Monday, January 2, 2017

An Agro-Technical Appendix, IV: It's Always And Will Forever Be 1846

Have you, dear reader, ever read a history of the Thirty Years War? Remember the breathless excitement as Thomas, Chevalier of Savoy, jousts with the Duc de la Force before St. Omer? 

The Relief ot St. OmerOh, the Habsburgs and Savoys/They was wild mountain boys

Of course not. No-one's ever read a history of the Thirty Years War past the death of Wallenstein, and even that was a struggle. That's the part where you skip the last, thick chunk of pages. It's amazing that anyone ever even managed to write those pages, and I am not going to absolutely guarantee that they're not blank. No-one knows the end of the Thirty Years War. Or the Hundred Years War, or the Italian Wars, for that matter. The last history of that last that I've tried to tackle starts out with exactly that observation, wondering who would still be with him in 1557. (Not I, as it turns out, although I really liked the bits I read. Only $46 for the Kindle edition!)

This is why, in British economic history, it is always and will forever be 1846. Famine in Ireland! Corn Law repeal! Peel splitting the Conservative Party! Chartism! Something something Second Reform Bill, and, in the midst of it all, the disgraceful capitulation to America over the Oregion Boundary. 

Not that I'm bitter or anything.

The siege of St. Omer is a pretty good example of this, actually. The linked Wiki article seems to have been written out of an old Spanish account, and has mind-numbing detail of the difficulties that late Thirty-Years-War armies had in mastering the complex systems of canalisation and reclamation with which local authorities had tamed the surrounding marshlands into irrigated farmland and convertible water meadows. We can see how agricultural investment is transforming the landscape and dragging military practice along with it. Then, all this was forgotten in pieties about "Cabinet War" and the more recent "OMG they make fortresses shaped like stars, help Po-Mo Man you're our only hope." Farms and fortresses; it would make a good study.

Farming! That's what I'm talking about!
Writing about Lord Woolton's war requires pictures of Land Army girls driving tractors, so here you are. You'll notice that this is a caterpillar tractor (small "c" caterpillar), of which we haven't heard much so far in this series, since they tend to be big and expensive for modern collectors and their websites. Also, per David Perren, British agriculture just wasn't that into caterpillar tractors, on account of the soft-bottomed land being under permanent grass.

Permanent grass spares the horses, but goes against Lord Woolton's whole "plough for victory" thing. The most important aspect of the Ministry of Food's campaign to cut imports and keep Britain fed during the long German siege of the island was the ploughing-up of pasture land to create more arable and grow more grain and potatoes. I have no idea what kind of tractor this is, and it may just be one of the major retail models with custom tyres, but it is clearly what you need when you've cut the sod on the back forty and discovered mud all the way  to New Zealand. More machines is the answer.

The Daily Mail's assignment photographer is moved beyond words by this abandoned vehicle graveyard on an equally abandoned RAF runway in Lincolnshire. It's a bit less outre to this country boy from the frontiers of rewilding, but it's still a lesson. 
In the short term, anyway. Rather than steal data from somewhere else, let's look at an official graphic.

The source is a House of Commons Briefing Paper, available as an auto-downloading pdf  from the House of Commons Library, so don't click unless you're good with crufting up your hard drive, etc.
The big spike is the countermarch to this:

Graphic lifted from the Google Books preview of Perren, Agriculture in Depression, but since I bought the monograph, I feel less guilty than usual.
And to this:

Peter Brassley, "Output and Technical Change in British Agriculture, 1870--1985," Agricultural Hkstorical Review 48,1 (2000): 60--84.
Brassley is apparently not aware that sugar beet is just a cousin of the mangelwurzel, widely grown in Britain in the Nineteenth Century. On the one hand, this is pretty irrelevant, since he is quite correct that sugar beet processing did not start until the 1920s; on the other hand, he might be able to make more of his case if he explained why beet varietals with a high sugar content went from being a root crop in regular rotation, normally used as fodder, into an industrial crop, just at that time. The expansion of sugar beet production in continental Europe, Russia and North America is usually explained, just as the modern American taste for high fructose corn syrup, in terms of trade protectionism directed at the Caribbean. There is clearly more to it than that. So, you know, sugar beets and turnips are a key lost chapter in the history of technology, something like that.

