What Was the Open Field System?

The open field system was a system of agriculture in which large fields were divided into strips that were farmed by individual peasants. This form of farming predominated in Europe from the middle ages until the 1800s.

In the open field system, the farmers did not own the land they farmed, according to "Story of Farming" at History 101. Instead, they managed this land during the growing season, but had little control over their strips of farmland the rest of the year. The peasants paid for the right to a strip of land to farm, and they paid taxes on the food they grew on this land. Yet even after paying for the right to the land, the peasants (or serfs) had little say in its management. Serfs were required to work the land for a set amount of time each day, and their crops were often prescribed by the landowners from whom they leased the land.

The size of the strip of land each peasant farmed was defined in acres. An acre was measured by the amount of area that a single farmer could plow in a single day.

The open field system declined in use due to soil depletion and more individualized methods of farming. Peasants planted the same crops year after year to make a living; however, this ran the soil dry of essential nutrients, such as nitrogen. Gradually, the open field system shifted to a more-regulated form of crop rotation, in which fields were planted in three-year rotations. This system helped push agriculture toward the modern model of individual land-owning farmers.