British Agricultural Revolution
The British Agricultural Revolution was the unprecedented increase in agricultural production in England due to increases in labour and land productivity that took place between 1750 and 1850, although it had its beginnings in the 17th century. By 1750, agricultural output grew faster than the population. The increase in food supply allowed the population of England to exceed 5.5 million for the first time. Because the agricultural revolution freed up labour, providing an escape from the Malthusian trap, it is often cited as one of the causes of the Industrial Revolution.
- 1 Major developments and innovations
- 2 British Agricultural Revolution in perspective
- 3 British agriculture 1800–1900
- 4 Significance
- 5 Notes
- 6 Further reading
Major developments and innovations
The British agricultural revolution was the result of the complex interaction of social, economic and farming technology changes. Major developments and innovations include:
- Norfolk four-course crop rotation: Fodder crops, particularly turnips and clover, replaced fallow.
- The Dutch (improved Chinese) plow
- Enclosure: the removal of common rights to establish exclusive ownership of land
- Higher output of livestock due to more intensive farming with higher labour inputs
- Development of a national market based on minimal government regulation
- Transportation infrastructures
- The rise of capitalist farmers
- Land conversion, land drains and reclamation
- Increase in farm size
- Selective breeding
|Crop Yield net of Seed
One of the most important innovations in the British Agricultural Revolution was the development of the Norfolk four-course rotation, which greatly increased crop and livestock yields by improving soil fertility and reducing fallow.
Crop rotation is the practice of growing a series of dissimilar types of crops in the same area in sequential seasons to help restore plant nutrients and it helps mitigate the build-up of pathogens and pests that often occurs when one plant species is continuously cropped. Rotation can also improve soil structure and fertility by alternating deep-rooted and shallow-rooted plants. Turnip roots, for example, can recover nutrients from deep under the soil. The Norfolk System, as it is now known, rotates crops so that different crops are planted with the result that different kinds and quantities of nutrients are taken from the soil as the plants grow.
During the Middle Ages, the open field system had initially used a two-field crop rotation system where one field was left fallow or turned into pasture for a time to try to recover some of its plant nutrients. Later they employed a three year, three field crop rotation routine, with a different crop in each of two fields, e.g. oats, rye, wheat, and barley with the second field growing a legume like peas or beans, and the third field fallow. Normally from 10–30% of the arable land in a three crop rotation system is fallow. Each field was rotated into a different crop nearly every year. Over the following two centuries, the regular planting of legumes such as peas and beans in the fields that were previously fallow slowly restored the fertility of some croplands. The planting of legumes helped to increase plant growth in the empty field due to the bacteria on legume roots' ability to fix nitrogen (N2) from the air into the soil in a form that plants could use. Other crops that were occasionally grown were flax and members of the mustard family.
Convertible husbandry was the alternation of a field between pasture and grain. Because nitrogen builds up slowly over time in pasture, plowing up pasture and planting grains resulted in high yields for a few years. A big disadvantage of convertible husbandry was the hard work in breaking up pastures and difficulty in establishing them. The significance of convertible husbandry is that it introduced pasture into the rotation.
The farmers in Flanders (in parts of France and current day Belgium) discovered a still more effective four-field crop rotation system, using turnips and clover (a legume) as forage crops to replace the three-year crop rotation fallow year.
The four-field rotation system allowed farmers to restore soil fertility and restore some of the plant nutrients removed with the crops. Turnips first show up in the probate records in England as early as 1638 but were not widely used till about 1750. Fallow land was about 20% of the arable area in England in 1700 before turnips and clover were extensively grown. Guano and nitrates from South America were introduced in the mid-19th century and fallow steadily declined to reach only about 4% in 1900. Ideally, wheat, barley, turnips and clover would be planted in that order in each field in successive years. The turnips helped keep the weeds down and were an excellent forage crop—ruminant animals could eat their tops and roots through a large part of the summer and winters. There was no need to let the soil lie fallow as clover would re-add nitrates (nitrogen-containing salts) back to the soil. The clover made excellent pasture and hay fields as well as green manure when it was ploughed under after one or two years. The addition of clover and turnips allowed more animals to be kept through the winter, which in turn produced more milk, cheese, meat and manure, which maintained soil fertility.
The mix of crops also changed, replacing some low-yielding types, such as rye, with higher-yielding types such as wheat or barley. Grain yields also increased as new and better seed was introduced. Wheat yields increased by about 25% between 1700 and 1800, and then by about another 50% between 1800 and 1850.
