CAUSES OF AGRICULTURAL 1 DISTRESS. [We take the following important comments from the pages of the Agricultural Gazette Almanac for 1880 :] It is but a few years since an eminent statesman said that the revenue of the country, instead of progressing in the usual manner, was advancing by “ leaps” and “bounds.” Merchants, manufacturers, farmers, laborers, were all riding on the crest of the wave of prosperity then sweeping over the British Isles. In a committee-room of the House of Commons it was stated that champagne was drunk by the pitmen working in coal mines ; and even quite recently I read in the papers that in one of the iron districts, which has since fallen into the lowest state of poverty and distress, a billiard room and its decorations had cost L 50.000. Everbody was making and spending money, and but few were putting by for the rainy day which was soon to follow. The vast sums spent by foreign nations in war, grievous famines in India and other countries, and a succession of bad seasons at home, have brought the nation to its senses, and also, it is to be feared, distress and ruin to many a household. I will now consider very briefly some of the causes of the great agricultural distress, about the existence of which there is unhappily, no doubt. Hard words have been addressed to the farmers on the subject of their extravagance and costly style of living, but these have, in many cases, been wholly undeserved. Farmers would, I am sure, be willing to admit that, had they to live over again the last eighteen years, they would in many respects have acted differently. They would allow that, could they have foreseen that the first nine years of unusually abundant seasons would" be followed by nine years of scarcity, they would have taken precautions which would have rendered their position very much better than it is. One farmer may regret that he spent so much money on costly machinery; another that he saddled himself with a nineteen years’ lease at 50 per cent, higher rent than was paid by his predecessor ; a third may wish that he had not placed his son in another farm, and borrowed so much of the capital required to stock it. It is easy to be wise after the event. _ Regrets, however, will not replace the capital which been lost; still, though nothing can rtdeem the past, it is possible that an examination into the causes that have contributed to produce the great existing depression may enable us to draw some conclusions in regard to the future prospects of British agriculture. We may trace most of the recent losses which have fallen on agriculture to one of the three following causes ; bad seasons, dear labor, and low prices. Let us take them in the order in which 1 have placed them. Now, although no two seasons are alike, the difference between one and another, as a general rule, fluctuates within comparatively narrow limits. Still, occasionally—that is to say, two or three in a century —exceptions occur which are quite outside the ordinary limits. Such exceptions may take the form of great frosts, or tropical heat—the summers of 1818 and 1868, for instance, are examples of the latter. Sometimes we have two or three abundant seasons in succession, followed by a like number of bad ones ; such was the case between 1830 and 1840, when the price of wheat fell below 5s a bush, from the abundance of the home crops. It would be. however, very difficult, if not impossible, to find a parallel for the character of the seasons which have prevailed during the last eighteen years. Taking the nine seasons, commencing with 1862 and ending with 1870, I find that only two yielded inferior wheat crops, while the others were very good, some giving crops of even extraordinary abundance. During the last nine years, 1871-9, only one season yielded what may be called an abundant crop, while several have been exceptionally bad. In my experimental wheat-field, where the same artificial manures are applied to the same plots of ground every year, taking the highest produce of anyone plot, I find that one acre of land during the first nine years, that is between 1862-70, yielded 49 qr, of corn ; but during the nine years that follow, that is from 1871 to 1879, the same plot only yielded 39J qr. (a decrease of ej qr.), and,” further, the wheat grown was very deficient in quality, the average weight per bush, being only 50 lb, as against 611 lb, the average weight per bush, of the wheat grown in the earlier period. This large falling off, both in quantity and quality, is sufficient proof of the great inferiority of the recent crops.
I,have selected wheat for my example, as I am in a,better position to measure the influence of the season upon the yield of that crop, and also because there have been greater losses upon wheat than upon any other corn crops ; but that the seasons have also been most unfavorable for many
other descriptions of farm produce, is a fact which must be evident to anyone who reads the journals devoted to agriculture.
I now come to dear labor, the second of the three causes of agricultural distress alluded to above. More pay and less work was the general complaint of the employers of labor throughout the country a few years back. The laborers are now, however, fully alive to the fact that the capital, from” which their wages have to come, has been greatly reduced, and they are in consequence far more ready now than a few years ago to undertake piece work, and also to recognise the principle of payment in proportion to the work done.
With regard to the third cause of existing distress in agriculture, viz., low prices, there has certainly been a considerable fall in the price of a great many products of the farm during the last few years, and it would be hardly safe to expect that some of these products will ever reach the high level to which they previously attained.
farmer would, I think, be unwise to base his calculations upon a higher price for his wheat than 5s per bush., supposing our home crops to be of an average quality. Meat, butter, and cheese will also be probably lower in price, but it is absolutely certain that the decline will be greatest in the inferior qualities of the articles. There is now plenty of demand for the best things, and plenty of people willing to pay a high price for them ; every effort should therefore be made to improve the quality of the various products of the land. From a general review of the different causes which have brought distress and ruin on so many of our farmers, the exceptional character of the seasons appear to have had a predominant influence. If the last nine years had preceded the first nine years, or if the good and bad seasons of the two periods had been alternated, the losses incurred by the low prices would have been more easily met, and many a farmer who has succumbed might be still in possession of his land. Possibly it may be said that, as the losses have be made, it does not now matter what may have been the causes that induced them. This is a mistake. If the seasons have had a large share in causing the present losses, we may have a better hope for the future of agriculture than would have been possible had these losses been due to a fall of prices alone. Better seasons are sure to come, and, with them a revival in prices. The fall in the price of some substances—for instance, wool—is not due to any increase in production, or fresh facilities of transport, but simply to the general poverty of nations.
The two great present difficulties are, how farmers are to tide over the present state of affairs; and how fresh capital is to be attracted to the prosecution of agriculture. I feel myself convinced that to enable farmers to meet these two great difficulties a removal of the restrictive covenants that have bound down tenants, and compensation for unexhausted improvements must certainly be included in the demand made upon the owners of the soil.—J. B. Lawes.
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Ashburton Guardian, Ashburton Guardian, Volume 1, Issue 105, 27 May 1880
The Farm. Ashburton Guardian, Volume 1, Issue 105, 27 May 1880
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