The Agricultural Revolution: Start of Unprecedented Increase In Agriculture

The Agricultural Revolution, the unprecedented increase in agricultural production in Britain between the mid-17th and late 19th centuries, was linked to such new agricultural practices as crop rotation, selective breeding, and more productive use of arable land.

Agricultural Revolution

The Agricultural Revolution was the unprecedented increase in agricultural production in Britain due to increases in labor and land productivity between the mid-17th and late 19th centuries. Agricultural output grew faster than the population over the century to 1770 and thereafter productivity remained among the highest in the world.

This increase in the food supply contributed to the rapid growth of population in England and Wales, from 5.5 million in 1700 to over 9 million by 1801, although domestic production gave way to food imports in the 19th century as population more than tripled to over 32 million.

The rise in productivity accelerated the decline of the agriculturee share of the labor force, adding to the urban workforce on which industrialization depended. The Agricultural Revolution has therefore been cited as a cause of the Industrial Revolution.

However, historians also continue to dispute whether the developments leading to the unprecedented agricultural growth can be seen as “a revolution,” since the growth was, in fact, a result of a series of significant changes over a long period of time. Consequently, the question of when exactly such a revolution took place and of what it consisted of remains open.

Crop Rotation

One of the most important innovations of the Agricultural Revolution was the development of the Norfolk four-course rotation, which greatly increased crop and livestock yields by improving soil fertility and reducing fallow.

Agricultural Revolution was the unprecedented increase in agricultural production

Crop rotation is the practice of growing a series of dissimilar types of crops in the same area in sequential seasons to help restore plant nutrients and mitigate the build-up of pathogens and pests that often occurs when one plant species is continuously cropped.

Rotation can also improve soil structure and fertility by alternating deep-rooted and shallow-rooted plants. The Norfolk System, as it is now known, rotates crops so that different crops are planted with the result that different kinds and quantities of nutrients are taken from the soil as the plants grow. An important feature of the Norfolk four-field system was that it used labor at times when demand was not at peak levels.

Planting cover crops such as turnips and clover was not permitted under the common field system because they interfered with access to the fields and other people’s livestock could graze the turnips.

During the Middle Ages, the open field system initially used a two-field crop rotation system where one field was left fallow or turned into pasture for a time to try to recover some of its plant nutrients. Later, a three-year three-field crop rotation routine was employed, with a different crop in each of two fields, e.g. oats, rye, wheat, and barley with the second field growing a legume like peas or beans, and the third field fallow.

Usually from 10–30% of the arable land in a three-crop rotation system is fallow. Each field was rotated into a different crop nearly every year. Over the following two centuries, the regular planting of legumes such as peas and beans in the fields that were previously fallow slowly restored the fertility of some croplands. The planting of legumes helped to increase plant growth in the empty field due to the bacteria on legume roots’ ability to fix nitrogen from the air into the soil in a form that plants could use. Other crops that were occasionally grown were flax and members of the mustard family.

The practice of convertible husbandry, or the alternation of a field between pasture and grain, introduced pasture into the rotation. Because nitrogen builds up slowly over time in the pasture, plowing pasture and planting grains resulted in high yields for a few years. A big disadvantage of convertible husbandry, however, was the hard work that had to be put into breaking up pastures and the difficulty in establishing them.

It was the farmers in Flanders (in parts of France and current-day Belgium) that discovered a still more effective four-field crop rotation system, using turnips and clover (a legume) as forage crops to replace the three-year crop rotation fallow year.

four-field rotation system

The four-field rotation system allowed farmers to restore soil fertility and restore some of the plant nutrients removed with the crops. Turnips first show up in the probate records in England as early as 1638 but were not widely used until about 1750. Fallow land was about 20% of the arable area in England in 1700 before turnips and clover were extensively grown. Guano and nitrates from South America were introduced in the mid-19th century and fallow steadily declined to reach only about 4% in 1900.

Ideally, wheat, barley, turnips, and clover would be planted in that order in each field in successive years. The turnips helped keep the weeds down and were an excellent forage crop—ruminant animals could eat their tops and roots through a large part of the summer and winters. There was no need to let the soil lie fallow as clover would add nitrates (nitrogen-containing salts) back to the soil.