The Dutch or Rotterdam plow
The Dutch acquired the iron tipped, curved moldboard, adjustable depth plow from the Chinese in the early 17th century. It had the advantage of being able to be pulled by one or two oxen compared to the six or eight needed by the heavy wheeled northern European plow. Dutch improvements included Joseph Foljambe's Rotherham cast iron plough of 1730, combining an earlier Dutch design with a number of technological innovations. Its fittings and coulter were made of iron and the mouldboard and share were covered with an iron plate, making it easier to pull and more controllable than previous ploughs.
The Dutch plough was brought to Britain by Dutch contractors who were hired to drain East Anglican fens and Somerset moors. The plough was extremely successful on wet, boggy soil, but soon was used on ordinary land. It spread to Scotland, America, and France. By 1770 it was the cheapest and best plough available.
In Europe, agriculture was feudal since the Middle Ages. In the traditional open field system, many subsistence farmers cropped strips of land in large fields held in common, and divided the produce. They typically worked under the auspices of the aristocracy or the Catholic Church, which owned much of the land.
As early as the 12th century, some fields in England tilled under the open field system were enclosed into individually owned fields. The Black Death in 1349 and on sparked the break-up of the feudal system in England. Many farms were bought by yeomen who enclosed their property and improved the use of their land. More secure control of the land allowed the owner to make innovations that improved yields. Other husbandmen rented property they "share cropped" with the land owners. Many of these enclosures were accomplished by acts of Parliament in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The process of enclosing property accelerated in the 15th and 16th centuries. The more productive enclosed farms meant that fewer farmers were needed to work the same land, leaving many villagers without land and grazing rights. Many of them moved to the cities in search of work in the emerging factories of the Industrial Revolution. Others settled in the English colonies. English Poor Laws were enacted to help these newly poor.
Some practices of enclosure were denounced by the Church, and legislation was drawn up against it; but the large, enclosed fields was needed for the gains in agricultural productivity from the 16th to 18th centuries. This controversy led to a series of government acts, culminating in the General Enclosure Act of 1801 which sanctioned large-scale land reform.
The process of enclosure was largely complete by the end of the 18th century.
Development of a national market
Markets were widespread by 1500 with about 800 locations in Britain. These were regulated and not free. The most important development between the 16th century and the mid-19th century was the development of private marketing. By the 19th century, marketing was nation-wide and the vast majority of agricultural production was for market rather than for the farmer and his family. The 16th-century market radius was about 10 miles, which could support a town of 10,000.
The next stage of development was trading between markets, requiring merchants, credit and forward sales, knowledge of markets and pricing and of supply and demand in different markets. Eventually the market evolved into a national one driven by London and other growing cities. By 1700, there was a national market for wheat.
Legislation regulating middlemen required registration, addressed weights and measures, fixing of prices and collection of tolls by the government. Market regulations were eased in 1663, when people were allowed some self-regulation to hold inventory, but it was forbidden to withhold commodities from the market in an effort to increase prices. In the late 18th century, the idea of “self regulation” was gaining acceptance.
The lack of internal tariffs, customs barriers and feudal tolls made Britain “the largest coherent market in Europe”.
High wagon transportation costs made it uneconomical to ship commodities very far outside the market radius by road, generally limiting shipment to less than 20 or 30 miles to market or to a navigable waterway. Water transport was, and still is, much more efficient than land transport. In the early 19th century it cost as much to transport a ton of freight 32 miles by wagon over an unimproved road as it did to ship it 3000 miles across the Atlantic. A horse could pull at most one ton of freight on a Macadam road, which was multi-layer stone covered and crowned, with side drainage. A horse could pull a barge weighing over 30 tons.
Railroads would eventually reduce the cost of land transport by over 95%; however they did not become important until after 1850.
Land conversion, drainage and reclamation
Another way to get more land was to convert some pasture land into arable land and recover fen land and some pastures. It is estimated that the amount of arable land in Britain grew by 10–30% through these land conversions.
The British Agricultural Revolution was aided by land maintenance advancements in Flanders, and the Netherlands. Due to the large and dense population of Flanders and Holland, farmers there were forced to take maximum advantage of every inch of usable land; the country had become a pioneer in canal building, soil restoration and maintenance, soil drainage, and land reclamation technology. Dutch experts like Cornelius Vermuyden brought some of this technology to Britain.
