The Agricultural Revolution
The term agricultural revolution has been used in connection with events at various times in the past when a significant change in agricultural practice has led to new ways of working the land. It is, however, linked most closely to agricultural change between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries which not only enabled English farmers to produce more food, but to do so without a commensurate increase in the number of people working on the land, thus releasing labour for industrial work in towns and cities.
The characteristics of the agricultural revolution in this period can be summarised as follows. First, an increase in output brought about an increase in the productivity of the land, since little ‘new’ land was available to be brought into cultivation. This was achieved by various means.
Enclosure led to the reorganisation of land into compact farms which avoided the wastefulness of the open field, strip farming which had characterised much of the medieval English countryside. It also encouraged farmers to look for ways of improving the output of their land, and this was achieved by the introduction of legumes and artificial grasses on heavy soils, and turnips on light, sandy land. These crops helped to fertilise the fields, which in turn led to a reduction in the fallow, and at the same time provided valuable feed for livestock. Farmers were able as a result to keep more animals, and as a result of changing practices to concentrate on improving their sheep and cattle to maximise meat and other products.
Improved soil fertility also led to increasing arable output, and the structural reordering of farming around individual farms also produced an increase in labour efficiency on the land, which was further improved by the introduction of machinery in mid-Victorian England. Taken together these developments led to an increase in output which, together with imports (notably from Ireland) enabled farmers to produce sufficient food to provide for the growing towns of 18th and 19th century England. This was a success story, because it was achieved without recourse to new land – hence the belief that it was nothing short of a revolution.