Agriculture. Its development. - The pursuit of agriculture is an art, not a science, for the lines on which it is conducted are elastic, variable, and adaptable. It is greatly influenced by climate, seasons, weather; by latitude, altitude, location; by the character of soils, the supply of water, and by the tastes, habits, and requirements of different nations. The accumulated experience of many generations of men, particularly in Western Europe and Eastern Asia, has raised it to the dignity of a high art; yet, though some of the sciences - chemistry, geology, botany, biology, for example - have been very freely enlisted into its service, the extrinsic influences by which it is surrounded will not admit of it becoming, strictly speaking, a science.
It may be said, however, that we have the science as well as the art of agriculture; and these combined embrace and accomplish all that is known on the subject. The theory of agriculture is a science - or, rather, an aggregation of sciences - dealing with the origin and properties of soils, the varieties and habits of plants, the breeds and capabilities of animals. These subjects, or some of them, admit of scientific definition; and hence it is that the union of science and practice in agriculture has produced such striking results in our time - results, indeed, the series of which is, we believe, far from coming to an end. There is an endless variety of processes and results in agriculture, and as the measure of success in it cannot be predicted with certainty, it is constantly disclosing surprises.
The nineteenth century has witnessed developments in agriculture greater, perhaps, than those of all previous time - in the British Islands, at all events, whatever it may have done elsewhere. The introduction of steam ploughs and cultivators, of reaping, mowing, and threshing machines, of centrifugal cream-separators, mechanical butterworkers, and cheese and butter factories, of artificial manures, and imported feeding-stuffs, more than sufficiently distinguishes it from all others, and these are only the leading things in a great number of striking innovations which have occurred within comparatively recent years. Nor must we omit the stupendous importations of breadstuff's and dairy produce from foreign countries, and within modern years the vast trade in American and Canadian beef, both dead and alive, and in Australian and New Zealand mutton, all of which have had a pronounced influence on the character of British agriculture. It is as true to say now that agriculture is in a state of transition and development, as it was a century ago to say it was in a state of inanition and even stagnation.
Wheat -growing. - Since the middle of the current century the tendency of British agriculture has been gathering increasing strength in the direction of stock-raising and dairy farming, and away from arable cultivation. The vast wheat-growing regions of Western America and of Eastern Europe have interfered seriously with English wheat-growing. The plough, greatly improved as to beauty as well as utility, no doubt, is less the symbol of practice than it formerly was. After the middle of the century its fame was found to be suffering, and its importance to be diminishing, when Fowler, and Howard, and others, introduced the steam plough. The stiff soils on which our wheat was grown were too costly to cultivate at a profit with horse-power, and steam was introduced, thus checking the downward tendency. For some years past, however, it has been freely admitted that, on heavy soils, wheat-growing at a profit is out of the question; and that on medium and light soils wheat is no longer the crop to which the others of the course (Rotation) must be made subsidiary. The value of whoat straw has risen as the value of wheat has fallen, and it has not uncommonly happened that the straw was worth as much as the grain; in this way, indeed, there has been a little compensation; and although straw has no commercial value in the American wheat regions, and is commonly burnt to get rid of it, the bulk of it compared with the value is too great to admit of its being brought in quantity to Europe.
Statistics. - The average value of wheat per Imperial quarter was, in 1897, 28s. 6-1/2d., as compared with 63s. 9d. in 1868; the average yield of wheat per acre in 1897 was 29-09 bushels, while that of the United States was 11 bushels. In 1887 the total import into England of wheat (grain and flour) was 78,399,415 cwts., in 1897 the amount was 85,040,795 cwts. The number of live cattle imported in 1877 was 201,193, value £3,817,499; in 1897, 596,057, value £10,031,243. In 1877, 4,401,902 cwts. of dead meat were imported; in 1897 no less than 14,373,457. In 1896 the total area of land under cultivation in Great Britain was 32,577,513 acres.
Live-Stock. - The tendency therefore in England has for some years been to lay down more and more land to permanent grass. The live stock of the farm were formerly regarded as subsidiary to crops on arable farms, but now the position to a great extent is reversed, and crops are subsidiary to live stock. Instead of wheat being an all-important feature, it is now simply taken in its turn in rotations whose leading object is the sustenance of animals - of sheep or of cattle, one or both, as the case may be. The production of food is still and must remain the aim and object of farming operations in these islands, as elsewhere, but it is now far more in the form of beef and mutton, and of milk and cheese and butter, than of grain. On the mixed farms of this country the crops produced on arable land are supplementary to the hay-crops of the meadows as food for stock in winter; and also indeed, in summer, green crops are made additional to the grass of the pastures. In this way it occurs that various modifications have taken place in the practice of farming; and the soil of the country, lying so much under permanent grass, is laying up a store of plant-food which will be found most valuable in the future.