Water-meadows were utilized in the late 16th to the 20th centuries and allowed earlier pasturing of livestock after they were wintered on hay. This increased livestock yields, giving more hides, meat, milk, and manure as well as better hay crops.
Rise in capitalist farmers
With the development of regional markets and eventually a national market, aided by improved transportation infrastructures, farmers were no longer dependent on their local market and were less subject to having to sell at low prices into an oversupplied local market and not being able to sell their surpluses to distant localities that were experiencing shortages. They also became less subject to price fixing regulations. Farming became a business rather than solely a means of subsistence.
Under free market capitalism, farmers had to remain competitive. To be successful, farmers had to become effective managers who incorporated the latest farming innovations in order to be low cost producers.
In England, Robert Bakewell and Thomas Coke introduced selective breeding as a scientific practice, mating together two animals with particularly desirable characteristics, and also using inbreeding or the mating of close relatives, such as father and daughter, or brother and sister, to stabilize certain qualities in order to reduce genetic diversity in desirable animals programs from the mid-18th century. Arguably, Bakewell's most important breeding program was with sheep. Using native stock, he was able to quickly select for large, yet fine-boned sheep, with long, lustrous wool. The Lincoln Longwool was improved by Bakewell, and in turn the Lincoln was used to develop the subsequent breed, named the New (or Dishley) Leicester. It was hornless and had a square, meaty body with straight top lines. Bakewell was also the first to breed cattle to be used primarily for beef. Previously, cattle were first and foremost kept for pulling ploughs as oxen or for dairy uses, with beef from surplus males as an additional bonus, but he crossed long-horned heifers and a Westmoreland bull to eventually create the Dishley Longhorn. As more and more farmers followed his lead, farm animals increased dramatically in size and quality. In 1700, the average weight of a bull sold for slaughter was 370 pounds (168 kg). By 1786, that weight had more than doubled to 840 pounds (381 kg).
British Agricultural Revolution in perspective
British agriculture 1800–1900
% per Yr.
New fertilizers, besides the organic fertilizers in manure, were slowly found as massive sodium nitrate (NaNO3) deposits found in the Atacama Desert, Chile, were brought under British financiers like John Thomas North and imports were started. Chile was happy to allow the exports of these sodium nitrates by allowing the British to use their capital to develop the mining and imposing a hefty export tax to enrich their treasury. Massive deposits of sea bird guano (11–16% N, 8–12% phosphate, and 2–3% potash (KCl+)), were found and started to be imported after about 1830. Significant imports of potash (KCl+) obtained from the ashes of trees burned in opening new agricultural lands were imported. By-products of the British meat industry like bones from the knacker's yards were ground up or crushed and sold as fertilizer. By about 1840 about 30,000 tons of bones were being processed (worth about £150,000). An unusual alternative to bones was found to be the millions of tons of fossils called coprolites found in South East England. When these were dissolved in sulfuric acid they yielded a high phosphate mixture (called "super phosphate") that plants could absorb readily and increased crop yields. Mining coprolite and processing it for fertilizer soon developed into a major industry—the first commercial fertilizer. Higher yield per acre crops were also planted as potatoes went from about 300,000 acres in 1800 to about 400,000 acres in 1850 with a further increase to about 500,000 in 1900. Labour productivity slowly increased at about 0.6% per year. With more capital invested, more organic and inorganic fertilizers, and better crop yields increased the food grown at about 0.5%/year—not enough to keep up with population growth.
The British population in 1800 was about 8.7 million increasing to 16.7 million in 1851 and 41.6 million by 1901. This corresponds to a rate of population increase from 1801 to 1851 of 1.84% per year and a rate of population increase of 3.00% per year from 1851 to 1901. Not only did the need for more food increase but the need for more shoes, clothes, carriages, horses, homes, and furniture increased at the same or a greater rate as more products became available. Fortunately, the fast growing coal mining industry could provide plentiful coal for heating. Unfortunately, burning all this coal gave London a severe smog problem during nearly all winter months. Canals, macadam roads, and after about 1832 railroads helped lower the cost of transportation of people, coal, agricultural, and industrial products. The rate of population increase was much faster than the rate of increased agricultural yield per acre (hectare), which increased at about a rate of 0.5% per year from 1800 to 1850 and 0.2% per year from 1850 to 1900.
