“Agricultural revolution” is a term that has broad meaning to geographers and historians, and may refer to a number of events and processes. Some scholars use the phrase in reference to the Green Revolution (see sidebar) of the latter 20th century, while some historians use “agricultural revolution” to identify the Neolithic period when plants were first domesticated and societies developed systems of irrigation and settled cultivation. Various cultures and regions may be said to have undergone such a “revolution” at some point in their history. The most common application of the term is to describe the fundamental shift in agricultural theory and practice that took place in Great Britain from the 1700s to the early 1900s, resulting in marked increases in overall production by volume, as well as sharp increases in productivity per agricultural laborer and per unit land. A somewhat similar process occurred in the United States in the late 1800s and early 20th century.
The agricultural revolution in Great Britain
The agricultural revolution in Great Britain was an extended process that stretched across several centuries. By 1700, scientific innovations in agricultural techniques were being more commonly applied to British farmsteads, resulting in higher yields and more effective use of farmland. A famous advocate of the application of new, scientific means of farming was Jethro Tull, who was one of the first scholars to study agricultural systems of production in a comparative way. Tull was familiar with farming techniques used outside of Great Britain and emphasized the control of weeds, soil preparation, and proper planting techniques. He also was an early advocate of mechanization in agriculture and invented a seed drill that gradually replaced the hand-sowing of seeds for a number of crops in
England, although the new technology was not widely adopted until several decades after his death. Tull also made important modifications to the horse-drawn plow, which improved the furrowing of the soil, and in subsequent decades his successors in agricultural innovation continued modifying the device, resulting in the application of cast iron plows based on Chinese designs that were superior to those used in Great Britain at the time, in a classic example of cultural diffusion. The seed drill and improved plows were still dependent on draft animals, mostly horses, however, which limited their efficiency and made them more physically demanding to operate.
Changes in land tenure during the 1700s were also a key component of the agricultural revolution. One of the most profound and controversial was the process of enclosure, which was designed to consolidate smaller units of agricultural land into larger, contiguous parcels that could be worked more efficiently. In addition, land that had been held in common, especially grazing pastures, was enclosed and awarded private title, reducing the availability of open range to those who owned little or no land, and who relied on the common pasturelands to feed their livestock. The open-field system widely followed in central England gave way to land tenure using severalty, meaning private title to the land and its use. Although the enclosure process in Great Britain can be dated to the Middle Ages, by the mid-1700s the concept was supported by the English Parliament, which beginning in the 1740s passed legislation accelerating enclosure. Parliament codified many individual laws on the enclosure with the General Enclosure Act in 1801, which left only a small percentage of the agricultural land in common holding. Enclosure dramatically changed the geography of agriculture in England, and in the long term, the movement led to higher agricultural productivity. In the short term, however, it removed many smaller farmers from the countryside, a large number of whom migrated to the cities to find work in the newly emerging factories of the Industrial Revolution.
The next phase of the agricultural revolution in Great Britain may be dated from the early 1800s, with the widespread introduction of machines, first powered by draft animals and later using steam power. As was the case with enclosure, increased mechanization that replaced farm labor was extremely unpopular, especially with a large number of landless agricultural workers, a group made quite numerous by the previous decades of the enclosure and other changes in the agricultural system. In some instances, farmworkers reacted violently to the application of machinery to agriculture, as in the case of the Swing Riots of the early 1830s, in which thousands of laborers attacked and destroyed threshing machines that had come into use across England. Such revolts had little effect on the introduction of machinery, however, and by the 1870s steam-powered mechanical plows and other devices were transforming British agriculture. Mechanization had several long-term effects, including a steady rise in productivity, a huge loss of jobs in the agricultural sector, and a subsequent shift of labor to the urban areas, where it was quickly absorbed by rapidly expanding industry. This trend would continue through the first decades of the 20th century and was mirrored by similar changes in North America and elsewhere in Europe.
In the years between 1700 and 1900, the agricultural landscape of Great Britain was completely transformed, and the age of modern agricultural production emerged. The benefits of this process are evident: after the early 1700s, food shortages due to crop failures in England and Scotland were extremely rare, and outright famine was essentially unknown in the region, with the obvious exception of the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-19th century. Techniques such as crop rotation, fertilization, contour plowing, and soil conservation, along with the increasing application of powered machinery to production, resulted in astonishing gains in both the productivity per unit of agricultural land and of the average British farmer. These spectacular gains were not achieved without significant social and economic disruption, however, as large numbers of rural workers had to leave the countryside to find employment in the alien environment of Britain’s growing industrial cities. Indeed, without the revolution in agriculture begun several decades earlier, the Industrial Revolution in England likely would have taken quite a different form.
Some would argue that the agricultural revolution is a continuous process, not only in Great Britain but around the world. In many lesser-developed countries, the mechanization of agricultural production and shifts in land tenure seen in Europe and North America over the last two centuries are only now taking place. For these regions, the revolution is only beginning. In the developed world, the evolution of the agricultural structure continues apace as well. This most recent stage of the revolution continues many of the trends of previous centuries, with profound changes in the geographic structure of production, land ownership, and innovative techniques designed to enhance production. The advent of agribusiness, especially the growing influence of corporate farming or so-called industrial agriculture, along with changes in livestock breeding and husbandry may be taken as indicators that the “revolution” has yet to run its course. Just as in the past, these changes are not without controversy and are not universally accepted as beneficial. Some may even point to a “counter-revolution,” as reflected in the popularity of organic farming, rising emphasis on sustainable farming practices, problems with losses of farmland to urban sprawl, and concerns with the decline of the family farm, particularly in the United States. It is likely that the forces of modernization and globalization will only intensify the revolutionary nature of contemporary agriculture.
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