The Agricultural Revolution

The economy of Europe at the beginning of the eighteenth century was largely agricultural, as it had been for over 600 years. Agricultural yields were poor, roughly four to five bushels of wheat for every bushel of seed, compared to over forty bushels for every bushel of seed in modern farming. Additionally, they were at the mercy of the weather. Harvests were poor or failed completely every seven or eight years. In times of drought, seeds failed to germinate or crops did not reach fruition. In wet seasons, the crops sometimes rotted in the field before they could be harvested. People might survive one season by relying on reserve stores of wheat; but if failure lasted more than one year, they were forced to resort to "famine foods" such as chestnuts, tree bark, dandelions, and even grass to ward off starvation. In one village in Norway, people avoided starvation only by washing dung from straw to bake a bread substitute. In some few instances, people resorted to cannibalism.

Dietary deficiencies often resulted in severe health problems and an escalating death rate. Some villages lost one third of their population in famine years. Grass and bark often caused dysentery and other intestinal problems. Influenza and smallpox were especially deadly because of reduced resistance to disease.

European agriculture was based on an Open Field System. Each family had a number of long strips of land in an open, unenclosed field. The land was worked in common by all members of the village. Soil exhaustion was a continuous problem, as the only fertilizer available was animal manure, which was in small supply. Over time, the three field system developed whereby one field was allowed to lie fallow for at least one growing season, although it had to be plowed periodically to keep down weeds. The other two fields were planted, one with wheat or rye, the other with oats or beans. The three fields were rotated so that one field lay fallow every third planting season.

Villages also maintained common lands, usually meadows for hay and pasturing of animals, mainly draft horses and oxen, but also cows and pigs. The animals also ate wheat and rye stubble after the crop was harvested. In many areas, before the animals were allowed to pasture harvested fields; poor women would go through the fields picking up the few single grains that had fallen to the ground, a process known as gleaning. It was backbreaking work, but necessary for those who were poor and might otherwise starve during the winter. Their activity is shown in a painting by Jean François Millet, The Gleaners.

In addition to harvesting for themselves, peasants were required to pay heavy taxes and high rents as a matter of course. This stripped them of much of the small earnings they had acquired. Serfdom in Eastern Europe was especially harsh. Landlords could impose as much work on his serfs as he required; five and six days per week was not uncommon. In Western Europe, where serfdom had been abolished, peasants could own land and pass it own to their children (rather than being inherited with the land, as was the case of the serfs in the east); but life was hard and poverty was the rule. Best estimates reveal that a tenth of the peasantry could live off their harvests. They owned less than half the land and had to pay royal taxes, the church tithe and dues to the local lord, as well as set aside seed for the next season. Many had to seek work for wages in addition to their farming duties simply to make ends meet. At the same time, the privileged elite and noblemen lived well and grew fat off the labor of the peasants.

The Agricultural Revolution: The greatest accomplishment of the so-called Industrial revolution was the elimination of the requirement to leave large portions of land fallow. It stood to reason that if one third of the land lay fallow all the time, elimination of this practice would increase production by thirty per cent. Elimination of fallow land was accomplished by crop rotation; alternating grain crops with others which legumes and other crops which fixed nitrogen into the soil. Beans and peas were rotated with grain crops, and later turnips, potatoes, and clover were rotated. Turnips, potatoes, and clover were new to Europe, having originated in the New World. Most Europeans did not eat turnips except in time of great hunger (the idiots!) They were used as animal feed. Sugar beets were also grown to produce sugar.

For the unfortunate number of you who are not versed in the ancient art of agronomy, all plants need three elements to survive and grow: (1) Nitrogen, which promotes vigorous growth. It is nitrogen which causes the greenness in growing plants. (2) Phosphorous, which promotes blooming and fruit production, and (3) Potassium, usually denominated potash, which promotes strong roots and stems. Root plants such as potatoes and carrots require large amounts of potassium, leafy vegetables such as corn, lettuce, broccoli, etc. require large amounts of nitrogen, and fruit bearing plants require large amounts of phosphorous. Fertilizer containers often indicate the percentage of each; for instance, 5-10-10 fertilizer has five per cent nitrogen, ten per cent potassium, and ten per cent phosphorous. It is unwise to apply too much nitrogen to fruiting plants, as energy will be expended in growth rather than fruit production. Tomatoes with too much nitrogen will bear little or no fruit. Legumes, such as beans, peas, peanuts, etc. actually fix more nitrogen in the soil than they absorb. For that reason, it is advisable to rotate (that is alternate) corn, which requires lots of nitrogen with peas. On some occasions, they are planted together and the peas climb the stalks of the corn, a prime example of symbiosis. The master gardener hath spoken.