In addition to needing more land for cultivation there was also needed more pasture land to grow more poultry, livestock, and draft horses and other agricultural products. The British Agricultural Statistics for this period show this competition for more land for cultivation and more land for pasturage in Britain was won by the need for more pasture as the arable land actually decreased from about 7.5 million hectares in 1800 to about 6.0 million hectares in 1900. The number of acres under wheat cultivation decreased from about 1.5 million hectares in 1800 to about 0.6 million hectares in 1900.
So many cheap agricultural imports were coming into Britain after the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) and the resumption of American trade after the War of 1812 (1812–1815) that the Corn Laws (protective tariffs) were passed to protect cereal grain producers in Britain against competition from less expensive imports. These laws were in force between 1815 and 1846. The Corn Laws were removed in 1846 at the onset of the potato blight hitting much of Europe. The Irish Potato blight that ruined most of the Irish potato crop and brought devastation to the Irish people in 1846–50 also occurred in England, Wales, and Scotland, and the rest of Europe. The effect of the potato late blight (Phytophthora infestans) infestation on the potatoes common to Ireland, known today as Irish Potatoes, was much less in other countries since a much smaller percentage of the diet of the people of England, Wales, Scotland, and the rest of Europe was centred on potatoes. In addition the citizens of Britain had the capital to buy and import more food from other countries—most of the Irish were too poor to do this. Several hundred thousand Irish died in the Irish potato famine and several hundred thousand more emigrated to England, Wales, Scotland, Canada, Australia, Europe, and the United States. This massive Irish emigration continued till about 1921 when the population had been reduced from about 8.3 million in 1840 to 4.3 million by 1921.
Between 1873 and 1879 British agriculture had wet summers that damaged grain crops. Cattle farmers were hit by foot-and-mouth disease, and sheep farmers by sheep liver rot. The poor harvests, however, masked a greater threat to British agriculture: growing imports of foodstuffs from abroad. The development of the steam ship and the development of extensive railway networks in Britain and the USA allowed US farmers with much larger and more productive farms to export hard grain to Britain at a price that undercut the British farmers. At the same time, large amounts of cheap corned beef started to arrive from Argentina, and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the development of refrigerator ships (reefers) in about 1880 opened the British market to cheap meat and wool from Australia, New Zealand, and Argentina. The Long Depression was a worldwide economic recession that began in 1873 and ended around 1896. It hit the agricultural sector hard and was the most severe in Europe and the United States, which had been experiencing strong economic growth fuelled by the Second Industrial Revolution in the decade following the American Civil War. By 1900 half the meat eaten in Britain came from abroad and tropical fruits such as bananas were also being imported on the new refrigerator ships.
Before the introduction of the seed drill, the common practice was to plant seeds by broadcasting (evenly throwing) them across the ground by hand on the prepared soil and then lightly harrowing the soil to cover the seed. Seeds left on top of the ground were eaten by birds, insects, and mice. There was no control over spacing and seeds were planted too close together and too far apart. Alternately seeds could be laboriously planted one by one using a hoe and/or a shovel. Cutting down on wasted seed was important because the yield of seeds harvested to seeds planted at that time was around four or five.
The seed drill was introduced from China to Italy in the mid-16th century where it was patented by the Venetian Senate. Jethro Tull invented an improved seed drill in 1701. It was a mechanical seeder which distributed seeds evenly across a plot of land and at the correct depth. Tull's seed drill was very expensive and not very reliable and therefore did not have much of an impact. Good quality seed drills were not produced until the mid-18th century.
Sound advice on farming began to appear in England in the mid-17th century, from writers such as Samuel Hartlib, Walter Blith and others, but the overall agricultural productivity of Britain started to grow significantly only in the period of the Agricultural Revolution. It is estimated that the productivity of wheat was about 19 bushels per acre in 1720 and that it has grown to 21–22 bushels in the middle of the 18th century. It declined slightly in the decades of 1780 and 1790 but it began to grow again by the end of the century and reached a peak in the 1840s around 30 bushels per acre, stabilising thereafter.
The Agricultural Revolution in Britain proved to be a major turning point in history. The population in 1750 reached the level of 5.7 million. This had happened before: in around 1350 and again in 1650. Each time, either the appropriate agricultural infrastructure to support a population this high was not present or plague or war occurred (which may have been related), a Malthusian catastrophe occurred, and the population fell. However, by 1750, when the population reached this level again, an onset in agricultural technology and new methods without outside disruption, and also the effects of sugar imports, allowed the population growth to be sustained.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the substantial gains in British agricultural productivity were rapidly offset by competition from cheaper imports, made possible by advances in transportation, refrigeration, and many other technologies.
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