Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Farming As Fashion (Part Two)

Farming As Fashion

(Part Two of Three)


Georgian Farming Technique Changes

Deforestation had not been segregated to the seventeenth century alone. Losing forests came at a faster clip during the eighteenth century. The planting of grain in the areas where the unwanted woods had been removed created a visual reminder of Britain’s ability to conquer and bend nature to the will of the English gentleman farmer. “We convert huge forests into pleasing fields, and exhibit through these… provinces so singular a display of easy subsistence and… felicity” that every one beheld their beauty.[1] The government created a formal analysis of whether the loss of oak (that had been the foundation of the ship building economy) was economically feasible when placed alongside the proposed increase of cereal that was to feed the nation.[2] So much oak had indeed been lost, that farmers had been encouraged to plant oaks alongside drives and used as borders.

Border hedges enclosed other areas that had previously been considered wasteland. Fens, which were low-lying lands that had been usually covered in water such as marshes and bogs, began to be drained by rerouting rivers. The Bedford River became the Old Bedford River, and the New Bedford River by straightening out the waterway into two direct lines, and speeding up the flow.[3] New windmill drainage also assisted in the draining of the lowlands. This, in fact, speeded up the process. Over 700 windmills, costing around £17,000 drained some 30,000 acres of fenland.[4] “Drainage schemes were often uncoordinated, so that drainage of one portion of the fen was often achieved at the expense of inundation others… Arable land use was also at a low level in the silt fens for much of the eighteenth century.”[5] Because of such conditions, landlords allowed, “Only limited conversion to tilth.”[6] As a result of small leaseholds required by the large landholders, by the end of the eighteenth century, the fenlands had gone from fishing and fowling areas to some of the most productive farmland in the country. Most of the arable fields and improved pastures had been the best grazing marsh in the country. Suppressing common rights of the people had awarded the absentee landlords much property in these areas. [7]

Grazing land became plowed fields, and vice versa for landlords in Georgian England. Many different experiments occurred as the farmer tried to find out which formulation created the better use of property.  This was because “no growth in real grain output early in the eighteenth century” occurred.[8] It was generally understood, however, that the larger farms were much more productive. Simply meaning, that where there was more land, more produce should have been grown.

Because of larger production, it was also understood that the larger plantations had the surpluses, opulence, and social position that the smaller farms did not.[9] These large estates still did not generate profits as “nine-tenths of the… planters of [the] day were… failures”.[10] Washington’s profit of his estate, considered profitable for the century, had a return of only 2.25%.[11] He was “a good businessman” and made “farming pay”.[12] If such a low return was considered profitable, and he had been a better businessperson and farmer than the average husbandman of the time, then this was simple proof that farming had been unprofitable, even for the large elite plantation owners.

Plantation owners of this time tried to procure higher output by changing the rotation system from the three-field system to a four-field system. Losing fallow land and planting crops that placed nitrogen back into the soil helped this situation. Turnips and clover were the two main nitrogen-bearing fodder crops that revolutionized the country, and therefore the world. Created in Norfolk, the system retained the region’s location as its title.[13] The Norfolk four-field system took over the world, not necessarily because it revolutionized farming methods (which it did), but because of the reports that the larger estates had started using it. The popularity of the methods used by the elites raced throughout England. Even with this new system, “little.. fortune was made by the sale of products from… farm[s]. Few farmers [had] grown rich that way…. Wealth was due in part to inheritance and a fortunate marriage, and most of all to the incremental increase on land.”[14] Many estate owners were “shrewd enough to buy at a low rate and hold until it became more valuable.”[15]

Valuable estates produced the principal crop of wheat, just as most of England and her colonies.  Other crops included barley, oats, peas, beans, and tobacco, and the fodder crops of turnips and clover where also grown. Rye had been the principle food crop at the beginning of the century, but was replaced by the higher yielding, and more popular wheat very early on.[16] Barley had surpassed wheat as principal crop in the latter half of the eighteenth century, but wheat regained its role as leader in 1800. Rye output dropped dramatically at that time, never to be a leader again.[17] The Georgians had not been interested in yield, as such, but more interested in sales price.[18] As output had not kept up with demand, prices rose, but profit did not because labor prices also increased.[19] Since “for the wealthy, the countryside was not agriculture”, this simply had not been important to them.[20]

Agriculture’s Norfolk System created a system where fodder plants grew instead of allowing the field to lay fallow. The fodder was then collected and delivered directly to the animals. Animals had been “increasingly stall fed” during the eighteenth century, which “allowed for better husbanding of animal manure.”[21] Gangs of women and children went into the field and pulled the crop and carried it to the animals. The animals then devoured the crop in their winterized location.  Corn straw was then placed in the stall as feed and bedding for the animals. The animals urinated and defecated on the bedding, which allowed for composition of the straw. At the end of this procedure, this fully loaded manure was taken and laid out over the fields as fertilizer by the working field men.[22]

Fertilization of fields had occurred for centuries, but this newly, high potent soil conditioner encouraged better cultivation. Fields of better grass also stimulated the improvement of pasture animals. This would never had occurred if enclosure had not increased dramatically during the eighteenth century.[23] There had been four main outcomes of the further enclosing of the countryside. Enclosure dealt the “final blow to a long-established lower-class domestic economy.”[24] It allowed for higher output and better profits to those with more property. Enclosure allowed the “greedy tyrannies of the wealthy few to oppress the indignant many.[25]” More importantly, it fundamentally changed the landscape physically, and also “turned the land into an absolute private property” of which the wealthy owners, who had owned most of the enclosed land, could boast ownership.[26]