The clover made excellent pasture and hay fields as well as green manure when it was plowed under after one or two years. The addition of clover and turnips allowed more animals to be kept through the winter, which in turn produced more milk, cheese, meat, and manure, which maintained soil fertility.

Charles ‘Turnip’ Townshend, an agriculturalist who was a great enthusiast of four-field crop rotation and the cultivation of turnips.

Townshend is often mentioned, together with Jethro Tull, Robert Bakewell, and others, as a major figure in England’s Agricultural Revolution, contributing to the adoption of agricultural practices that supported the increase in Britain’s population between 1700 and 1850.

Other Practices

In the mid-18th century, two British agriculturalists, Robert Bakewell and Thomas Coke introduced selective breeding as a scientific practice (mating together two animals with particularly desirable characteristics) and using inbreeding (the mating of close relatives) to stabilize certain qualities in order to reduce genetic diversity. Arguably, Bakewell’s most important breeding program was with sheep.

Using native stock, he was able to quickly select large, yet fine-boned sheep with long, lustrous wool. Bakewell was also the first to breed cattle to be used primarily for beef. Previously, cattle were first and foremost kept for pulling plows as oxen or for dairy uses, with beef from surplus males as an additional bonus. As more and more farmers followed Bakewell’s lead, farm animals increased dramatically in size and quality.

Certain practices that contributed to more productive use of land intensified, for example converting some pasture land into arable land and recovering fenland and some pastures. It is estimated that the amount of arable land in Britain grew by 10-30% through these land conversions.

Other developments came from Flanders and the Netherlands, where due to the large and dense population, farmers were forced to take maximum advantage of every bit of usable land. The region became a pioneer in canal building, soil restoration and maintenance, soil drainage, and land reclamation technology. Dutch experts like Cornelius Vermuyden brought some of this technology to Britain.

Finally, water-meadows were utilized in the late 16th to the 20th centuries and allowed earlier pasturing of livestock after they were wintered on hay. This increased livestock yields, giving more hides, meat, milk, and manure as well as better hay crops.

New Agricultural Tools

An important factor of the Agricultural Revolution was the invention of new tools and the advancement of old ones, including the plow, seed drill, and threshing machine, to improve the efficiency of agricultural operations.

Agricultural Revolution: Mechanization

The mechanization and rationalization of agriculture was a key factor of the Agricultural Revolution. New tools were invented and old ones perfected to improve the efficiency of various agricultural operations.

The basic plough with coulter, ploughshare, and moldboard remained in use for a millennium. Major changes in design did not become common until the Age of Enlightenment, when there was rapid progress. The Dutch acquired the iron tipped, curved moldboard, adjustable depth plough from the Chinese in the early 17th century.

It had the ability to be pulled by one or two oxen compared to the six or eight needed by the heavy-wheeled northern European plough. The Dutch plough was brought to Britain by Dutch contractors hired to drain East Anglian fens and Somerset moors. The plough was extremely successful on wet, boggy soil, but soon was used on ordinary land.

In 1730, Joseph Foljambe in Rotherham, England, used new shapes as the basis for the Rotherham plough, which also covered the moldboard with iron. Unlike the heavy plough, the Rotherham (or Rotherham swing) plough consisted entirely of the coulter, moldboard, and handles.

Agricultural Revolution Timeline

By the 1760s Foljambe was making large numbers of these ploughs in a factory outside of Rotherham, using standard patterns with interchangeable parts. The plough was easy for a blacksmith to make and by the end of the 18th century it was being made in rural foundries. By 1770, it was the cheapest and best plough available. It spread to Scotland, America, and France. It may have been the first plough to be widely built in factories and the first to be commercially successful.

In 1789 Robert Ransome, an iron founder in Ipswich, started casting ploughshares in a disused malting at St. Margaret’s Ditches. As a result of a mishap in his foundry, a broken mold caused molten metal to come into contact with cold metal, making the metal surface extremely hard — chilled casting — which he advertised as “self sharpening” ploughs and received patents for his discovery. In 1789, Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies was producing 86 plough models for different soils.