Dairy-farming. - Perhaps the most remarkable transformation that has taken place is seen in the growth of the milk trade between cities and country farms. This trade has grown up almost entirely since about 1865, and is now very large and important. It is not too much to say that the milk trade has been a prop without which dairy farming would have fallen into disaster almost equally serious with that through which arable farming has had to pass. Stock-raising, however, is a part and parcel of dairy-farming, and with the exception of intervals, fortunately of brief duration, occurring now and again, this branch of husbandry has been profitable. The consumption of milk by urban populations having greatly increased during recent years, and urban cow-sheds having been to a great extent wisely disestablished, the production of the great bulk of the milk that is consumed in towns and cities has to a corresponding degree been thrown into the hands of farmers in the shires. Milk, indeed, is commonly conveyed 150 miles and upwards, by rail, from milk-producing districts to towns and cities. From Derbyshire, for example, milk is sent to London in very large quantities and even to Newcastle-on-Tyne. Commendable facilities have been afforded to the trade by many of the leading railway companies, but it may be said that still more favourable conditions might be given with advantage alike to farmers, to the public who drink milk, and to the railway companies themselves. The position of dairy farming to-day, despite the enormous importations of cheese and butter from various foreign sources, is one of hopefulness, demanding, however, keener and more energetic management than it formerly did. The number of cattle in the British Islands fluctuates very considerably, and hence it is that the profits alike of stock-raising and of milk-production vaiy year by year.
The lines on which dairy farming is being developed are in the direction of more extensive improvement of the soil. The milk trade, which is gradually extending in all districts which possess cattle and also railway facilities, requires better management of stock and land than is considered necessary for cheese and butter-making purposes. The use of artificial manures on the land, and of purchased feeding-stuffs to cattle, is extending, and cannot fail to enrich the soil and increase its stock-carrying capacity; hence it follows that an efficient tenant-right Act is more than ever necessary, to secure tenant farmers' interests in the improvements they contribute to the soil of the country. To what extent in the future the competition of other countries in store and fat cattle, in dressed beef, and in dairy products, will affect the dairy farmers of Great Britain, remains to be seen. So far its effect has been to stimulate them to greater exertions. The quality of our cheese and butter is improving, cheese and butter factories are becoming more numerous, and tuition in dairy work is extending, while improved dairies, dairy appliances and machinery, have greatly lessened the drudgery and untidiness which in former times were almost unavoidable.
Fruit farming, flower-growing, etc. - The cultivation of fruit and hops, and market gardening generally, has of late years assumed a position of much greater importance than that which it formerly held; and but for the incubus of heavy railway rates for transport, and in some instances the "extraordinary tithe," this branch of agriculture would increase even more rapidly than it does. It is considered imperative that all restrictions should be taken from the development of these industries, leaving the law of supply and demand to regulate the extension.
The growing of flowers for the markets has lately received much encouragement, and this industry is now found sufficiently profitable by some to merit their whole attention.
Agricultural Societies. - The Board of Agriculture, established in 1889, collects and prepares statistics of various kinds, besides performing other duties. The Royal Agricultural Society, the British Dairy Farmers' Association, the Smithfield Club, the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland, and the Royal Agricultural Society of Ireland, are national in their scope and influence in the three kingdoms; and a large number of societies and farmers' clubs exist, more local in character, amongst which the Bath and West of England Society is at once the oldest and most important. And, in addition to these, there are various societies which exist for the improvement of horse-breeding, which in recent years has found a great and most gratifying revival. Several of the societies mentioned aim not only at the improvement of whatever in agriculture is susceptible of improvement, but also at the agricultural education of the rising generation of farmers. The annual exhibitions held by all the societies are in themselves a perennial source of education of the highest practical importance. In respect to animals, for example, individual merits can only be correctly estimated when they are subjected to competition in the prize-ring, and to the critical scrutiny of practical men, and it follows that the estimate can only be satisfactorily made when many superior animals are brought together for exhibition. It is in this way that agricultural exhibitions of whatever kind are emphatically educational and stimulative in character. The same may be said with regard to every other department with which the exhibitions concern themselves - with cereals, roots, poultry, dairy products, and machinery. The tests, indeed, to which most kinds of machinery and appliances applicable to agriculture have been subjected, have resulted in very remarkable improvement all round. Competitive trials have raised the standard of all these things to a point beyond which, in respect to some of them - to mowers and reapers, threshing machines, steam-engines adapted to the requirements of farmers, dairy appliances, and so on - it may well be questioned whether much further improvement is possible. To a remarkable article in the Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society (Part II., 1890), we must refer those who wish to become familiar with the modern "Development of Agricultural Machinery." The exhibitions of the Royal Agricultural Society, unapproachable as they are in variety and excellence of things exhibited, bring together men from all progressive countries, and so it is that the agriculture of Britain has had a marked effect on that of many lands.
