Up Horn, down Corn

F.M.L. Thompson

  • Alternative Agriculture: A History from the Black Death to the Present Day by Joan Thirsk
    Oxford, 365 pp, £25.00, October 1997, ISBN 0 19 820662 3

‘Woad, used by Queen Boadicea’s warriors as war paint, is making a comeback on the Fens of East Anglia,’ runs a recent press report. Perhaps the reporter had already read Joan Thirsk’s new book, since he refers to the closure of the last woad factory in the region, at Parson Drove near Wisbech, ‘80 years ago’, which is a fair rendering of the 1914 demolition date given by Thirsk (who puts Parson Drove in Lincolnshire, although it and the farm, called Woad Mill Farm, are in Cambridgeshire). The reference to Boadicea and war-paint will not amuse her, however, since perpetuation of woad’s mythical association with naked soldiers prancing about in the chilly fenlands does nothing for its status as a serious agricultural crop, with a long history as the supreme dark-blue natural dye, more subtle if more expensive than indigo and prized for US Army and police uniforms long after the introduction of chemical dyes. It did not have a continuous history as a serious crop, for reasons which Thirsk makes plain: it is labour-intensive, it exhausts the soil, its fermentation smells strongly, and it requires a woadmill close at hand. She dates its introduction as a crop grown widely, though never extensively, in England, to the late 16th century – so much for Boadicea – partly under the stimulus of the rising price of imported Italian woad, but mainly because falling grain prices made alternative crops attractive.

Woad is one of the mainstays of Thirsk’s alternative agriculture. It flourished from the late 16th to the mid-18th century when grain prices were low and presumably unprofitable; declined when ‘mainstream farming’ of cereals and meat prospered between 1750 and 1879; failed to make a convincing comeback when mainstream farming was once more in prolonged recession in the years from 1879 to 1939, and is perhaps due for serious reappraisal in the latest phase of troubles that began in the Eighties. She will be unlikely to welcome that part of the report which sees woad’s possible comeback in the late Nineties, not as an alternative to unprofitable cereal-growing, but as an environmentally friendly, non-oilbased alternative source of ink for bubble-jet printers.

Ever since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring appeared in the Sixties, the agriculture to which an alternative has seemed to be required has been high-tech factory-farming, whose intensive use of fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and insecticides, high levels of mechanisation, and intensive methods of raising livestock and poultry have yielded great surpluses (in Europe) of unwanted produce and gravely damaged the landscape, water sources and the environment generally, and, most probably, the health of consumers. ‘Alternative’ for this Green school means environmentally friendly agriculture, a system which dispenses with agrichemicals and turns the clock back to organic farming. This is the agricultural equivalent of Gandhian hand-spinning and weaving, charmingly idealistic and impractical. Since organic farming relies entirely on animal dung and crop rotations to maintain fertility, it inevitably produces lower yields than the system it is intended to replace. Moreover, a purist version of organic farming would cut out tractors, combines and the like, and rely exclusively on horsepower (or the power of other animals), and horses require a great deal of fodder – the produce of around one third of the total arable area when this system was last tried, in the years before 1914. The combined effects of lower yields and fodder consumption by draught animals would mean that this kind of alternative agriculture, far from providing substitutes, would entail a much greater concentration on cereals; although, as it would hardly be capable of producing enough breadstuffs to sustain the existing population, it would very likely lead to the elimination of the livestock sector.

Quite how organic farming might come to replace high-tech farming in the first place is unclear, unless by government fiat prohibiting the use of chemicals. Of course, agricultural prices could go into free-fall, as a result of an abrupt withdrawal of price supports and subsidies, forcing producers to slash costs by adopting low-cost, low-yield techniques. Very soon, however, the shrinking supply of produce would cause prices to rise again, in response to which producers would increase output by restoring some of the methods, and costs, of intensive farming. In other words, the price mechanism, unless arbitrarily suspended, would ensure that some level of chemical-using agriculture would persist, and that organic farming would do no more than supply a specialised, or faddist, market. To dream of a return to the relatively pollution-free, organic world of the 1820s, without a return also to the smaller population and overall food consumption of the 1820s, and without being ready to run the risk that this might lead to a repetition of Irish Famine – like catastrophes, is to indulge in the most dangerous kind of sloppy thinking.

