Farming Since the Saxons
Over the last thousand years British agriculture has undergone disasters and changes which have propelled it into the modern era.
At some time during the middle Saxon period — the era of Alfred the Great and the Viking invasions — an extraordinary transformation began to overtake much of lowland Britain. By degrees the arable land, hitherto enclosed into small rectangular fields, was completely reorganised into parishes consisting of two or three huge open fields, sub-divided into long, narrow unenclosed strips arranged in groups called furlongs. All the farmsteads were concentrated at the centre of the parish, and each farmer held at least one strip in each furlong. He also had grazing rights on any common pasture within the parish boundary, and carefully defined rights to cut wood and run pigs in any woodlands. The whole complex arrangement was administered by a parish council — the manor court.
The origins of this open-field system are obscure, but surviving medieval documents do indicate how it worked. Every farmer had to fit his crops into a cycle laid down for each of the main fields. In the early period many parishes had two such fields and the cycle was simple: each year one field was cropped while the other was allowed to recuperate, and the following year their roles were reversed. The recuperation period, or fallow, involved grazing by stock and repeated cultivation to destroy weeds, and it was essential that each of the unfenced strips within the field was cleared of crops by the time the animals were turned in.
In time the two-field arrangement was superseded by a three-field system which incorporated the principle of crop-rotation. In its basic form this involves sowing successive crops that have different requirements, thereby making the most of available fertility. The advantage of such a sequence is that the field can be used for longer before the soil needs a rest. The classic medieval sequence was: winter corn (autumn-sown wheat), a short ‘winter fallow’ for weed clearance followed by spring corn (barley, peas or beans), and a year-long fallow. In any year one of the three fields would be under the winter crop, one would bear the spring crop, and one would be fallow and provide rather poor supplementary grazing for the village animals.
By the 12th century the open field villages had come under the control of feudal lords who extracted rent in the form of land, labour and farm produce. The records of these transactions suggest that yields were very low — suspiciously low, in fact. It seems likely that the yield figures were falsified as a form of tax evasion. Nevertheless, it is obvious that any system which leaves a third of the land lying more or less idle each year cannot be very efficient, and to improve the output the system had to change.
Disaster and change
During the 14th century Britain was afflicted by a series of disasters including the Black Death, an epidemic which may have wiped out half the population. The effect on agriculture was profound. The shortage of labour encouraged farmworkers to sell their services to the highest bidder; with the money earned they could pay cash rent for their holdings, so freeing themselves from their feudal obligations and encouraging an independent outlook. At the same time there was a switch from labour-intensive arable farming to sheep and cattle. By the end of the 15th century the whole edifice of open-field agriculture was collapsing in the face of private enterprise.
The immediate effect was a vast increase in the area of grassland. In some places whole parishes were grassed down for sheep farming by powerful landlords, while at the other end of the scale the small tenant farmers were exchanging and enclosing strips to form small pastures. In time the unenterprising were squeezed out to become landless farm labourers or industrial workers, while their former neighbours divided the big open fields into smaller, hedged enclosures. This process continued right through the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries until the area left under open-field agriculture was reduced to a few isolated parishes. One of these, Laxton in Nottinghamshire, still remains unenclosed, a celebrated survival of a lost landscape.
Throughout this period Britain was developing as an industrial nation, and there was a general drift from the land into the growing towns. With more urban mouths to feed, the domestic market for agricultural produce became increasingly lucrative, encouraging farmers to plough up their pastures for arable. And since they were no longer constrained to fall in with a village system, there was every incentive to experiment with new crops and techniques.
One of the first ideas to be adopted was the ley system, which involved alternate cropping of the land with arable and grass. During the grass phase the field was used to pasture animals, which manured the land in readiness for the next crop. This technique is still widely employed today.
A variation of this idea was to sow arable crops, such as turnips and swedes, specifically for the animals to eat. The effect on the land was similar, but the animals grew fatter. Sheep normally grazed the crop directly off the field, confined in fields made of wattle hurdles and moved each day to a new area. Cattle, being heavier and more likely to compact the soil, were generally confined in yards on the farmstead; the food was manually harvested and carried to them, and the manure was amassed in a heap ready to be spread on the land before ploughing.
In this way a mixed farming system developed, in which a yard full of cattle or a fold of sheep was regarded as a manure factory. There was nothing essentially new in this, but during the 18th century it became an obsession. New farmsteads were designed around the stockyard and its muckheap, and fodder crops were partly assessed on the quality of the manure they produced. Naturally the stock prospered, and in due course livestock enthusiasts began controlled breeding programmes to improve the rate at which their animals converted all this food into meat and milk. The results were the first of the modern high-performance farm animals.
The root of the system was the turnip, an awkward crop easily smothered by weeds. In the early 18th century Jethro Tull, a Berkshire farmer, devised a system of planting turnips in rows which enabled them to be weeded efficiently by a horse-drawn hoe. Tull was justly proud of his ‘horse hoeing husbandry’, and published his results. One of those who took up the idea was Viscount ‘Turnip’ Townshend of Rainham in Norfolk who, among others, applied it in a novel way.
Instead of sowing the turnips in clean land he sowed them after a cereal crop, in a weed-infested field which would normally be allowed to lie fallow for a year. Hoeing between the rows, however, ripped out the weeds and made the fallow unnecessary. A new four-year rotation was developed, known as the Norfolk Four-course: spring corn (such as barley), grass, winter wheat, and turnips. It was one of the many innovations which dramatically increased farm productivity during what is now called the Agricultural Revolution.
The horse-hoe and seed drill were the first of many mechanised implements which began to appear from farm workshops, village smithies and eventually from urban factories. By the 1860s the big landowners were erecting mechanised farmsteads incorporating threshers, mills, turnip choppers and even light railway systems, all powered by great stationary steam engines.
Decline then revival
These ‘model farms’ were the final flourish of an agricultural boom which had lasted for some three centuries. Built on the profits of overpriced food in an era of urban poverty, they were rendered completely uneconomic by the cheap grain and frozen beef which began to flood in from Australia and the Americas from about 1870 onwards. The bottom dropped out of the market, and between 1875 and 1884 the wheat acreage fell by one million acres. The land reverted to pasture, and the farmers fell back on milk as the only produce immune from foreign competition. Except for a short interval during the 1914-18 war, the slump lasted for nearly 70 years.
The revival of British farming began with the outbreak of World War II. The government called for a huge increase in domestic food production, and encouraged the development of efficient farm machinery, artificial fertilisers, weedkillers and pesticides. Within a few years output had doubled, and Britain had undergone yet another agricultural revolution. By the 1950s horses had been superseded by tractors, and the old reaping machines developed in the 19th century were giving way to combine harvesters. Whole new cropping patterns were devised to take advantage of the new chemicals, and by the late 1960s many farmers had abandoned crop rotations altogether. Protected from the uncertainties of the free market by guaranteed prices, the farmers began to specialise, investing heavily in the sophisticated technology of mass production. Agriculture had once again become big business.