Not all the peasantry readily adopted new methods; many were tied to traditional methods. In Russia, peasants refused to plant or eat potatoes, calling them "apples of the devil." Tomatoes, brought from the Americas, were considered poisonous. Over time, farmers became more and more sophisticated with crop rotation, and often experimented, leading to scientific farming. There were several beneficial effects. The newer crops made ideal feed for animals, particularly clover and turnips, which could be harvested and stored as fodder for winter crops. This meant more food for the animals and therefore larger herds of healthier animals. As a result, more meat and better diets resulted, plus the increase in animals meant an increase in manure to fertilize the fields; thus more and better wheat harvests for bread and porridge.

Previously, most peasants had only one or two cows, and a few pigs. Pigs were allowed to roam freely and forage in the forests, etc. They were not fattened, but were usually slaughtered in the winter for food. Cows also might be slaughtered if there was insufficient food for them, but they were difficult to replace, and did not reproduce as freely as pigs. Slaughtered animals had precious little body fat, such that the meat was lean and tough with little taste. During the medieval period, cattle were very small, hardly larger than sheep.

Those who advocated crop rotation also proposed enclosure of fields which was resisted by the commoners and noblemen alike. Only in England and the Low Countries was enclosure allowed. Perhaps not coincidentally, these two countries led the way in the agricultural revolution

The Low Countries and England: Because of its middle class culture and economic prowess, it is not surprising that the Dutch led the way in revolutionary farming methods.

The Low countries were one of the most densely populated areas in Europe. In order to feed themselves and put people to work, they had to seek maximum yield from their fields and to increase the amount of arable land by draining swamps and marshes. Also the growth of towns and cities, stimulated by overseas trade, provided Dutch peasants with a market for all they could produce. Each region could specialize in that product which it could produce best. They soon became the masters of agriculture.

By the middle of the seventeenth century, the Dutch had enclosed fields, practiced continuous crop rotation, and heavy manuring. They rotated turnips with flax to make linen, and tulip bulbs for which they became famous. Dutch cattle were large and fat, and also gave the most milk of any in Europe. Cheeses such as Edam and Gouda from Holland became world famous.

The English, perhaps out of jealousy, quickly studied Dutch methods. Dutch experts, including the famous Cornelius Vermuyden, directed large drainage projects in England to free up more land for cultivation. Vermuyden was able to reclaim over 40,000 acres in Yorkshire and Cambridgeshire. Among the more famous Englishmen to experiment in new agricultural methods was Viscount Charles Townsend who grew turnips and clover in his fields. When he retired from politics in 1730, it was said that he spoke of nothing but turnips, thus earning him his nickname, "Turnip Townsend." His lands produced larger crops and thus produced higher incomes.

Jethro Tull, (1674 – 1741) part crank and part genius, developed new methods of using horses rather than oxen in the fields and also sowing seed with drilling equipment rather than simply scattering the seed on the ground. Others improved livestock production, largely inspired by the breeding of faster horses for racing and fox hunting. The method was largely haphazard, described basically as breeding "nobody’s son with everybody’s daughter." Larger, fatter livestock put more meat on English tables, and meat soon became a regular course.

English success was largely the result of field enclosure. Parliament had begun the approval of enclosure of common land as early as 1700. Between 1760 and 1815, more than 3,600 separate parliamentary acts enclosed over seven million acres. But that enclosure had its consequences. The ultimate result was the rise of market-oriented estate agriculture and a growing class of landless peasants, the proletariat. Farming became a large scale cash business with peasants paid in wages to work the land of the large estate holders. While they probably lived better and longer, they had paid for it with their independence. They were now little more than slave wage earners. Before enclosure, a "cottager" was described as a laborer with land; after enclosure, he was a laborer without land. The situation was described somewhat ironically by Oliver Goldsmith:

                            The law locks up both man and woman
                            Who steals the goose from off the common
                            But lets the greater felon loose
                            Who steals the common from the goose.