The British Agricultural Revolution, or Second Agricultural Revolution, was an unprecedented increase in agricultural production in Britain arising from increases in labour and land productivity between the mid-17th and late 19th centuries. Agricultural output grew faster than the population over the hundred-year period ending in 1770, and thereafter productivity remained among the highest in the world. This increase in the food supply contributed to the rapid growth of population in England and Wales, from 5.5 million in 1700 to over 9 million by 1801, though domestic production gave way increasingly to food imports in the nineteenth century as the population more than tripled to over 35 million. (Richards, Denis; Hunt, J.W. (1983). An Illustrated History of Modern Britain: 1783–1980 (3rd ed.). Hong Kong: Longman Group UK LTD. p. 7)
For many years the agricultural revolution in England was thought to have occurred because of three major changes: the selective breeding of livestock; the removal of common property rights to land; and new systems of cropping, involving turnips and clover. All this was thought to have been due to a group of heroic individuals, who, according to one account, are ‘a band of men whose names are, or ought to be, household words with English farmers: Jethro Tull, Lord Townshend, Arthur Young, Bakewell, Coke of Holkham and the Collings.’ Most of these “tall tales” have been debunked, but there is some basis for the stories.
There is some belief that if agriculture could have sustained the population growth of the Roman period and again around 1650, the English countryside would have looked quite different. But it did not. It was not until after 1750, when the English population was accounted to be nearly 6 million strong that the need for agricultural reform took hold. Agriculture had to “keep up” with the need to feed more and more and more people. A hundred years later, in 1850, the population was pushing 17 million.
Agriculture was going through a renaissance at that time.
There was an Agricultural board that put out an annual State of Agriculture. Many almanacks had plans for when to plant what and when to harvest.
The introduction of the four crop rotation led to better use of the land. The concept is simply. Instead of leaving a field fallow, it was planted with turnips or with clover, both of which brought nutrients to the soil.
One of the most important innovations of 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 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 four-course 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. An important feature of the Norfolk four-field system was that it used labour at times when demand was not at peak levels. Unlike earlier methods such as the three-field system, the Norfolk system is marked by an absence of a fallow year. Instead, four different crops are grown in each year of a four-year cycle: wheat, turnips, barley, and clover or undergrass. (“Norfolk four-course system”. Encyclopædia Britannica.)
There was also a push to reclaim land, especially in eastern England, where from the 17th Century onward, where the fenlands were drained. Woodlands and upland pastures were also cleared.
In addition, the idea of farming crops in rows was still pretty new. Traditionally, crops like wheat were sowed in the broadcast fashion (flinging seeds out into the field, so they take root or not wherever they land). The Tullian method was to plant in rows, on mounds, at regular intervals, with the space between rows being hoed or plowed throughout the season. Dibbling was a planting method in which one crop is planted between rows of a different crop (wheat between rows of turnips, for example).
Other points of interest in the “Agricultural Revolution” include:
- The Dutch improved the Chinese plough so that it could be pulled with fewer oxen or horses.
- Enclosure: the removal of common rights to establish exclusive ownership of land – For many enclosure was the most meaningful innovation of the agricultural revolution.
- Development of a national market free of tariffs, tolls and customs barriers
- Transportation infrastructures, such as improved roads, canals, and later, railways
- Increase in farm size
- Selective breeding
If one wants a quick look at farming during the era, I might suggest A History of Everyday Things in England, Part III (1733-1851) by Marjorie and C.H.B. Quennell. There is one chapter on the 18th Century and another on the 19th Century. It also examines the economic and political forces at work that affected the wages and livelihoods of farmers. Although copies are difficult to find, they are well worth the price.
The Dutch acquired the iron-tipped, curved mouldboard, adjustable depth plough from the Chinese in the early 17th century. This plough only required a pair of oxen to drag it through the earth as opposed to the 6 to 8 of the European model. The Dutch brought the plow to England when they were contracted to drain the fens and the moors to create more land for farming. Joseph Foljambe and others improved on the model. Its fittings and coulter were made of iron and moulboard and share were covered with an iron plate, making it even easier to pull. Foljambe made the ploughs in a factory in Rotherham, England, creating interchangeable parts for when something broke, so the farmer did not need to replace the whole plough. Many a blacksmith could replicate the broken parts in his smithy.
In Europe, from the Middle Ages onward, the practice of open fields had been commonplace. In this system subsistence farmers used strips of land in large fields for their own personal use. The foodstuffs produced were divided among all those using the field. Typically, these fields were owned by the aristocracy, or, early on, by the Catholic Church. 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 factories.
The commons were enclosed by a private act of parliament and the land turned into profitable farming or for sheep. This helped increase the profits of the landowner but prepossessed many common laborers who had managed a decent living using the commons as a pasture.
As to advancements in what came to be known as selective breeding, one must turn to the efforts of Robert Bakewell and Thomas Coke. The idea was to mate two different animals for their desirable characteristics and to stabilize certain qualities in order to reduce genetic diversity in desirable animal 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. 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 create the Dishley Longhorn.
Unfortunately, the Agricultural Revolution in Britain proved to be a major turning point in history, allowing the population to far exceed earlier peaks and sustain the country’s rise to industrial pre-eminence. 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 the exploitation of new lands and advances in transportation, refrigeration, and other technologies.