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Updated: Jun 19, 2023

A quick look at the adaptability and success of British Farming.

British farming can be regarded as a 500 year story of change with most of that story being led in the Eastern counties of England including Lincolnshire. Prior to this Agriculture in Britain plodded along in a very low-intensity system supplemented by fishing and wildfowling. If you wish to peak into this world in Lincolnshire read “History and Antiquities of Boston” by Pishey Thompson, a book freely available on google books. In it you see a different, much wetter, Lincolnshire, thriving with goose herds, semi-wild ponies, decoy nets, fishing, wool exports, wetland pastures. This was a world that was changing rapidly and even disappearing when the book was published in 1856.

Certainly prior to this period the limitation of agricultural practises to low intensity systems effectively put a cap on the British population which in 1750 stood at just below 6 million and had in the previous 1700 fluctuated, but possibly never went over 7 million due to the limitations of agriculture to feed the population with very little importation. British Agriculture also had the advantage of being an island and therefore received very little damage from warfare (possibly the number one cause of famine to this day). By 1850 the population of Britain had grown to 16.6 million and continued to grow due to the replacement of low intensity agricultural systems with high intensity systems largely based on arable crops.

The increased intensity of farming in Lincolnshire saw wetlands drained largely in the south of the county; heathlands disappearing under the plough around Lincoln and some of the wolds; and the disappearance of some woodland especially along the border with Nottinghamshire and some of the Wolds; and the disappearance of permanent pasture throughout the county.

The mix of crops changed replacing lower yield rye with wheat and barley. Permanent pasture got replaced with fodder crops especially turnips and clover used in rotations.

These changes enabled a change in Livestock. In Lincolnshire the fertile lands enabled large regional stock: the famous Lincolnshire Longwool sheep was bigger than the Leicester sheep; Lincoln Red cattle were larger than most short-horned cattle; the Lincolnshire curly-coated pig was huge; even the Lincolnshire Fen-type of shire horse was larger than its contempories. All this was made possible by land fertility and higher yield.

At least at this period Agriculture was largely mixed so that manure and matter from livestock (or in some cases from expanding cities and towns) was being applied back into the soil. In addition the primary engine of power on the farm was the horse, which had low impaction and aided soil care with its manure. But we see a warning in Stephen’s Book of the Farm in the late 19th century that was to echoe throughout the next century as manufactured chemicals especially nitrogen and phosphates entered the farmer’s armoury: “Consider Soil as well as Manure and Crop – The rapidity with which light manures act upon the crops to which they are applied has tended to restrict our view too much to two factors – manure and crop – and has caused us to think less of the soil than our forefathers did.” Similar warnings were echoed by the late Holland with Boston MP Richard Body, especially in his books “Red or Green for Farmers (and the rest of us)” published in 1987 and “Our Food Our Land “ published in 1991.

The largest turning point to British farming was possibly in 1937 when for the first time the majority of British farmers were using Nitrogenous fertiliser rather than relying upon the fixing properties of legumes (crops that add nitrogen to the soil from the air such as beans and vetches). The previous two centuries had seen a tripling of the acreage of legumes used in rotations.

The use of Nitrates, Phosphates, Sulphites, Chemical pesticides and fungicides enabled British farming to break free from the constraints of mixed and cyclical farming.

There was also another significant factor key to breaking the cyclical nature of farming – mechanisation. Once again, Lincolnshire had a significant part in this with, most famously, Marshall & Sons Ltd of Gainsborough being at the forefront of steam engine manufacture for agriculture from 1848 producing a range of static, semi-portable and traction engines for the Agricultural industry. They were not alone and we saw other firms also manufacture in the county , for example Clayton & Shuttleworth of Lincoln. Visit the Lincolnshire Life museum near Lincoln Castle and you will discover a whole host of agricultural machinery and tools that were manufactured within the county something that continues through to this day. This mechanisation enabled more land to be claimed from nature and cultivated. Steam worked alongside the horse well into the 1930’s as the main means of power. This is illustrated in my own family with my Great Uncle Bill Perkins working as a horseman for Richardsons near Bourne and my Grandfather working at the same time on traction engines for Grundy’s near Bourne (their traction engine is in the picture). Each could argue with the other about which was best, further fueled by their political differences (conservative vs. labour). The late 1930’s saw greater introduction of the internal combustion engine into agriculture as these machines became lighter, more practical to use and the distribution of fuel improved. Horses and steam were eventually overtaken by the internal combustion engine in the late 1940’s with much progress driven by the War and the importation of American tractors and equipment supplemented by local innovation and manufacture.

Thus we see farming systems replaced by energy and resource intensive inputs. At the same time the number of people working on farms falls. However, as again we see on our doorstep in Lincolnshire, the number of jobs dependant upon the productivity of those farms increased with food manufacturing and processing, and plants and flowers, as well as all the industries that support the inputs that a farmer needs. Therefore, despite the percentage of people working in agriculture dropping from the majority of the working population to just 22% by 1850 and just under 1.5% today. This enabled the working population to migrate into manufacturing in the 19th century and largely into services in the 20th century. (In 2019 just under 1.5% of work force was in agriculture, 18% in manufacturing and about 80% in services and retail).

Farming, in using technology, energy and resource intensive techniques, has shown itself to be highly adaptive and those farmers that remain have done so out of a process of being able to adapt and manage those resources well. We have more food per worker than ever before, but the price has been high, not least on agricultural workers and farmers themselves who have dwindled in number as a result.

Could a policy change of withdrawing support from farming and redirecting at manufacturing, plus a demand for less intensive cyclical farming techniques see a reversal of numbers employed in agriculture? This will be explored in my next post.

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