31 December 1999


Wheat sold for £6.10/t and the average farmworker earned

less than £1/week in 1900. Prof John Nix of Wye College

compares costs and yields then and now

CONTRARY to widely held opinion, I was not alive in 1900. Fortunately, however, statistics are available that provide the agricultural situation at that time. Despite the old adage that statistics are like bikinis – what they reveal is interesting, but what they conceal is vital – we would be at a loss to compare 1900 and 2000 without them.

So what are the biggest differences between the agriculture of today and 1900? The area of oats was nearly half the total area of cereals but is now only 3%. No oilseed rape or linseed. Not nearly as many livestock, even though the area of permanent grass was greater. Well over 1m horses working on farms compared with possibly a few hundred now and of course no tractors. Much smaller fields, far more hedges.

What about the workers? In 1900 there were well over 1m but now less than one-fifth that number. Their average earnings were just below £1 a week, for an average 58 hours of damned hard physical work. It is now nearly £300 a week for 47 hours.

Of course the earning power of the £ was somewhat greater in those good old days (for the fortunate few) – about 70 times as much. Even allowing for inflation, earnings per hour were only one-fifth of their present level.

The average farm size has increased many times. The reverse has happened with the number of workers per 100 acres. Even 50 years ago an average mixed farm (even excluding intensive livestock) would have had three employees per 100 acres, with the farmer himself even on a 300 acre farm doing little or no manual work. Rather different today, with one man per 300 to 500 acres, or even more and the farmer participating fully in the manual labour. Its called progress.

What of yields? In 1900, a typical year of the period, wheat averaged just under 16 cwt/acre – 2t/ha. The average this year has been more than 8t/ha; more than four times as much. Potatoes yielded just below 5t/acre; the average these days is three and a half times that figure. Milk yield would have been about 500 gallons a cow (2,275 litres) – perhaps one-third of present levels.

The ex-farm price of wheat in 1900 was 6s 3d or 31p a cwt making £6.10/t. Multiply that by the increase in the retail price index, however, and we have about £425/t. Enough to make one weep at the thought.

Interesting, then, that the average return per acre in real terms (after allowing for inflation in the general price level) has fallen – even after allowing for current area payments. Obviously much more labour and (literally) horse power would have been used 100 years ago, but there was virtually no machinery and little or no fertiliser or sprays to pay for.

Rents then were about 30 shillings an acre (£3.75/ha) and about 90% of land was rented, compared with a third today.

So were farmers happier then or now? A tricky one. In financial terms theres maybe little in it. Times were pretty tough about the turn of the century but then they are very grim now – the extent depending, as always, on ones particular circumstances.

Return to the prices of 1994-96 (or the whole 35-year period between 1940 and 1975 come to that) and one would have to be a devotee of the simple life to choose to have farmed around 1900. Admittedly, the virtual absence of all these wretched rules and regulations and forms to fill in must have been marvellous.

On the other hand one was expected to carry 2.5cwt sacks on ones back and spend much of ones life loading, carting and spreading FYM. And no cars, TVs or mobile phones. Perhaps 1900 wasnt so bad after all. &#42

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