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agricultural revolution

  A term applied to a period of agricultural change held to be significant in some sense: that \'sense\' varies widely from author to author, period to period and place to place (see, for example, green revolution). The standard model of the agricultural revolution is usually taken to imply a dramatic increase in both output and productivity which took place in England during the century after 1750 (Chambers and Mingay, 1966. Overton, 1996a). The term has also been applied to agricultural changes in other parts of the world, especially France. Output increased through the intensification of land use (e.g. draining marshland, clearing woodland, and improving pastures), while land productivity increased through the diffusion of mixed farming systems which incorporated fodder crops into arable rotations. Clover and other legumes (such as peas and beans) were particularly important in raising land productivity since they converted atmospheric nitrogen into soil nitrogen and thus made a net addition to the supply of the most important nutrient for arable crops. Turnips and clover were also responsible for intensifying the cultivation of light land. Labour productivity also rose at an unprecedented rate, but there is no obvious technological explanation for this before the mid-nineteenth century; it is likely therefore that changes in the organization of labour were responsible, together with an improvement in the energy available to English farmers. From the mid-nineteenth century the introduction of machines for harvesting and threshing grain improved labour productivity dramatically .

Technological change was facilitated by institutional changes including enclosure, from the 1740s by parliamentary act, whereby the subdivided arable fields of midland England were replaced by smaller regular fields, while in many northern and western areas rough pasture or waste was physically enclosed for the first time. Private property rights replaced common property rights thus removing the right to use a tract of land, e.g. for grazing animals, from those not actually owning the land. The complicated arrangements of feudal tenure, whereby the money paid by the holder of land to a landlord did not necessarily reflect the true value of the holding (see feudalism), were replaced by leases for a period of years at market values. Other institutional changes included the establishment of large farms, usually rented from a landlord by a capitalist tenant farmer who would be employing proletarianized labour (see capitalism).

This standard model of an agricultural revolution has been challenged by a number of authors. Kerrridge (1967) argues that the agricultural revolution took place between 1560 and 1767 with most achieved before 1673; Jones (1974) avoids the term \'agricultural revolution\' but nevertheless considers the century after 1650 as particularly significant for agricultural advance. Claims have been advanced for \'agricultural revolutions\' in the nineteenth century based on the underdraining of heavy land, and on the import of feedstuffs and fertilizers from abroad (Thompson, 1968). More recent contributions to the debate have also argued that decisive change took place before 1750. Allen (1991) argues for two \'agricultural revolutions\': the first in the seventeenth century which saw an increase in crop yields, and a second in the eighteenth century when enclosure transferred income from farmers and labourers to landlords. Finally, Clark (1993) considers, \'there was no agricultural revolution between the early eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries\'.

With so many definitions the phrase \'agricultural revolution\' is in danger of losing its meaning altogether (Overton, 1984). Measuring agricultural performance before national statistics were collected in 1866 is difficult, but recent work tends to re-emphasize the century after 1750 as the period of most decisive and rapid change (Campbell and Overton, 1993, Overton 1996a, 1996b). From the mid-eighteenth century English agriculture was able to feed an unprecedented rise in population (see Malthusian model). The rise in labour productivity meant that a smaller proportion of the workforce was engaged in farming and therefore a larger proportion was available to work in industry. This facilitated the process of industrialization during the industrial revolution. Institutional changes were responsible for a transformation in the social relations of agricultural production leading to the development of a full-fledged agrarian capitalism (Tribe, 1981; see capitalism). (MO)

References Allen, R.C. 1991: The two English agricultural revolutions, 1459-1850. In B.M.S. Campbell and M. Overton, eds, Land, labour and livestock: historical studies in European agricultural productivity. Manchester : Manchester University Press, 236-54. Campbell, B.M.S. and Overton, M. 1993: A new perspective on medieval and early modern agriculture: six centuries of Norfolk farming, c.1250-c.1850, Past and Present 141: 38-105. Chambers, J.D. and Mingay, G.E. 1966: The agricultural revolution, 1750-1880. London: Batsford; New York: Schocken. Clark, G. 1993: Agriculture and the industrial revolution, 1700-1850. In J. Mokyr, The British industrial revolution: an economic perspective. Oxford: Westview Press, 27-266. Jones, E.L. 1974: Agriculture and the industrial revolution. Oxford: Basil Blackwell; New York: Halsted. Kerridge, E. 1967: The agricultural revolution. London: Allen & Unwin. Overton, M. 1984: Agricultural revolution? Development of the agrarian economy in Early Modern England. In A.R.H. Baker and D. Gregory, eds, Explorations in historical geography: interpretative essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 118-3 9. Overton, M. 1996a: Agricultural revolution in England: the transformation of the agrarian economy 1500-1850 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Overton, M. 1996b: Re-establishing the English agricultural revolution, Agricultural History Review 43: 1-20. Thompson, F.M.L. 1968: The second agricultural revolution, 1815-1880. Economic History Review 21: 62-77. Tribe, K. 1981: Genealogies of capitalism. London: Macmillan; Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 35-10 0.

Suggested Reading Beckett, J.V. 1990: The agricultural revolution, Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Overton (1996a). Overton (1996b).



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