THOSE WHO can remember 1934 may recall it was a mild year, with both droughts and floods – much like any other year, in fact. But 1934 was notable historically, not only because it saw the launch of Farmers Weekly, but also because cereal prices reached their lowest point throughout the depressions of the 1920s and 1930s.
At one point, wheat averaged 4s 10d/cwt (4.76/t) – the lowest price ever recorded in modern times.
Average wheat yield was 2.5t/ha (1t/acre), giving a return of about 11.75/ha (4.75/acre). But that yield was actually better than the average at the time, which was 17.5cwt/acre (2.2t/ha) between 1930 and 1937. That’s a little more than a quarter of today’s average of 8t/ha (3.2t/acre).
Finished cattle in 1934 averaged 289s 2d/live cwt, the equivalent of 3.85p/kg lw. Today’s figure is some 25 times higher at about 95p.
The milk price ex-farm was 1s 3d/gal, which translates to 1.4p/litre at today’s values. Yield per cow averaged 550gal (2,500 litres), which is between one-third and two-fifths of today’s average of 6,850 litres.
So this was the absolute depth of the depression. The situation improved a little up to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. The introduction of several marketing boards and limited government support for cereal prices played important parts.
The prices above don’t look bad. Indeed, they could be regarded as highly attractive when multiplied up by 50 to allow for general inflation over 70 years. But we should remember the big difference in yields.
Much else was also different, frustrating comparisons between then and now. In the mid-1930s, about 80% of the land was rented, compared with less than one-third today. Landlords had difficulty finding tenants willing to pay rent. The price of farmland, including house, cottages and buildings, averaged about 20/acre (50/ha). That figure should be multiplied by about 135 to reach today’s levels.
Many more workers were employed in agriculture. A mixed arable farm would have three or more men per 100 acres – more than 10 times the number today, and 20 or more times the number on modern combinable crop farms.
On livestock farms, less labour was required but still significantly more than today. On a dairy unit, 15 cows per man was common. Very often small numbers of five or more different types of livestock were kept on the same small farm.
A total of 838,000 agricultural workers were employed in the UK in 1934. About 705,000 worked full-time and 133,000 part-time. Last year there were 180,000 agricultural workers, of whom only 76,200 were full-time.
Most worked with horses in 1934, when 708,000 horses were used in British agriculture, with three horses per 100 acres (40ha) the norm. It would take a man a long, tiring day to plough an acre.
Today it takes little more than 30min with an average tractor.
And what about wages? The basic rate in 1934 was 31 shillings (1.55) for a 50-hour week – just over 3p an hour. Multiply that by rather less than 50 to allow for the increase in the cost of living over the past 70 years and we arrive at 72.50 for 50 hours, or 1.45 an hour. Today average earnings are about 325 a week or 7.25 an hour. Admittedly, the levels of skill and responsibilities are far higher now, although some 90-year-old ex-farm workers might disagree.
Back in 1934, the countryside looked different, with more and bigger hedges and smaller fields – so no need for countryside stewardship schemes and the like.
In 1934, 46% of the total UK cereals area was sown to oats, representing about 2.5m acres (1m ha), mainly to feed horses. Today the area of oats is less than 4% – about 300,000 acres (120,000ha). Fodder root crops accounted for about 1.15m acres (500,000ha).
I once gave lectures describing the agricultural revolutions of the 16th and 18th centuries. They hardly compare, in speed and extent, with what has happened in the past seven decades. What of the next 70 years?