James Small further advanced the design. Using mathematical methods, he experimented with various designs until he arrived at a shape cast from a single piece of iron, an improvement on the Scots plough of James Anderson of Hermiston.

A single-piece cast iron plough was also developed and patented by Charles Newbold in the United States. This was again improved on by Jethro Wood, a blacksmith of Scipio, New York, who made a three-part Scots Plough that allowed a broken piece to be replaced.

The seed drill was introduced from China, where it was invented in the 2nd century BCE, to Italy in the mid-16th century. First attributed to Camillo Torello, it was patented by the Venetian Senate in 1566. A seed drill was described in detail by Tadeo Cavalina of Bologna in 1602.

In England, it was further refined by Jethro Tull in 1701. Before the introduction of the seed drill, the common practice was to plant seeds by broadcasting (evenly throwing) them across the ground by hand on the prepared soil and then lightly harrowing the soil to cover the seed. Seeds left on top of the ground were eaten by birds, insects, and mice. There was no control over spacing and seeds were planted too close together and too far apart.

Alternately seeds could be laboriously planted one by one using a hoe and/or a shovel. Cutting down on wasted seed was important because the yield of seeds harvested to seeds planted at that time was around four or five. Tull’s drill was a mechanical seeder that sowed efficiently at the correct depth and spacing and then covered the seed so that it could grow.

However, seed drills of this and successive types were both expensive and unreliable, as well as fragile. They would not come into widespread use in Europe until the mid-19th century. Early drills were small enough to be pulled by a single horse, and many of these remained in use into the 1930s.

In his 1731 publication, Tull described how the motivation for developing the seed-drill arose from conflict with his servants. He struggled to enforce his new methods upon them, in part because they resisted the threat to their position as laborers and skill with the plough. He also invented machinery for the purpose of carrying out his system of drill husbandry, about 1733. His first invention was a drill-plough to sow wheat and turnip seed in drills, three rows at a time.

A threshing machine or thresher is a piece of farm equipment that threshes grain: removes the seeds from the stalks and husks by beating the plant to make the seeds fall out. Before such machines were developed, threshing was done by hand with flails and was very laborious and time-consuming, taking about one-quarter of agricultural labor by the 18th century.

Mechanization of this process removed a substantial amount of drudgery from farm labor. The first threshing machine was invented circa 1786 by the Scottish engineer Andrew Meikle and the subsequent adoption of such machines was one of the earlier examples of the mechanization of agriculture.

The Enclosure Act

Enclosure, or the process that ended traditional rights on common land formerly held in the open field system and restricted the use of land to the owner, is one of the causes of the Agricultural Revolution and a key factor behind the labor migration from rural areas to gradually industrializing cities.

Background: Common Land

Common land is owned collectively by a number of persons, or by one person with others holding certain traditional rights, such as to allow their livestock to graze upon it, to collect firewood, or to cut turf for fuel. A person who has a right in or over common land jointly with others is called a commoner.

The Enclosure Act

Originally in medieval England, the common was an integral part of the manor and thus part of the estate held by the lord of the manor under a feudal grant from the Crown or a superior peer, who in turn held his land from the Crown, which owned all land. This manorial system, founded on feudalism, granted rights of land use to different classes. These would be appurtenant rights, meaning the ownership of rights belonged to tenancies of particular plots of land held within a manor.

A commoner would be the person who for the time being occupied a particular plot of land. Some rights of common were said to be in gross, or unconnected with tenure of land. This was more usual in regions where commons were extensive, such as in the high ground of Northern England or on the Fens, but also included many village greens across England and Wales.


Most of the medieval common land of England was lost due to enclosure. In English social and economic history, enclosure or enclosure was the process that ended traditional rights such as mowing meadows for hay or grazing livestock on common land formerly held in the open field system. Once enclosed, these uses of the land became restricted to the owner, and the land was cased to be for the use of commoners.

In England and Wales, the term is also used for the process that ended the ancient system of arable farming in open fields. Under enclosure, such land was fenced (enclosed) and deeded or entitled to one or more owners. The process of enclosure became a widespread feature of the English agricultural landscape during the 16th century. By the 19th century, unenclosed commons were largely restricted to large areas of rough pasture in mountainous places and relatively small residual parcels of land in the lowlands.

