Agriculture, an industry that was introduced between 5000BC and 4500BC and
is still plodding along today. But let’s travel back in time 2000 years after the
Mesolithic people came to our isles. Next to the family home wheat and barley
were being grown. Sheep, goats and cattle came in from mainland Europe. Pigs
were being domesticated from the wild boar already living in the forests.
Farming had begun.
Fens were being drained; woods were being cleared to feed a growing
Then in 1349 we had the Black Death. Over a third of the population died and a
series of poor weather affected the harvest (sounds familiar?). It took 200
years for the population to recover and in that time, we produced ample of the
As things began to recover, Henry VIII had an idea. He needed money to fund
his military campaign, so he began the dissolution of the monasteries. How did
this effect farming? Well, the monasteries were the principal landowners and
good old Henry took their land and sold it to the aristocracy and landed gentry.
The big landowners began renting land out to smaller farmers, known as
tenants. This meant more people had access to good food. Agriculture boomed
and improvements to transport along rivers and the coast meant people were
getting good money for their stock and grain.
Then came along Jethro Tull (no, not the pop group). He invented the seed drill
so more efficient planting could be done. This in turn led to a Viscount (no, not
the chocolate biscuit) but Charles “Turnip” Townsend. He introduced the
famous turnip in 1730 which led to the four-crop rotation, wheat, turnips, barley and clover.
Clover helped put nutrients back into the soil and the turnips
were fed to the cattle, who then produced plenty of manure to feed back to
the land. This led to a better crop production and more food. Between 1750
and 1850 the population nearly tripled and the need for more food production
By 1891 reliable refrigeration technology brought cheap frozen meat to the
British markets. The battle of cheap meat and home grown had begun. Several
Acts of Parliament stepped in to help with fair prices.
Then came the war and rationing. We could not support our own country with
the food needed to survive. Victory Gardens were encouraged and by the
second World War we still had learnt nothing about the food the country
needed to support its own people. While the men went to war girl power (no
again, not the pop group) but the Women’s Land Army, grew crops to feed the
nation. Eventually, by 1945, the Government had learnt their lesson and
encouraged farming with little incentives.
What things farmers have to face today. Always on call whatever the time and
weather; the pest and weed control; diseases; peoples’ rising expectations;
tightening regulations; feeding an ever-growing population; looking after
nature and the landscape. Finally, thinking about what they are leaving their
children and everyone else’s children.
By 2050 the population is predicted to grow by 26%, meaning farmers will have
to produce more food than ever before. Global warming predictions state that
30% of food production will decline in many regions due to climate change.
Half of the UK farmers have to supplement 20% of their income through
diversification: farm buildings to holiday lets, equine adventures, golf courses.
All this takes land out of food production.
There has never been such a challenging time in agriculture but with this brings
greater opportunity. Gone are the days of Jethro Tull and Turnip Townsend.
Farmers are evolving again. We now talk about agroforestry, crop rotation,
permaculture, integrated management, crop cover, conservation tillage,
grazing convertible husbandry and rotorial grazing to name but a few, but this
will come at a cost to the farmers and consumers.
But lest we forget, one thing is for sure. Whatever the time, whatever the
weather, the humble farmer will be forever the minority that produces the
food for the majority.