Joan Thirsk is our most eminent agricultural historian, not given to nostalgia or pipe-dreams. The fact that organic farming cannot be taken seriously as a possible substitute, but at most figures as a subsidiary or supplementary activity alongside conventional farming, endorses her definition of ‘alternative agriculture’ as the cultivation of crops, or the raising of livestock, which are not a normal or common part of the prevailing repertoire. Organic farming merits less than half a page in her book, where it is merely accorded ‘a recognised place among systems of alternative agriculture’, no more important, in terms of space, than lavender, lupins, marigolds, peppermint, radiccio, rape, rocket or, of course, woad, while the practice of coppicing, especially to produce charcoal for barbecues, and exotic additions to the meat supply like venison and ostriches, have many more words devoted to them. This is stirring, frequently mouthwatering stuff, but where exactly does it leave the notion of alternative agriculture, granted that there is no organic copyright on the term?

The idea for the present book came to Thirsk while she was studying the experiments and projects of the 17th century, when curious, resourceful and innovative men, and some women, speculated in pamphlets and treatises, and on the ground in field trials, about the possibilities and practicalities of establishing a great variety of imports and exotics in English gardens, parks and fields. Some were novelties from the New World (potatoes, tobacco, turkeys) while others (turnips, hops, rape, madder, flax, hemp, woad) were not unknown in this country but were launched, or re-launched, as farmers got to hear of their successful cultivation in the Low Countries and the Rhineland, where they had been established since the early 15th century. The account of the people concerned, and the places where such crops were tried (and in some cases incorporated into regional or specialised farming routines), forms the heart of the book, in which Thirsk expertly blends evidence from advice literature, practical manuals, farmers’ journals, and public and local records.

The theory is that when, for some reason, the long-term trend in prices and profits turns against staple crops – in temperate zones like England, this means the chief cereals and meats (and, one would suppose, dairy products) – farmers turn to ‘alternative agriculture’, meaning alternative crops. The reason has usually been overproduction, or overproduction in relation to effective demand, of the staples; an abrupt but prolonged collapse in demand, or new farming techniques which have permanently raised output ahead of demand, or a recourse to new, lower-cost sources. Conversely, in periods when profits from the chief cereals and meats rose, because demand was tending to outstrip supply, farmers withdrew from cultivating the alternatives and concentrated once again on the staples. This ebb and flow seems to fit the hundred years from 1650 to 1750 very neatly, and was both preceded and followed by periods of what Thirsk calls ‘mainstream dominance’, in which wheat and meat were amply profitable, so that farmers could afford to neglect the fringe crops, which were by comparison either more difficult to cultivate, more labour-intensive or more unreliable. A slight doubt is cast on this formulation when reference to Thirsk’s contribution to Volume IV of the Agrarian History of England and Wales (1967) shows that all the alternative crops were being tried out experimentally, and in some cases became firmly established, in the period 1500-1640, which Thirsk now presents as a time when mainstream agriculture was uppermost. Back in 1967 indeed, it seemed that it was precisely in times of agricultural prosperity that enterprising farmers introduced new or unusual crops: hops, weld, woad, hemp, flax and rape appear to have become settled in the arable patterns of suitably favoured regions at such times.