Enclosure could be accomplished by buying the ground rights and all common rights to accomplish exclusive rights of use, which increased the value of the land. The other method was by passing laws causing or forcing enclosure, such as parliamentary enclosure. The latter process of enclosure was sometimes accompanied by force, resistance, and bloodshed, and remains among the most controversial areas of agricultural and economic history in England.

Implementation of the Acts

The more productive enclosed farms meant that fewer farmers were needed to work the same land, leaving many villagers without land and grazing rights. Many moved to the cities in search of work in the emerging factories of the Industrial Revolution. Others settled in the English colonies.

Industrial Revolution

English Poor Laws were enacted to help these newly poor. Some practices of the enclosure were denounced by the Church and legislation was drawn up against it. However, the large, enclosed fields were needed for the gains in agricultural productivity from the 16th to 18th centuries. This controversy led to a series of government acts, culminating in the General Enclosure Act of 1801, which sanctioned large-scale land reform.

The Act of 1801 was one of many parliamentary enclosures that consolidated strips in the open fields into more compact units and enclosed much of the remaining pasture commons or wastes. Parliamentary enclosures usually provided commoners with some other land in compensation for the loss of common rights, although often of poor quality and limited extent.

They were also used for the division and privatization of common “wastes” (in the original sense of uninhabited places), such as fens, marshes, heathland, downland, and moors. Voluntary enclosure was also frequent at that time.

After 1529, the problem of untended farmland disappeared with the rising population. There was a desire for more arable land along with antagonism toward the tenant-graziers with their flocks and herds. Increased demand along with a scarcity of tillable land caused rents to rise dramatically in the 1520s to mid-century. There were popular efforts to remove old enclosures and much legislation of the 1530s and 1540s concerns this shift. Angry tenants impatient to reclaim pastures for tillage were illegally destroying enclosures.


The primary benefits to large landholders came from the increased value of their own land, not from expropriation. Smaller holders could sell their land to larger ones for a higher price post enclosure. Protests against parliamentary enclosures continued, sometimes also in Parliament, frequently in the villages affected, and sometimes as organized mass revolts. Enclosed land was twice as valuable, a price that could be sustained by its higher productivity.

While many villagers received plots in the newly enclosed manor, for small landholders this compensation was not always enough to offset the costs of enclosure and fencing. Many historians believe that enclosure was an important factor in the reduction of small landholders in England as compared to the Continent, although others believe that this process began earlier.

Enclosure faced a great deal of popular resistance because of its effects on the household economies of smallholders and landless laborers. Common rights had included not just the right of cattle or sheep grazing, but also the grazing of geese, foraging for pigs, gleaning, berrying, and fuel gathering.

During the period of parliamentary enclosures, employment in agriculture did not fall but failed to keep pace with the growing population. Consequently, large numbers of people left rural areas to move into the cities where they became laborers in the Industrial Revolution.

Enclosure is considered one of the causes of the British Agricultural Revolution. Enclosed land was under the control of the farmer, who was free to adopt better farming practices. There was widespread agreement in contemporary accounts that profit-making opportunities were better with enclosed land.

Following enclosure, crop yields and livestock output increased while at the same time productivity increased enough to create a surplus of labor. The increased labor supply is considered one of the factors facilitating the Industrial Revolution.

Effects of the Agricultural Revolution

The increase in agricultural production and technological advancements during the Agricultural Revolution contributed to unprecedented population growth and new agricultural practices, triggering such phenomena as rural-to-urban migration, the development of a coherent and loosely regulated agricultural market, and the emergence of capitalist farmers.

Significance of the Agricultural Revolution

The Agricultural Revolution in Britain proved to be a major turning point, allowing the population to far exceed earlier peaks and sustain the country’s rise to industrial preeminence. Although evidence-based advice on farming began to appear in England in the mid-17th century, the overall agricultural productivity of Britain grew significantly only later. It is estimated that total agricultural output grew 2.7-fold between 1700 and 1870 and output per worker at a similar rate.

