The agricultural revolution was a time when there were huge improvements in farming. These took place in Britain and other parts of Europe between about 1700 and 1850 and meant that farmers could produce much more food, which was needed to feed the rapidly growing population.
IMPROVING THE LAND
Farming methods had hardly changed since the Middle Ages. A field was used to grow crops for two years and then left to rest, or lie “fallow”, for the third. This meant that one-third of farmland lay idle every year. The Dutch were the first to work out a better system. They sowed corn one year, then followed it with other crops. They spread manure and grew clover and grasses to make the soil more fertile.
The ideas soon spread to Britain. During the 1730s innovators such as Viscount Townshend and Thomas Coke experimented with methods to improve productivity. Among these was a “four-course” rotation of crops. The farmer sowed wheat in the first year and turnips in the second year. Sheep or cattle ate the turnips and added their manure to the soil. In the third year, the farmer grew barley. In the fourth year came grass or clover for livestock to eat.
Another problem was the system of open fields. People usually let their animals wander together on common land. This wasted grass and encouraged the spread of disease. In the 16th century, English farmers began to enclose land by surrounding it with fences to keep animals and crops separate.
The idea was such a success that between 1760 and 1815 over one million hectares of farmland were enclosed. However, the enclosure also took away common land from poorer farmers. Many were unable to feed them any longer. They had to work for richer farmers or move to find work in the factory towns.
For centuries, farmers had scattered their seeds about by hand. Birds ate many of them, and the crops grew unevenly. In 1733, an Englishman called Jethro Tull designed and built a machine called a seed drill, which sowed the seeds in straight rows directly into the soil. This method wasted less seed and allowed farmers to hoe between the rows to keep down weeds. Greater efficiency meant that fields produced heavier crops.
Farmers began to sow new crops, such as potatoes, maize, and beans. These had come from America, where settlers were finding many plants that did not exist in Europe. Farmers could also specialize, and grow large amounts of a single crop that suited their local soil conditions. The Po Valley in Italy became a major producer of rice, and the flat plains of Poland were perfect for growing wheat.
Now that they could grow more grain, grass, and vegetables, farmers had plenty to spare. They could use it for feeding cattle, pigs, and other animals through the winter. Before this, they had been forced to kill most of their animals each autumn because there was too little food for them.
Enclosed land and winter feed gave farmers the chance to improve the quality of their animals by careful breeding. Robert Bakewell of Leicestershire was one of the pioneers during the 1740s. He selected the best sheep from his flocks and bred them together so that they passed on their characteristics to their offspring. In this way, farmers also developed bigger and more productive breeds of cattle, pigs, and horses.
MACHINES ON THE LAND
Many new tools and machines helped to improve and speed up farming methods. In 1784 came the first threshing machine (for separating grains, which are the parts that are used for making bread, from the husks and stalks). Iron (and later steel) was used for making vital implements such as ploughs and harrows. Mechanical harvesters appeared in North America in the late 1830s, making the long slow process of cutting crops much easier. Engineers adapted steam engines to pull ploughs and drive threshing machines.
At the same time, new inventions and processes were making the soil itself more fertile. In 1835 Scotsman James Smith developed a system of covered ditches filled with stones to drain water from his land. The job was made simpler by the rapid development of a machine that manufactured clay drainpipes. In 1840 the German scientist Justus von Liebig showed how plants grew better in soils treated with chemicals such as nitrates and lime. British farmers soon began to use large amounts of fertilizers made of bones, minerals and even seabird manure.
The revolution in farming doubled the amount of food grown in Britain between 1750 and 1850. This was vital in supporting the revolution in the industry that was happening at the same time.