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FG 175: How British agriculture has changed

From the Common Market to the loss of marketing boards, disease outbreaks to the uptake and introduction of continental breeds, the agricultural rollercoaster has seen radical changes in Farmers Guardian’s time.


Lauren Dean examines the events which have helped shape British agriculture since the 1800s.

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FG 175: How British agriculture has changed - from the 1800s to 2019

1800s In the mid to late 1800s, yields had stagnated, human populations were starting to grow and people’s expectations of both life and dietary requirements were beginning to rise.


Charles ‘Turnip’ Townshend, as he came to be known, had introduced a new method of crop rotation to the UK, rotating crops on a four-year basis instead of the usual three – and it was not long before there was a sudden increase in agricultural production.




This thirst for knowledge was built upon with Rothamsted’s Broadbalk winter wheat field trial, launched during its first year of research in 1843, shortly before the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 which had prohibited the import of wheat into Britain until it had reached a specified price.


By the 1870s, food imports, cereals and refrigerated meat were flooding into Britain and the development of railways and steam ships was improving.


Andrew Oliver and Son established new premises to host the UK’s first sale of store lambs, milk was being delivered on horsedrawn ‘milk prams’ ladled into tin cans from a churn and, by the 1880s, marts had become the most popular way of selling livestock.


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Early 1900s The great agricultural depression was more or less ongoing until World War I when it became difficult for the UK to import food.


By 1931, free trade in agricultural produce had ended, partly due to what experts suggest was a fear that the country would become a dumping ground for surplus agricultural produce.


1933 The Milk Marketing Board (MMB) was formed. The MMB was the most popular – and talked about – of the four marketing boards but dissolved in 1994, leading to a fall in the price farmers were paid for milk and the start of a steep decline from more than 35,000 UK dairy farmers to little over 10,000 today.


The agricultural depression affected land prices and people were slow to realise the need for food, until World War II when a large proportion of the agricultural labour workforce went off to fight, and the Women’s Land Army came about and attitudes changed again.




Dr Nicola Cannon, principal lecturer in agronomy at the Royal Agricultural University, which is celebrating its 174th year and 40 years of female students, says: “The UK was in need of food and there was a realisation that domestic food production was required for food security.”


Britain responded to further food shortages in the World War II with a state-directed wartime food production campaign intended to increase arable acreage and food rationing.

1947 The 1947 Agricultural Act was established to guarantee prices for agricultural commodities.


It committed the state to improving agricultural efficiency, established through the principle of deficiency payments where farmers received payments when the average market price fell below the guaranteed price.


1950s British agriculture then welcomed the Charolais, the first continental breed of cattle to be introduced to the UK and one widely thought to have revolutionised the beef industry.

The breed’s general acceptance was confirmed in 1962 with the launch of the British Charolais Cattle Society, having since evolved to match the British cattle industry’s requirements.

By this point Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug had kick-started what was known as the green revolution – a trigger point in the doubling in yields of wheat and cereals.

Borlaug introduced the Norin 10 gene into wheat which enabled yields to be pushed harder, but higher yields would mean a greater risk of disease and a more demanding need to control weeds.

The increase in grain supply however meant there was more grain to feed livestock, a move which prompted dairy farmers to shift their systems from purely grass-based cycles to more intensified production, feeding stock on concentrates and therefore boosting milk yields.


Conventional systems

By this point low-priced imported cereals were so readily available that grass was often under-utilised.

Dr Cannon says: “Norman Borlaug developed what we call conventional or modern farming systems today.”


1967 There was a resurgence of interest in the sector, with people studying agriculture, taking a more commercial approach to farming and boosting a blossoming agronomy sector.


And with the new varieties Mr Borlaug had introduced, there was a new-found need for herbicides and fungicides, as well as a shift from farmyard manure or natural fertility to nitrogen fertiliser only recently realised as a by-product from bomb making.


But 1967 was hit by an unwelcome and major outbreak of foot and mouth disease, where six counties were affected in England.


The disease later returned in 2001 and was one of the industry’s worst crises for decades.

1973 International trading took a new direction in January 1973 when Britain joined the European Economic Community (EEC) and the Common Agricultural Policy was formed.


Professor of agrarian history and fellow at the Museum of English Rural Life, John Martin says Britain’s lower agricultural prices than others in the EEC were, in part, ‘the inevitable result of the five-year period of transition before agricultural prices in Britain were fully aligned with those which prevailed in the rest of the EEC’.


He says: “More importantly, British agricultural price levels were not compatible because of the Government’s commitment to ‘agricultural conversion rates’ or ‘green exchange rates’ in relation to the market value of sterling, which ensured British farmers did not achieve rates with those with prevailed in the rest of the European Union.”




Globalisation was also on the rise at this point, with the increase in shipping as a cheap means of transport leading to a much greater ability to import food.


This was an important – and changing – part of Britain’s role as an exporting nation.


Farmers were now also beginning to invest in modern grain storage and the size of machinery was on the up, with more productive machines increasingly replacing labour.


Dr Cannon says: “Agricultural workforces have changed over time. When people were less affluent – so post Second World War, for example – some people viewed their holiday as going fruit and vegetable picking.


“But now we expect to go abroad. The loss of the British seasonal work force required other labours to meet the needs of the agricultural and horticultural harvest.


“In recent years much of this labour has been met by overseas workers.”


1976 The long hot summer and drought was seen as one of the worst on record.


1986 The UK was hit by the first case of BSE – more commonly known as mad cow disease – with 36 dairy herds affected.


But less than a decade later, in the latter half of 1993, the number of BSE cases topped 100,000 in spite of the control measures introduced in 1988 and 1990.


Fast forward to the early millennium and many smaller farms looked into new business models with some farms working together to share machinery and pooling resources to reduce fixed costs.


2000s The type of farms changed too, with the 1970s until early 2000s seeing a reduction in small, family and mixed units and increasing specialism.


Livestock production systems have become highly specialised with improved production efficiency and strong consumer demand.




Looking forward, Dr Cannon says: “Agriculture is adopting technology to improve the efficiency of production while adapting to increasing environmental challenges and will have the opportunity to realise new opportunities which will occur after Brexit.


“Production systems, new markets and technology will mean the ever adapting and changing challenges of agriculture will continue to lead to some exciting developments in the near future and for the next 175 years.”

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