However, the real point here is the rapid decline of arable land in favour of permanent grass between 1870 and 1930, the reversal during World War II, and the sustained gain in arable after the war. The received view, and here I am just going to cut and paste from Wikipedia (with editting and formatting changes), is that:

The price of wheat during the two decades after 1850 averaged 52 shillings a quarter.[22]  . . . [T]he threat to British agriculture came about twenty five years after repeal due to the development of cheaper shipping (both sail and steam), faster and thus cheaper transport by rail and steamboat, and the modernisation of agricultural machinery. The prairie farms of North America were thus able to export vast quantities of cheap grain, as were peasant farms in the Russian Empire with simpler methods but cheaper labour. Every wheat-growing country decided to increase tariffs in reaction to this, except Britain and Belgium.[24]
In 1877 the price of British-grown wheat averaged 56 shillings and 9 pence a quarter and for the rest of the nineteenth century it never reached within 10 shillings of that figure. . . .  By 1885 wheat-growing land declined by a million acres (4,000 km²) (28½%) and the barley area had dwindled greatly also. . . . [25] The 1881 census showed a decline of 92,250 in agricultural labourers in the ten years since 1871, with an increase of 53,496 urban labourers. Many of these had previously been farm workers who migrated to the cities to find employment,[26] despite agricultural labourers' wages being higher than those of Europe.[26] Agriculture's contribution to the national income was about 17% in 1871; by 1911 it was less than 7%.[27]
Robert Ensor wrote that these years witnessed the ruin of British agriculture, "which till then had almost as conspicuously led the world, [and which] was thrown overboard in a storm like an unwanted cargo" due to "the sudden and overwhelming American prairie-wheat in the late seventies."[28] Previously, agriculture had employed more people in Britain than any other industry and until 1880 it "retained a kind of headship," with its technology far ahead of most European farming, its cattle breeds superior, its cropping the most scientific and its yields the highest, with high wages leading to higher standard of living for agricultural workers than in comparable European countries.[26] However, after 1877 wages declined and "farmers themselves sank into ever increasing embarrassments; bankruptcies and auctions followed each other; the countryside lost its most respected figures," with those who tended the land with greatest pride and conscience suffering most as the only chance of survival came in lowering standards.[29] "For twenty years," Ensor claimed, "the only chance for any young or enterprising person on the countryside was to get out of it."[29] The decline of agriculture also led to a fall in rural rents, especially in areas with arable land. Consequently, landowners, who until 1880 had been the richest class in the nation, were dethroned from this position. After they lost their economic leadership, the loss of their political leadership followed.[30]

I'm not entirely sure what to make of this reliance on long-dead historians lamenting (celebrating?) the end of the squirearchy, but stripped of moralising language, it would be hard to launch into a revisionist narrative here. The facts are plain. Cheaper, imported, wheat, meant  less wheat grown, and more permanent pasture, requiring less labour, fewer horses and not as many tactors, reapers, combines, threshers and so on as we might otherwise expect. The idea that less machinery implies an English agriculture that is rapidly falling behind progressive American practice is one that suited the Zeitgeist and probably isn't wrong, either. the fact that oats held their ground points to a trend less clearly singled out by the data, the rise of meat and dairy production, which also benefitted from the import of oilseed cake. 

The funny part, as Brassley points out, is the sustained high level of arable farming after 1945.  What happened to these inescapable historical trends? Did the bonanza wheatlands disappear? For although there is a gradual decline, grain arable does not touch the 1908ish level of 6 million hectares until 2005, and does not dip below it. 

One explanation is that productivity increased so rapidly that the farms were just producing more grain, and so were able to make more money. To coin a phrase, let's call this the "supply side" theory of growing-more-wheat-less-hay. 

Brassley, again
So, in this theory, besides increasing labour productivity due to getting rid of all the workers in favour of tractors, there is technological change. Better herbicides and pesticides, ammonium nitrate fertilisers, and, yes, tractors. These technological innovations, made by high-foreheaded scientists in gleaming research laboratories, are like some kind of "free lunch" for working farmers, to coin another phrase. (Labour could also be spared from milking, weeding, additional ploughing, and moving animals in and out to maintain manuring. Note the decline in "rough grazing," as outfields are converted into timber plantations.)