Agricultural Education. - Public institutions, existing to impart scientific and practical agricultural education, are not as numerous as they perhaps ought to be in Great Britain. The Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester stands at the head of them in seniority, closely followed, if not indeed surpassed in practical efficiency by the College of Agriculture, Downton; the Colonial Training College, in Suffolk; and the Glasnevin Agricultural College, near Dublin. A few others there are of minor importance, each doing excellent work in its way, and all of them self-supporting, save the one in Ireland, to which a Government grant is allotted. The education imparted at these places is varied and comprehensive, embracing subjects strictly agricultural in character and the cognate sciences. The former include the cultivation, draining, and improvement of land; the breeding, feeding, and general management of the live-stock of the farm; the rotations of crops, with the cultivation, manuring, and management they require; as well as the management of permanent grass land; cheese and butter making; estate management, land-surveying and forestry; book-keeping and commercial knowledge. The latter embrace Physics and Mechanics, Chemistry, Geology and Mineralogy; Botany and Vegetable Physiology; Zoology; Anatomy and Physiology; and Veterinary Medicines and Surgery, each in its bearing on agriculture. Many of our leading farmers take pupils, and a practical education may be obtained on a farm quite equal to that at a College, whatever may be said as to the theory or science of the art of agriculture.
The Agricultural Labourer. - That the condition of the agricultural labourer has been sensibly improved in recent times is as true as it is satisfactory. He is now better fed, better clothed, better housed, better educated, better able to make provision for old age, than he ever was before. Able to read for himself, the power of the labourer to better himself cannot but increase in an age of cheap and abundant literature; he becomes more intelligent, more energetic, more self-reliant; the colonies are open to him and he reads about them; he is less wedded to the spot of his birth, he is more in feeling a citizen of the world.
The Future of Agriculture. - The position of agriculture is hopeful, for the age is progressive. A long period of depression has followed one of inflation. The leaps and bounds of the "seventies" have wholly subsided for the time being. It is a period of transition and adaptation, of new departures, new energy, and greater economy. Less money is made than of yore, but what is made is better husbanded. Foreign competition is understood now, and expected; it is no longer a terror as it was when it leaped into sudden prominence. To know what it is provides the means of meeting it. From the experience of a trying period we may predict that our farmers will be found equal to meet what the future may have in store. Freedom of cropping and of sale of produce, security for unexhausted improvements, a fair share of local and Imperial taxation, are, sooner or later, the inevitable sequel of unrestricted foreign competition. The value of land, as the raw material for the production of food, is finding its level; the cost of freightage is the regulating medium. So long as British commerce thrives, British agriculture will live and prosper. The future of farming, indeed, problematical as it no doubt is, need not trouble us specially, for it will be in keeping with the future of the country at large.
Foreign Farming. - The condition of agriculture in continental Europe will compare unfavourably, all things considered, with that of Great Britain, save, perhaps, in some of the smaller countries - Belgium, Holland, Denmark. The farmers and labourers of England live well for the most part, and are not oppressed with too many hours of toil. The employment of women in the toil of the fields is almost wholly a thing of the past, but in France, and particularly in Germany, it is still continued, where the comparatively small use of machinery entails much waste. The peasant proprietors of France, of whom we have heard so much, and the petite culture which is so commonly found in that country, and to some extent in countries adjoining, do not present a picture which is calculated to excite very much the envy and emulation of England. The small farmers of Ireland are also in a condition which leaves much to be desired. It is the cultivators of little farms - hardly deserving the name of farms - in any country who, as a rule, are the first to feel the pinch of agricultural depression. The tenants of small farms pay rents, generally "rack-rents"; the peasant proprietors pay interest on mortgages; it is commonly a distinction rather than a difference, varying only in degree. Agriculture under these conditions is starved for want of capital, or want of will to use it.
American Agriculture. - It is notorious that the majority of American farmers in the West are mortgagors, paying a high rate of interest that is worse than a rent. They work as no English labourer is compelled to work, they dress more meanly than he, fare no better in food, and live in huts that he would look down upon. They have, however, a chance, which he has not, of rising to better things, and many of them rise accordingly. But they are the victims of a financial policy which is designed to enrich the manufacturing classes. Farming on the North American continent is generally of an order which an English or Scotch or Welsh farmer would consider slovenly to a degree. This, with exceptions, is true alike of Canada, of the United States of America, and of the United States of Mexico. In each of these vast countries, however, there are districts, the farming of which would be no discredit to the Lothians, or to any county in England. It is not the farmers of these countries who occupy the best position, but the ranchers - though not all of these. It must not be supposed that it is British agriculture which feels most severely the keen competition of America. The American farmers feel it too, more than our own. The rapid spread of farming in most of the Western States has made its mark in the Eastern ones, just as the opening up of the North-West of Canada has told its tale to the farmers of Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritime Provinces. Here too, as in England, yet. still more rapidly, land is finding its intrinsic level, so far as agriculture is concerned. When this level has been fairly reached, and men have accommodated themselves to it, the condition of agriculture will rest on a solider basis, and again improvement will be the order of the day.