Agriculture in Britain Pt. 3 – 1939 – Present

We hope you’re enjoying our series on the history of British Agriculture, and what it is that’s enabled our country to go from small farmsteads eking out as much food as possible, to using land for artistry such as that provided by Earthcare: a company that creates beautiful garden design in Wallington (sponsored ad).

British Agriculture 1939-1945

Before the beginning of the Second World War, Britain imported nearly 55 million tons of food per year. This was due to the lower prices for imported food than domestic product outlined in our previous blog post on this subject. However, with the onset of the Second World War, Britain distributed much of its funds to the military campaign overseas. This meant that Britain could no longer afford to import as much.

Britain had also learned its lesson during the First World War that adopting a policy of “business as usual” while the country was at war, weakened it in the long run, with services then having to catch up with the shortfall of resources. At the onset of the Second World War, Britain almost immediately controlled Petrol and moved quickly to do the same with Bacon, Butter and Sugar, and quickly following onto all-out rationing in 1940.

As so many men were drafted to fight in the army, farmlands were devastated by lack of labour, and the government encouraged families across the country to grow food in their own gardens. At the same time, the Women’s Land Army was created in order to first take up volunteers, then draft women that were able, to labour on the farmlands, mostly producing livestock and dairy.

This isn’t to take away from the fact that this same situation occured worldwide as so many men from across the world were fighting in the war. Parliament estimated in 1945 that meat consumption would be greater than supply by around 1.8 million tons, while wheat was widely oversupplied, as well as carrots.

With the end of the war in 1945, the food situation improved in Britain dramatically, however, domestic supply would never be the same as pre-war again due to the over-supply and under-cutting from across the world.

British Agriculture 1945 – Present Day

After the Second World War, Parliament introduced the Agriculture Act 1947. This act was created in order to lower the amount of food imported into Great Britain and give a boost to the domestic agricultural industry. Thus creating a positive Balance of Payments. The act provided farmers with an assured price for their goods, and a guaranteed market. This created security for the farmers that enabled them to take risks and expand their business faster than they would otherwise be able to do so. The act was a great success. Where the agricultural industry was valued at £2.5 Million in 1939, in 1951 it was worth £100 Million, with half that being exported. The act also supplied government with the added benefit of making agriculture subject to and a system of economic planning.

Parliament continued to make amendments to this act throughout the coming decades in 1949, 1954, 1963, 1968, 1972 and 1976. The greatest reach of which was the final one, which enabled tenants to inherit their parents farmland if they had the relevant skills necessary.

Of course with Britain joining the European Economic Community in 1973, this would also have effects on British Agriculture, as food could be imported very cheaply from mainland Europe, and the value of the Green Pound also affected farmlands’ security across the country. The Green Pound was Britain’s version of the EEC’s agricultural conversion rates. These rates would attempt to keep the price of goods at a generally steady and even rate across the EU, so that an individual country’s economy devaluing or revaluing would not destabilize the food market across the continent.

Coming to the present day, Agriculture now amounts to the use of 69% of land in the UK, while employing 1.5% of its workforce, which is 476,000 people. At the same time, the UK is so heavily populated that over 40% of food eaten in the UK is imported from other countries due to the shortfall in domestic supply. The average age of farm holders in Britain is now 59, due to many obstacles that discourage younger generations entering the farming workforce. It exports £14 Billion of agricultural product, while importing £32.5 billion. The majority of these are with Western members of Europe.

While Agriculture is no longer one of Britain’s largest industries, it is now culturally important due to most of society’s view of farmers as holders of British traditions and values. Britain’s economy has largely evolved to the point that it no longer is a production driver, but a skills and knowledge provider. What this means for the future for agriculture in britain isn’t bright, however, there is the opportunity for farmers and the government to make use of all this rural land for diversification, for example as Solar Power farms, creators of Biofuel and other resources that will be needed as society switches away from fossil fuels more and more.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this series about the history of agriculture in Britain, and will use this as a jumping point to learn more about the industry in its current state and what you can do to support your local farmers and the industry at large.

Previous posts in this series:

Agriculture in Britain Pt. 1 – 1500-1750

Agriculture in Britain Pt. 2 – 1750-1939

Agriculture in Britain Pt. 2 – 1750-1939

Welcome back to our series on the history of Agriculture in Britain! Our first post explained the history from its origins up to 1750. This post will focus on the time between that and 1939, just before the start of the Second World War. This period was one of ups and downs for Britain, society was in constant upheaval and developments around the world would start to affect the British Isles through its empire.

Agriculture in Britain 1750-1873

During this century, the British population had multiplied from 5.7 million to 16.6 million, almost tripling in size. This was a great thing for the economy and strength of Britain, however, this great increase in population also required feeding.

The British managed to achieve this by intensifying agriculture and continuing the Norman policy of reclaiming land for farming purposes. securing Woodlands, fens and pastures that laid upland. Barley begun to be replaced by both Rye and Wheat in order to create more useable food Legumes were also used in order to create sustainably increasing yields.

At the same time, Capitalism started to take hold in the agricultural industry as transportation improved and more regional markets, as well as the national market grew. This meant that farmers were no longer forced to sell at low prices if the market was overstocked. They were now able to go to neighbouring regions and sell for higher prices where there was more demand and lower supply.

This also encouraged the farmers to lower the cost of production as much as possible in order to make as much profit as possible and thus buy more land and produce more. This meant paying labour less and using the latest farming tools and innovations to speed up production and lower costs. This also meant however, that the increased production of food didn’t require as much extra manpower due to the efficiency brought about by these changes.

