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Land types, quality and crops

General points

Before classifying the types of land described in the places surveyed, we are going to make some general comments about the arable land studied in the field work conducted in the Carranza Valley in Bizkaia.

The people surveyed there described different layers in the arable land that would be equivalent to the horizons that make up the soil profile.

The layer nearest the surface is known as the topsoil, is the darkest, so that the quality is better the closer it is to being black in colour. It is considered the most valuable and fertile layer and its colour and its texture are the result of repeatedly fertilizing it using organic matter. It is the least compact part and is crumbly in texture.

There is another layer under this top one and is only called soil or normal soil. It is lighter in colour, as it contains less organic matter and is easily compacted.

That layer is followed by the one known as the parent soil. It is usually clay and, in general, lighter than the soil above, even though it sometimes has shades of blue. It is very compact and has no productive value.

Types of land

In general, the people surveyed explained that the sandy flat land in the valleys is the most fertile, easier to work and gives better yields. On the contrary, clay soil is harder, though is better for some crops. Stony soil is the worst as even though many pebbles have been removed, ploughing the land just brings more up to the surface, which makes it hard for both people and animals to work and damages the farm implements. However, that land, in the southern Basque Country, is suitable for growing olive trees and vineyards.

Colour is the first criterion to establish the quality of the soil. The best is considered to be the soil that is dark in colour, easy to work and very fertile. However, climate plays an important role for the plants to prosper as when there is a summer drought, the plants wilt and die before those in other types of clay-rich earth. The dark colour of the soil is linked to using organic matter as fertiliser and that type of soil is more highly prized the longer it has been worked.

The second factor is the composition of the earth. Loose and dark soils are easily worked because they are poor in clay, however, a soil having a certain proportion of clay is good. A smaller proportion of plants may be successful in those soils, but the ones that grow do so more quickly. That land better withstands droughts and all crops, particularly millet and bean, grow well there. Too much clay made the land almost impossible to work with the resources they had.

Depth is another aspect to be taken into account. Deep soil is the most prized, in other words earth than can be easily work without any risk of the ploughshare hitting the parent soil layer no matter how deep it goes. On the contrary, there is a land with such a fine layer of topsoil and stones are brought up when it is ploughed.

As regards the lie of the land, south- and east-facing are considered the best as the crops receive more sun and the slope protects them from the northerly wind. As both the morning and evening sun is good, the people surveyed agreed that the first is the best as "it had more offer".

Ploughing the land

Tilling consists of turning over the land using a traditional plough with a triangular ploughshare and creating furrows by leaving the earth on both sides. A long ridge is formed between the furrows when soil moved on the way back down the next section was built up on the soil moved on the way up. Working the land using the traditional plough is more superficial than when maquinado [machines] began to be used.

The term to machine possibly began to be used after the swivel plough was introduced to work the land, which was referred to as just a machine in many locations, a term which continued to be used as oxen and the swivel ploughs fell out of use and were replaced by tractors with more modern ploughs.

The ploughshare of the maquinado goes further into the soil and the earth is pushed to one side as there is a large mouldboard. On the way back up the section, it has a mechanism that means the ploughshare can be swung in such a way that when a new furrow is started, the earth is turned in the same direction and is tilted against the soil moved in the last pass. This means its function is similar to how the traditional blades were used.


In general, the trend was to grow crops on irrigated rather than on rain-fed land in all locations. This was partly due to the farms no longer growing some rain-fed crops, as water could be brought to the farmed land using irrigation systems. There is a greater tradition of irrigating the land in Tierra Estella and in the Ribera Navarra where the soil became very fertile thanks to the irrigation system.

Situation and separation between fields

Two uses have been found with respect to the property enclosures. There are places where the custom was to enclose the land, initially using stone walls or hedgerows, which were replaced by posts and wire, and others where the fields were open. Two customs also coexisted. Whether the population was mainly dedicated to livestock or arable farming was influential, as if there were a large number of animals, they had to be kept out of the vegetable garden. There were more or less separations between the properties to mark out the boundaries, in addition to or independently from the boundary stones. Nowadays, most of fields where the livestock graze are enclosed, along with, sometimes, the vegetables gardens to keep the animals out and to stop stealing by unscrupulous people.

Marking of boundaries

We have seen that one of the ways to mark out the property was using stone walls and fences or hedges, even though those enclosures were more likely to be erected to keep the livestock out of the crops. The most common and widespread way of identifying the properties was to mark the boundaries of the land or upland in question, but there were other systems to indicate the different ownership of adjoining land.

Back in the 1920s, Barandiaran noted that it was common in the Basque Country to use stones embedded in the land to mark the boundaries of a private or communal plot[1]. Even though the concept is the same, we make a distinction between the signs used to demarcate private properties and the so-called jurisdiction boundary stones that marked the limits of adjacent municipal districts.

  1. José Miguel de BARANDIARAN. El mundo en la mente popular vasca. Zarauz: 1960, p. 154.