There is nothing remarkable about a historian modifying previously held opinions, so long as the evidence is not massaged. What is remarkable is that so pragmatic a historian as Joan Thirsk should emerge from her 17th-century stronghold to build an overarching theory of agricultural history which bids fair to add a new cycle – if it is not to be named the Thirsk cycle maybe it will be remembered as the rape cycle – to an economic literature graced with the cycles of Kondratiev, Juglar, Kitchin and others. Its operation is taken back to the 13th and early 14th centuries, when a resort to alternative agriculture as a remedy for hard times in the aftermath of the Black Death was first recorded. The second such experience comes in 1650-1750; the third, from 1879 to 1939, is the response to the Great Agricultural Depression which began in 1879; and the fourth recorded upswing (for the alternatives) or downswing (for mainstream agriculture) started in the Eighties and is still with us. This grand vision thus organises English agricultural history from Domesday to the present into a continuous sequence of swings, for the pre-Black Death trends of growing population and increasing demand could certainly be traced back to 1086. Indeed, if only the evidence existed, it might well emerge that Boadicea’s men were coloured by the fruits of an even earlier phase of alternative agriculture.

Like all new grand theories, this one will be greeted with acclaim by some and scepticism by others. It will stimulate fresh thinking about the nature and motivating power of many familiar features of agricultural change: were the basic innovations of the 18th-century agricultural revolution, the introduction of turnips and clover into normal arable rotations, for example, really part of a move towards alternative agriculture as a response to falling profits from wheat and barley, rather than part of an effort to increase yields? There are a few problems to sort out here. For one thing, the first phase of alternative agriculture after 1348 is highly problematic. It rests almost entirely on speculation, the argument being that the catastrophic fall in population caused a collapse in the demand for wheat, rendering mainstream farming unprofitable. Rabbit warrens and fish ponds are among the innovations claimed as the first alternative enterprises: unfortunately, both could be found in England well before the Black Death, though their numbers may well have increased later as a way of using productive land from which the plough had retreated. The death of a third to a half of the population was obviously a disaster, but it needs more than Thirsk’s observation that ‘not only was the demand for food dramatically reduced, so also was the labour available to cultivate the land’ to show that this disaster caused an agricultural crisis lasting throughout the following hundred and fifty years. If the fall in total demand was roughly balanced by the fall in output, one would expect the surviving farmers to carry on much as before, making marginal rather than radical adjustments to their cropping: indeed, the trends in wheat prices over these years, fluctuating but remaining consistently above the pre-1348 average, do not suggest that growing wheat had become unprofitable.

There is a disturbing absence of price and cost information, and of economic argument, throughout the book, only slightly more understandable for the medieval and Early Modern sections than in the post-1879 chapters. A distinction needs to be made between those crops or livestock which were ‘alternative’ at the time of their introduction but were eventually incorporated into standard farming systems, and those which were and remained minority pursuits. The first category included hops, potatoes, turnips and other roots, clover, lucerne, sanfoin and, if a complete tally is made, wheat itself, since with the transition from oats, rye and maslin as the staple breadgrains, wheat for the wheaten loaf was adopted as an alternative crop. The second category included things like madder, weld, woad, saffron, safflower, hemp, flax, rape, lavender, vines or venison. The demand for these was limited: there was no chance that such crops could be the salvation of ordinary farmers in times of general agricultural depression.

When incomes from established products decline or collapse, energetic and resilient farmers will try their hand at products which may previously have been marginal, while conservative and unimaginative farmers will tighten their belts and continue as before, or simply go to the wall. Joan Thirsk’s book is full of fascinating thumbnail sketches of farmers who diversified into one or other of the fringe crops in an attempt to shore up their core arable business, sometimes successfully, sometimes not None of them, however, seems to have abandoned entirely their previous cultivation of wheat or barley to become, as it were, exclusively wedded to woad, so that ‘diversification’ seems a more apt description of the process than ‘substitution’. And when, after 1879, dairying, market gardening and poultry-keeping are reckoned the major types of alternative agriculture, the description appears to have been stretched to breaking point. It is perfectly true that between 1879 and 1914 there was a great increase in the relative contribution of milk, soft fruit and vegetables, poultry and eggs to total farm output, but all these were firmly established long before 1879, and to the farmers and smallholders concerned they were already an essential part of mainstream practice. The conventional analysis, which deals in swings between the arable and the livestock sectors, although not without its own difficulties of definition and regional location, is easier to grasp and nearer to the farm world’s own account of changing fortunes: ‘up horn, down corn.’