The only great period of downturn for agriculture was between the end of the Napolenic Wars (1815) and 1836, when Britain suffered a large depression. This was due to the post-war period of less useable manpower and labour, as well as society becoming less rural and more urbanised. This depression clearly outlined how futile the old landlord and tenant system was to use in the new capitalist society, those farms that were still under this rule suffered great financial ruin, both to the owners and renters, leaving hectares of farmland abandoned across the country.

Parliament had to create new measures to hold farmlands to in order to keep the population supplied with enough food. One of these were the Corn laws 1815-1846, which imposed higher taxes on grains imported from overseas. This succeeded in aiding farmlands within the country, though it did raise prices for those living in Urban areas as it was previously cheaper for them to import than to transport from the rural land. Another measure was to standardise the rights of tenants, which were normally down to local traditions and customs and no real law concerning this was in place.

These measures aided in making British agriculture one of the best industries in the world for many years.

Agriculture in Britain 1873-1939

In 1873 however, this all changed. The American Civil War had ended in 1865, which meant the American prairies were now free to farm and harvest and at the same time, steam trains, and specifically steam boats started to become commonplace. This meant American could now flood the world with grains and cereal at an incredibly cheap price and undercut domestic farms. Britain suffered a depression of its agricultural industry that lasted until 1896.

With bad luck, at the same time, Britain suffered a row of bad harvests in 1875, 1877, 1878 and 1879. These disguised the real cause of the depression at the time and parliament did nothing to try and stem the flow of produce from other countries, believing that only the bad harvests were causing the depression. Also, around 1891 refrigeration technology became reliable enough that meat could be imported from across the new world and this eroded the production of livestock in Britain.

Parliament once again tried to intervene in tenant’s right in order to allow the tenants more compensation for higher yields by improvements they had made to the farm as well as other benefits. Landlords reacted against this by hiring labourers for cheaper and leaving the land untenanted. Parliament responded by making this illegal. Parliament then continued to create more rights for tenants in multiple subsequent laws over the next few decades.

In 1885, the Digging Plough was created which enabled farms to be more efficient with land-turning and planting. In 1889 The Board of Agriculture was established by Parliament in order to be a dedicated service for the agricultural industry and provide Parliament with detailed knowledge of the industry’s health.

During the First World War, in 1916, the Ministry of Food was created in order to improve food security and ensure the population was not starving. Rationing wasn’t required until the end of 1917 and 1918 however, with Britain’s agriculture and stockpiles doing enough to secure the country for a few years. In 1919 the Board of Agriculture and Ministry of Food were combined to create MAFF (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food). In 1926 agricultural law shifted in favour of ex-servicemen, giving them greater rights to hold land and farms to provide them a livelihood after the war.

This concludes this post on British Agricultural History, however, we will be back with the final chapter soon!

Agriculture in Britain Pt. 1 – 1500-1750

We thought we’d start this blog off by talking about the history of Agriculture in Britain. Obviously agriculture has a history dating back thousands of years, but it would be a massive subject to cover and this blog isn’t dedicated just to that, so we’ve decided to focus specifically on Britain.

Agriculture in Britain Before 1500

Farming was first introduced to Britain by Mesolithic people from Syria, and after 2,000 years was practiced across the British Isles. The majority of crops were Wheat and Barley which were grown in household crops, small enough for a family to tend to, and to feed them during the year. Cattle was introduced from the European Mainland, while native wild hogs were domesticated into pigs to keep for meat and animal byproducts.

While society changed from mostly hunter-gatherer to agricultural, there were times when the two mixed and traded items between them. There is no agreement on when the switch from predominantly hunter-gatherer to agricultural society took place,  but it would have been after the early neolithic period.

When the Saxons and Vikings invaded Britain, they practiced an open-field farming system. This was where a village would have 2 or 3 large fields for farming, which would be divided into narrow strips of land. These strips were then tended to by the peasants or serfs that were housed on the land of the Lord.

Once the Normans and Plantagenets came to power, they created larger amounts of farmland for the ever growing population, by reducing woodland and draining fens. However, when the Black Death hit Britain in 1349, a third of the population died out, leaving large swathes of farmland unattended and derelict. This is part of what caused the Feudal System to break down.

As there was much less population having to do much more work, these peasants then started to revolt and demand better wages and living conditions. The lords had no choice as if the peasants and serfs didn’t tend the fields, they would have no food with which to feed themselves. Following the Plague, the population did not recover until the 1500’s.

Agriculture in Britain 1500-1750

In 1531, King Henry VIII delcared himself the head of the Church of England. He started the dissolution of the monasteries, and this had a great impact on agriculture in britain. The monasteries owned much of the land around Britain and this land – amounting to around 2,000,000 Acres was transferred to the Crown.

Henry VIII then sold most of this land in order to fund his military campaigns in Europe, mostly Spain and France. The land was sold to the Landed Gentry and members of the aristocracy.

By 1650, Grain prices increased sixfold, while transportation improved on the rivers and coasts, which meant that Beef and Dairy produce could make its way to London. This caused the agricultural industry in Britain to boom.

Around 1707, when the Kingdom of Great Britain was established, Jethro Tull created the rotating-cylinder seed drill. This would impact productivity in such a large way, that it changed the future of agriculture and methods used in the industry.

At around the same time, Charles Townsend also introduced the farming of Turnips on a large scale. This then lead to the four-crop rotation system, in which Wheat, Turnips, Barley, then Clover would be farmed. The reason this had such a major on agriculture is because it made the most efficient use of land, leaving very little fallow land. Clover increases the amount of nitrogen in the soil, while livestock feed on Clover and Turnips, which means their manure fertilizes the soil.

We’ll leave today’s blog post there and pick up on 1750-1939 in the next blog post!