Until the 1960s historians believed that there had been an 18th-century revolution in agriculture
, similar to the revolution that occurred in industry. They claimed that there had been sweeping changes, possibly in response to the increased demand for food from a rapidly expanding population. Major events included the enclosure
of open fields; the development of improved breeds of livestock; the introduction of four-course crop rotation; and the use of new crops such as turnips as animal fodder.
Recent research, however, has shown that these changes were only part of a much larger, slower, ongoing process of development: many were in fact underway before 1750, and other breakthroughs, such as farm mechanization, did not become common until after 1945.
Causes of improvement
The main cause of change seems to have been the rapidly growing population (from around 6 million in 1700 to 11 million in 1801), particularly in the towns, which created an increased demand for food. This was particularly important during the Napoleonic Wars, since Napoleon's Continental System
prevented all trade with Europe; Britain had to produce more food, or starve. Prices rose rapidly, increasing profitability and encouraging an expansion of production; the Corn Laws
also played a part in this. Villages that had been happy to be merely self-sufficient now began to look to produce for the market so the changes involved the adoption of a new capitalist
business ethic by the farmers. Better transport also played a part, for it extended the hinterland of population areas, and allowed more farmers to produce for the market.
Enclosure was also crucially important. In 1700 about half the arable land of England was held in open-field strips. The open-field system had some advantages, mainly social, but limited production. Enclosure rationalized the system of land-holding, consolidated farmland, and gave farmers the opportunity to introduce the new methods. Agricultural propagandists such as Arthur Young
and William Cobbett
also helped the agrarian revolution, for they helped to create a climate of improvement.
To a degree, production was increased because of technical improvements new crops, crop rotations, selective breeding, new buildings and drainage, the use of manure, and new implements. However, change was uneven from region to region, and even from farm to farm, and very gradual. The full technological revolution in farming did not occur until after World War II.
The introduction of new crops such as potatoes, red clover, and turnips into Britain in the 17th century improved farming practices, since farmers could use them to feed their livestock throughout the winter. This meant that is was no longer necessary for animals to be slaughtered in the autumn so that meat could be salted for storage through the winter. Also, clover returned certain nutrients to the soil, and the growing of turnips meant that the land was thoroughly weeded by hoeing.
The 18th century saw the replacement of the three-field system of wheatbarleyfallow by the four-course crop rotation
system (wheatturnipsbarleyclover), which was designed to ensure that no land would need to lie fallow between periods of cultivation because if crops are rotated correctly they absorb different kinds and quantities of nutrients from the soil. The four-course rotation system was subsequently popularized by enlightened landowners such as Viscount Turnip Townshend and Thomas Coke
, who used it to produce greatly increased crop yields on his farmland in Norfolk, and encouraged other farmers and landowners to use the same method. Because both Coke and Townshend lived in Norfolk the system also became known as the Norfolk System.
Other pioneers of the new farming methods that were developed in Britain in the latter part of the 18th century included the livestock farmer Robert Bakewell, who improved the quality of horned stock and sheep by means of selective breeding (purposefully mating strong and healthy animals). His work resulted in a great reduction in the age at which bullocks and sheep were ready for the butcher. Other successful breeders included the Colling brothers of County Durham (Durham Shorthorns) and George Culley of Northumberland (Border Leicester sheep).
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