The Real Agricultural Revolution

Agriculture carries with it the impression of tradition, knowledge and skills as old as the land itself. But in order for farmers to meet our needs, agriculture has always had to develop and embrace new techniques and at no time has that transformation been greater than during the period covered in this new book, which explains not just why but also – crucially – how

It was the summer of 1968. All over Europe students were in revolt. My heart was with them, but my bottom was on a seat in the university library, and my eyes were fixed to a diagram illustrating the life history of the frit fly, that scourge of the oat crop. I was revising for the end-of-year exams. Eventually I could take no more. I got up, and wandered around the library. My attention was caught by a shelf of books on the history of farming and the countryside: Street’s Farmer’s Glory, Henderson’s The Farming Ladder, Slicher van Bath’s The Agrarian History of Western Europe. They all seemed much more interesting than the frit fly. And indeed they were. For the rest of the exam season, whenever my attention wandered, I found myself browsing that shelf. The next year I specialised in agricultural economics and policy, and the professor, John Ashton, who had spent years as an economist in the Ministry of Agriculture, told us that we would never really understand agricultural policy unless we knew something of its history. That was the beginning of my career as an agricultural historian. 

Forty years later I had a phone call from Michael Winter, then head of the Centre for Rural Policy Research at Exeter University. After more than half a century in the same place, the Centre was moving to another building on the university campus, and the basement had to be cleared. ‘But before we throw everything out’, said Michael, who had immediately seen the possibilities of the archive stored there, ‘let’s have it examined by an agricultural historian’. Hence the telephone call. I went to Exeter and saw almost immediately that the material in the basement was an invaluable record of changes in farming since the 1930s. Much of it consisted of the fieldbooks produced by the Investigation Officers of the Farm Management Survey, who visited farms and made detailed annual records of their activities. Michael obtained grants, firstly to catalogue the archive, and then a much bigger award from the Economic and Social Research Council which paid for me to be employed, and with Michael and our colleagues David Harvey and Matt Lobley, to work on the records and interview some of the farmers involved. 

That work formed the basis of our book The Real Agricultural Revolution: the Transformation of English Farming, 1939—1985, which has just been published. The first part of the title implies a challenge: that what went on in the years during and after the Second World War had a bigger impact than the changes in farming associated with what has hitherto been called an agricultural revolution. For many years agricultural historians have been arguing about whether or not there was an agricultural revolution in England, in the way that other historians have argued about an industrial revolution. If there were revolutionary changes, as opposed to a process of gradual evolution, what were they, when did they occur, and why? The answer often identifies the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as the crucial period, and highlights the impact of land enclosure, high prices, and the introduction of new feedingstuffs, fertilisers and machinery. But the work of historians such as Mark Overton has demonstrated that in no period between the sixteenth century and the nineteenth did the rate of growth in English agricultural output exceed one per cent; in the period that our book covers growth was almost three times as fast. In the century after 1751 English farmers fed an extra eight million people; in the half-century after 1939 they fed an extra fifteen million.  

The submarine threat to food imports during the Second World War, and the problem of paying for them afterwards, led successive UK governments to invest in agricultural science in the hope of improving farming methods, and to use agricultural policy to promote increased farm output. Other European governments did the same, so that by the mid-1980s farmers were producing more of some farm products than the domestic market could absorb. It’s a well-known story. But as historians of technology have argued, the process is often treated as though science and policy are put into a ‘black box’, from which new products, lower costs, or higher outputs emerge. What goes on inside the black box, although crucial, is often hidden.  

Hence the excitement about the Exeter archive and the opportunity to interview some of the farmers who had been associated with it. Here was an opportunity to look inside the black box to see what was going on at the farm level in the post-war years, to see why some farmers were eager adopters of new methods while others were more reluctant, and to understand why some scientific discoveries were converted into technologies that were rapidly adopted while others had no impact at all, or took more time to have some effect. To show, in other words, what was going on at the level of individual farms, and in the minds of farmers, during the real agricultural revolution. 

That’s what our book is about. We begin by explaining why and how agricultural science expanded after the Second World War, how its findings were passed on to farmers by a wide range of advisers, and the way in which efforts to produce greater output were supported by agricultural policy. Then, largely using dairy farming in south-west England as an example, we look at the way in which new technologies were adopted and the impact that their adoption had on farming systems; how we can explain, in short, why the post-war years were so revolutionary for agriculture. There is no space here to summarise our conclusions – the final chapter takes twenty pages to do so – but it’s clear that it’s a story that emphasises complexity over simplicity. For more, buy the book! 

This guest post was written by Paul Brassley, Honorary University Fellow in the Centre for Rural Policy Research at the University of Exeter.  

The Real Agricultural Revolution: The Transformation of English Farming, 1939-1985 
By Paul Brassley, David Harvey, Matt Lobley and Michael Winter  
9781783276356, Hardcover, £39 or $64.35  

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