Effects of the Agricultural Revolution

The Agricultural Revolution gave Britain at the time the most productive agriculture in Europe, with 19th-century yields as much as 80% higher than the Continental average. Even as late as 1900, British yields were rivaled only by Denmark, the Netherlands, and Belgium. But Britain’s lead eroded as European countries experienced their own agricultural revolutions, raising grain yields on average by 60% in the century preceding World War I.

Interestingly, the Agricultural Revolution in Britain did not result in overall productivity per hectare of agriculture that would rival productivity in China, where intensive cultivation (including multiple annual cropping in many areas) had been practiced for many centuries. Towards the end of the 19th century, the substantial gains in British agricultural productivity were rapidly offset by competition from cheaper imports, made possible by the exploitation of colonies and advances in transportation, refrigeration, and other technologies.

Social Impact

The increase in the food supply contributed to the rapid growth of population in England and Wales, from 5.5 million in 1700 to over 9 million by 1801, although domestic production gave way increasingly to food imports in the 19th century as population more than tripled to over 32 million. The rise in productivity accelerated the decline of the agricultural share of the labor force, adding to the urban workforce on which industrialization depended.

The Agricultural Revolution has therefore been cited as a cause of the Industrial Revolution. As enclosure deprived many of access to land or left farmers with plots too small and of poor quality, increasing numbers of workers had no choice but migrate to the city. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, however, rural flight occurred in mostly localized regions. Pre-industrial societies did not experience large rural-urban migration flows, primarily due to the inability of cities to support large populations.

Lack of large employment industries, high urban mortality, and low food supplies all served as checks keeping pre-industrial cities much smaller than their modern counterparts. While the improved agricultural productivity freed up workers to other sectors of the economy, it took decades of the Industrial Revolution and industrial development to trigger a truly mass rural-to-urban labor migration.

As food supplies increased and stabilized and industrialized centers moved into place, cities began to support larger populations, sparking the beginning of rural flight on a massive scale. In England, the proportion of the population living in cities jumped from 17% in 1801 to 72% in 1891.

The development and advancement of tools and machines decreased the demand for rural labor. That together with increasingly restricted access to land forced many rural workers to migrate to cities, eventually supplying the labor demand created by the Industrial Revolution.

New Agricultural Market Trends

Markets were widespread by 1500. These were regulated and not free. The most important development between the 16th century and the mid-19th century was the development of private marketing. By the 19th century, marketing was nationwide and the vast majority of agricultural production was for the market rather than for the farmer and his family.

The 16th-century market radius was about 10 miles, which could support a town of 10,000. High wagon transportation costs made it uneconomical to ship commodities very far outside the market radius by road, generally limiting shipment to less than 20 or 30 miles to market or to a navigable waterway.

New Agricultural Market Trends

The next stage of development was trading between markets, requiring merchants, credit and forward sales, and knowledge of markets and pricing as well as of supply and demand in different markets. Eventually, the market evolved into a national one driven by London and other growing cities. By 1700, there was a national market for wheat.

Legislation regulating middlemen required registration, and addressed weights and measures, fixing of prices, and collection of tolls by the government. Market regulations were eased in 1663 when people were allowed some self-regulation to hold inventory, but it was forbidden to withhold commodities from the market in an effort to increase prices.

In the late 18th century, the idea of “self-regulation” was gaining acceptance. The lack of internal tariffs, customs barriers, and feudal tolls made Britain “the largest coherent market in Europe.”

Commerce was aided by the expansion of roads and inland waterways. Road transport capacity grew from threefold to fourfold from 1500 to 1700. By the early 19th century it cost as much to transport a ton of freight 32 miles by wagon over an unimproved road as it did to ship it 3,000 miles across the Atlantic.

With the development of regional markets and eventually a national market aided by improved transportation infrastructures, farmers were no longer dependent on their local markets and were less subject to having to sell at low prices into an oversupplied local market and not being able to sell their surpluses to distant localities that were experiencing shortages.

They also became less subject to price-fixing regulations. Farming became a business rather than solely a means of subsistence. Under free-market capitalism, farmers had to remain competitive. To be successful, they had to become effective managers who incorporated the latest farming innovations in order to be low-cost producers.

Source: Courses Lumenlearning

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