Owners and husbandmen found it easier to boast the most modern technology. Threshing machines had been introduced late in the 1700s.[27] Just as modern men, the Georgians produced their equipment with pride whenever possible. George Washington proudly showed his horse-drawn threshing machine to many visitors.[28] Seed drills had been invented in the seventeenth century, but did not become fashionable until the eighteenth. Even though they technically did not make any significant change in output, many farmers began using them.[29] The newest ploughs had been improved. This was accomplished by the advancing functionality, and the stronger materials used in their manufacturing. Steel was harder, which allowed the fertilizer to be turned into the under layers of earth, which also allowed the seeds to be planted easier.[30] St. John de Crevecoeur proudly boasted to his friend, “Had you never tried, you never had learned how to mend and make your ploughs.”[31]

Ploughs of the general population of farmers had obviously been of lesser quality than those used by the wealthier husbandmen, which was also true of their livestock. The peasantry began their agricultural revolution foray of livestock with pigs. Pigs had been the very first animals that were bred specifically for better quality food. These animals were chosen because of their large litters, short gestational period, and their ready reproduction.[32] Bacon, being the main product for hogs, needed to have extremely high fat content during this time period. Breeding books were not kept regularly for these experiments until 1791, of which the “date of the birth of the piglets (known as the ‘brawning’), the size of litter, and the number of piglets born alive and dead, as well as the number reared” were the only things that were recorded.[33] Even here, there had been no mention of their quality, and there was no appreciation of breeds included either.[34] However, breeding did affect end use, and the carcass weight (the weight of the animal after slaughter) was considered the best price, even if this was not necessarily cost effective after all of the expenditures of raising the animal had been tallied. [35] A very fat animal had more meat than a thinner one, and the animals with large carcasses were fashionable beginning in the late seventeenth century and continued through the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries.[36]

The middle of the eighteenth century also saw changes in sheep farming. Until this time, the animal had mainly been kept for manure purposes. Breeding moved sheep into wool production as “market conditions were such as to form a strong inducement to attend to the production of wool to the neglect of the carcass.”[37] The 1720’s found that English wool prices dropped as Irish wool became more fashionable.[38] Then, as the middle of the century dawned along with the popular four-field agricultural system, the sheep once again moved to a manure-based animal. However, the long woolen sheep which produced better manure also grew the better wool that was soft and wearable.[39] Once again, popularity ruled the breeding process. During the latter half of the century prices fell, only to rise during the Napoleonic Wars. This sales increase obviously occurred because of the needs for uniforms for the soldiers.[40] Prices fell again, this time dramatically, due to an over abundance of stock. Heavy duties were then issued to foreign fleece to try and keep wool prices high for the Brits. Along with increasing the wool supply, this tariff ended up having the opposite effect than the one desired. [41] Pride had kept this industry going, not income.

Originally Written for class at American Military University

[1]J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur. Letters from an American Farmer. (1782), Location 408. Kindle Edition.
[2] Citation needed
[3]  Williamson, 103.
[4] Ibid, 109.
[5] Ibid, 107.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid, 107, 108, 112.
[8] Turner, 327.
[9] Ibid, 416.
[10] Haworth, 2616.
[11] Ibid, 2675.
[12] Ibid, 2693.
[13] Turner, 873.
[14] Haworth, 2616.
[15] Ibid, 2621.
[16] Jon Sutherland and Diane Canwell. Images of the Past: Farming Industry. (Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Books, LTD., 2010.), 7.
[17] Turner, 847.
[18] Ibid, 564.
[19] Ibid, 249.
[20] Manor House, Episode Four, Video, produced by Caroline Ross-Perie (2003; Arlington, VA: PBS: Public Broadcasting System, 2012.)
[21] Turner, 282.
[22] Taylor Speer-Sims. “Landscape Changes Caused by Different Farming Techniques”. (Charles Town, WV: APUS, September 7, 2012). (Accessed September 27, 2012).
[23] Turner, 1062.
[24] Porter.
[25] Ibid, 211-212.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Turner, 1114.
[28] Haworth, 2555.
[29] Turner, 1098.
[30] Haworth, 1008.
[31] de Crevecoeur, 498.
[32] Turner, 51.
[33] Ibid, 1168.
[34] Ibid.
[35] Ibid, 1983.
[36] Ibid, 1991.
[37] J. A. Perkins. Sheep Farming in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Lincolnshire. (Lincolnshire: Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology, 1977.),  6.
[38] Ibid, 12.
[39] Ibid, 15.
[40] Ibid, 17.
[41] Ibid, 20.


  1. Hi Sassy,
    Some months ago I mentioned in several posts a BBC documentary series we saw on Youtube about several historians living in this fantastic restored c. 1620 farm on the Welch border, just like they would have at the time, for one year! The book written by Stuart Peachey about it's 20+ year restoration is wonderful too.
    (We've now seen the series twice, and both of us have also read the book).
    Youtube no longer has it I don't think, but you can see it online at

    The name of the series and book is 'TALES FROM THE GREEN VALLEY'


  2. Mary,

    This sounds fantastic! I can't wait to see it and report back to you. Unfortunately that will be after Halloween because of the event that we are having at the Tanner House Museum, where I currently work. However, I am all aflutter!

  3. Definitely get back to me after you watch TALES FROM THE GREEN VALLEY! I can't wait to hear what you thought! It is phenomenal!

    PS Have a great Halloween!


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