agricultural revolution

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This was traditionally regarded as taking place simultaneously with the industrial revolution, and involving the introduction of new crop rotations in which roots and artificial crops were cultivated, improvements in livestock breeding, and the reorganization of land as a result of parliamentary enclosure. These changes were held to have raised the productivity of land in such a way that the population was fed (with some help from imports) without resort to massive labour inputs which would have slowed down the industrial revolution by restricting the flow of labour from the countryside to the town. Without doubt the end results deduced by this argument are correct. Food supply did more or less keep pace with population and urbanization. By 1850 an estimated 6.5 million extra mouths were being fed from home production compared with 1750. However, questions have been raised about the nature, and particularly the timing, of the agricultural revolution.

Modern understanding of the agricultural revolution sees it loosely as a three‐stage, overlapping, process. The first phase, completed by c.1750–70, saw two developments: first, the introduction of new crops, particularly root crops such as turnips and swedes, which could be grown between grain crops; and second, a considerable rise in the productivity of labour. As a result of these changes less land needed to be left fallow, additional animal feedstuffs were grown, and greater quantities (and quality) of manure became available.

During the second phase, lasting from around 1750 to 1830, demand increased rapidly. In this period the slack in the agricultural economy which had been partly taken up by grain exports disappeared and by the early 19th cent. an import balance existed. The reorganization of the land through enclosure and the gradual growth of larger farms, brought a slow rise in productivity, and a growing trend towards regional specialization. Norfolk farmers had pioneered the cultivation of clover in England, but it was only after 1740 that the principal benefits of the new crop were felt.

The third phase, beginning in about 1830, and sometimes called the second agricultural revolution, saw for the first time farmers using substantial inputs purchased off their farms, in the form of fertilizers for their land and artificial feedstuffs for their animals. Together with the introduction of improved methods of drainage, the results were seen in the era of high farming between the 1840s and 1870s, which soon gave way to a severe and prolonged agricultural depression.

In Scotland the agricultural revolution took a rather different form. Although, as in England, there has been a tendency to view it as a long‐term change, it is now thought that, at least in the Lowlands, this underplays the transformation which occurred in the second half of the 18th cent. A rapid move towards single tenancies and production for the market was partly stimulated by the pace of population growth, and particularly of urbanization (notably Glasgow and Edinburgh) in the second half of the 18th cent.

The result, in the second half of the 18th cent., was seen in the adoption of new technologies and crops, a shift to long leases with improving clauses written in, and higher productivity. Many of the existing farmers adapted to the new demands upon them, so that there was no Lowland equivalent of the Highland clearances. Overall the result was a radical departure from the patterns of the past in the last quarter of the 18th cent., not simply measured in terms of physical enclosure, but also in the more effective use of land involving liming, sown grasses, and the organization of labour. It was a structural change, and not simply an intensification of existing trends, since it produced a dramatic increase in crop yields, allowing Scottish cultivators to catch up on English levels of output within a few decades.


Subjects: British History.

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