On the other hand, the fall from 900,000 to 200,000 is less than I would have expected from the apocalyptic talk going arouund, which has led me to picture modern agriculture as being done by one guy in a giant machine on one 10,000 square mile farm in California.  (Which at least means it counts as a "100 mile diet" for Berkeley. . . . )

As you might guess from my oblique digs at Joel Mokyr, I am citing a work that disagrees. Not to spoil Brassley's fine article for anyone tempted to subscribe to Ag. Hist. Rev. on the basis of this preview, but he concludes that the trends are independent of curves of technological change.  You cannot even see the datapoint for the arrival of guano; the Haber process was invented in WWI, but ample ammonium nitrate came only after the end of the war when the munitions plants were repurposed; tractors, like other farm machiney, were Nineteenth Century inventions; better wheat and better dairy cattle (your "Green Revolution" improvements) could have come any time. Well, maybe that is forced, but there are other new crops, notably canola and corn, which could have come in at any time.

Therefore, farmers adopted new technologies for reasons apart from their availability. Something else is at work. "However, it seems clear that the greatest expansion in output took place when prices, in real terms, had returned to almost nineteenth-century levels, which was also the point at which state propaganda and policy was emcouraging output maximisation at almost any cost . . . The preamble to the 1947 Agriculture Act declared the purpose of British agriculture to be the production of '[S]uch part of the nation's food and other agricultural produce as in the national interest it is desireable to produce in the United Kingdom,' and in the 1940s and '50s, that seemed to mean as much as possible." 

This is an interesting perspective to carry back to the era of Corn Law repeal. In 1812, the intellectually dextrous Reverend Malthus recommended the continuation of the war time tariff on imported corn (it's a bit more complicated than that, in that the tariff was on a sliding scale from a minimum to a maximum) on the grounds that it would be dangerous for Britain to rely on imports as it would reduce labourers' wages and cut the buying power of landlords and farmers. Unimpressed, a "large, nationwide middle-class moral crusade to repeal the Corn Laws emerged in the late 1830s. Said leading proponent, Richard Cobden, corn law repeal would "guarantee the prosperity of the manufactuer by affording him outlets for his products." Second, it would relieve poverty by reducing the price of food and ensuring more regular employment. It would make English agriculture more efficient, it would promote international free trade, world peace, international fellowship, and buy the world a Coke. 

I added the bit about buying the world a Coke. I don't know why, colour me skeptical or something.

Since unilateral disarmament doesn't seem like the best first step towards global free trade negotiations, a point that even mid-Nineteenth Century minds were probably capable of grasping, Cobden's key point is that driving the price of food down would something something good for manufacturers. In case you're thinking that the ellision there might conceal bad faith, let the man himself put your mind at ease: "Cheap food meant greater real wages." You see, when the price of food goes down, the working man buys more things, and as a result, demand for the things increases, and the working man can then get higher wages, and the masters, better profits. It does not, of course, lead to falling wages, because that would be wrong. 

This team of young consumers is saving up energy to hit the Lego Store and shop till they drop! The Seventies, so admittedly perhaps saying more about society's ongoing mental illness problem than the unemployment one. (Nick Hedges, 1971)

The passage from which I cite, goes on to mention that The Economist was founded specifically to promote this argument by politician James Wilson, who installed his son-in-law, Walter Bagehot, as its editor. This is a point of which your hunble blogger was already aware, as this point has been brought to his attention by the editor of The Economist on several occasions during his reading of old numbers of that paper. He may be reading numbers from 1939--46, but the point has not been forgotten. Cheap food means a lower cost of living, which means lower wages, which means more exports, which means prosperity for all!

The Economist lost its fight with the Agriculture Act of 1947, which reverted to "an assured market and guaranteed prices." 

It turns out, however, that the future had less of this,

and more of this

It's almost as though The Economist was wrong! Oh, well. I'm sure that it's just a brief aberration in the ever upwwards and onwards path of Free Trade.

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