an acre was measured: the amount of land an ox could plow in a day.

How much land could two oxen plow in a day? Good question! Problem is, being a city boy, I don’t know. The best I can tell from the literature and my research is that two oxen could pull through more problematic soil (like clay), but the whole point of oxen over horses was that they maintained a slow steady pace and weren’t as fast and jerky as the horses. Therefore, I would think that two-oxen might not speed the labor so much as allow for tougher soil and probably save the ox’s strength so together they could keep plowing for a much longer time.

When does he farmer need more help than his family can provide? We had been basing our estimates on the plowing issues. The idea was if you plowed every day for a month, you would have plowed 30 acres. At some point, you’ve missed the planting season, so we were putting the family farms at up to 30 acres, and historic references were supporting this number. But what happens if you have three teen age sons? Well, then you can likely do a lot more, even if you only have one plow. (A stat we found claimed it took a man 40 days to “plow” an acre with a hoe.) The answer to the question really lies in the question of crops and how long they need between seeding and harvesting dependant upon the climate. (That’s a cop-out answer, by the way.) There is also a factor of will your crops grow better (produce more) if you weed better than your neighbor does? I assume they will. So how much extra attention to weeding does it take to have a materially better harvest?
In writing background material for adventures and cities, I have used the idea of up to 40 acres can be handled by a mid to large sized family. More than 40 acres likely needs more than three or four adults. This has simply been an arbitrary number without any true documentation.

How much fish can a family who catches fish off a boat catch? I have to go with another cop out answer here - It really depends on where you are. The question seems to come down to not how many fish can you catch, but how many fish can you afford to get to market. If the market is near the source of the fish, then likely the fish have been fished out or at least down. The more wilderness areas will have a more plentiful amount of fish, but then you have to get them to market. In Fletnern, I’ve tried to avoid having big fishing vessels, because I don’t think they could get the fish back to port while they’re still fresh. I know I’m dancing around the point. Let’s try a stab at the meat of the situation (pun intended) - Assuming that the region allowed for it, a man with a net and a boat could fish out more fish than he and his family could eat. If the fish are running, they talk about families being able to catch all their fish for one year in a day or two. Again, the issue isn’t the amount of fish you can catch, but how fast can you gut them and smoke them or salt them. In an effort to actually answer the question, it seems reasonable that a fisherman with a boat and a net could go out into the sea and catch as many fish as he could carry. If we think he catches a “boatload” of fish and cleans them to be salted or smoked, he could walk away with about 30-40lbs of fish. (I’m only counting meat here, not all the guts, bones, heads, etc he threw back into the sea.) This sounds like fishing all morning, cleaning all afternoon and evening and spending the next day salting and smoking the fish, which is actually a multi-day process. Honestly, I don’t like this math, but it might just serve.

How much would the fish in a barrel weigh? You asked about a 32 gallon barrel. Well, there is a standard series of measuring where they use a 26.66 gallon barrel filled with pickled herring. Here 9/11ths of the barrel is fish (considered 220-262 pounds, sometimes 100k, but all generally in this ballpark). The rest is salt and brine.

How many square feet to a pigskin? 12. Actually I had that in my research notes. Not sure why it didn’t make it into the book. Wow! Your guess of 1/3rd was spot on!

What is the cost of cream? On the Production chart, you’ll see that 8oz of cream was worth 1.5cc. You’re right, that should have been on the price chart.

How much does a plow cost? Damn, another good question. First - What is the level of technology in your world? Are they using wooden plows? Some farmers thought iron plows would poison the ground. Anyway, it is likely that a farmer using a wooded plow made it himself. This is likely just a fire hardened pointed stick intelligently lashed to a steering device that can be harnessed to the ox. Depending on the soil, this could be good enough. If they are using iron plows, it is more likely strips of iron hammered onto the front of a device, not unlike the simple plow just described. Assuming two days of work (for the blacksmith) and about three pounds of iron/steel, you’re looking at 25sc for a plow blade. I assume the farmer is still making the rest of the thing and just buying the blade. For an all steel plow, first your world needs a John Deere (no he did not invent the tractor; he invented a better plow). I can’t find much about how he crafted his blade, but I’m thinking that at this point you’re in a similar spot to the weapon smiths. The battle axe isn’t entirely different than a major plow blade. Depending on the wealth and culture, 75-90sc seems a fair estimate.

There have been a few criticisms of the book. One of them is basically that Grain Into Gold compares to no Earth historic period. We not only concede this point, we revel in it. There is no reason that your fantasy world would not grow corn (that’s maize for all you non-Americans) next to wheat in a feudal society. So what? Well, no matter what we think, you need to make it work in your world. If you want the ground in Elfland to be magical, then by all means, have the elven druids growing 16x the amount of grain that the dwarves are. Or have the lakes in the Ogre Territory so rich with beaver and fish that humans are willing to risk life and limb to get to them.

I hope this is useful to people. At the very least you can see a little more of how we came to some of the conclusions we came to. We’re currently working on Coins of the Road, a trade good supplement very similar to Grain Into Gold, and Facets of Wonder, another companion piece to GIG that goes in depth into gems and precious stones including what they are worth and what magical properties they all might have. If it weren’t for life in general, they’d both be out this summer, but there is little chance that there will be time enough to accomplish that.


  1. Medieval ploughing was hard work for both the farmer and the beast. Frequent rests were required or the beast would collapse from exhaustion.

    An acre was, indeed, the amount of (ideal) land that could be ploughed by an ox team (one farmer and one ox) in one day.

    Because turning oxen and ploughs was so difficult, it was avoided as much as possible, so acres were not square, rather, long strips. An acre's length (aka, furrow length or furlong) was the distance a team of oxen could plough without resting. So harness up, plough a furrow, harness off and rest. Harness up, plough another furrow in the opposite direction but parallel to the first, harness off and rest. The average plough team could do this twice a day. Four furrows. One acre.

    If a field is well managed (the soil continuously cleared of roots, rocks and irregularities, and drained properly) then the pulling power required to plough it slowly decreases and, after many, many years, the team could be scaled back to a single ox and farmer. Well-established fields were often in this situation, new fields most definitely were not.

    Thus one acre is the amount of ideal field that can be ploughed by one ox in a day, or non-ideal field that can be ploughed by two oxen in a day. In any case, you only had one farmer, and they still got exhausted, so having more oxen doesn't give you the obvious benefit that you would expect.

    The reason why oxen were preferred over horses for most of the period wasn't due to slow/steady vs fast/jerky, it was because the bone structure on the chest of a horse is different to that of an ox and cannot withstand as much pressure without compressing the windpipe. Thus they weren't able to pull the plough with the same amount of force and weren't nearly as good as oxen at ploughing sub-optimal land.

    It was only once the horse collar was invented and replaced the yoke (thereby redistributing the load to suit the horse's anatomy) that horses became more efficient in the field.

    1. I have been hesitant to reply because I agree with everything Timo said. Not trying to sound like a know-it-all, but everything except for the yoke/harness details is in Grain Into Gold. If you haven't taken a look at it yet and you like these kinds of details, then I think you'd really like the book. As the title implies - We start with wheat fields and go all the way through to sailing ships and steel armor, all on the same econoic system.