'Truth,' says Milton, 'is compared in scripture to a streaming fountain; if the waters flow not in a perpetual progression, they sicken into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition.' Just as the spiritual sluggard allows his religious affairs to remain in the groove in which he inherited them so does the agricultural sluggard, to save himself the trouble of thinking, allow his affairs to be ruled by conformity and tradition while the condition of the world calls loudly for the agricultural changes which are necessary in order to bring our system into line with the altered conditions of the present age.
It will, I think, be satisfactory to the reader to be told at the outset that I am an agriculturist by profession, having started as such in 1856 in India as a practical planter -- i.e. a planter managing and working his own land. For upwards of thirty years I have farmed land on my property in Roxburghshire, and still have in my occupation a farm of about 1,250 acres. The opportunities I had for being acquainted with the worldwide causes which were sure to bring about a serious state of agricultural conditions in these islands showed me that a thorough reorganization of our farming system was necessary in order to bring it into line with the altered conditions caused by foreign competition, and the rapidly increasing transport facilities which were sure to bring the produce of the world more and more cheaply to our doors. To myself, then, and to others who had equal opportunities of making sound forecasts, it was evident that a system of cultivation depending largely on cereals would have to give way to one mainly depending on the cultivation of grass and forage plants, and also on cheapening the cost of production all along the line, for it was evident that if other countries could produce so much more cheaply than we can we must produce more cheaply than we do now or go to the wall. It was extremely easy to conceive these ideas, and I accordingly at once proceeded to attempt to put them into execution; but I was not long in discovering that I had got hold of a very difficult and complicated subject, and so much so, indeed, that it is only now, after more than thirty years' practical experience on a large scale, and after numerous experiments on all kinds of soil, and at many different elevations, that I feel myself able to offer to the agricultural world experiences and conclusions that will, I venture to think, be of use in the work of remodelling our own agricultural system so as to bring it into harmony with the existing state of things throughout the world. But though I have no doubt that my experiences will be of value, I need hardly say that, before adopting any of the changes to be advocated in these pages, the agriculturist must weigh carefully the whole of his own local conditions, and see that, if he adopts any of my conclusions, he carries them out down to the minutest particulars. For laying down land to grass, and more especially the subsequent management of the pasture, requires great skill and attention, and what to an agriculturist who is inexperienced in laying down land to grass may seem a trifling matter is, if neglected, often the cause of an entire or partial failure. And I am the more particularly reminded of the necessity for this caution when I think of the first and last parts of the following sentence which Dr. Paris wrote in his memoir of the great Arthur Young: 'For it has been said,' wrote Dr. Paris, 'and perhaps not without justice, that the writings of Arthur Young produced more individual harm and greater public good than those of any person who had ever written; but the former inconvenience must always attend the introduction of any new system, of general application, that requires prudence and skill for its successful direction.' In other words, many agriculturists seem to have adopted Arthur Young's advice, but did not put it into execution with skill and prudence, and hence inflicted much injury on themselves. But, it may be remarked, though the careful weighing of local conditions is obviously of the greatest importance, both as regards the selection of seed and the proportion of land to be kept in grass, the farmer may, as to the latter point, proceed with considerable confidence, for errors of judgement as to the proportion of land that should be kept in grass are easily repaired should the error lie in laying down more land to grass than should afterwards prove to be advisable, as grass land, it seems hardly necessary to say, is readily convertible into arable, while arable cannot be converted into grass without a considerable lapse of time, unless the land, which is rarely the case, should have in it an ample supply of humus, and is thus in good physical condition.
There is also another point connected with the future prospetcs of agriculture to which I would direct especial attention, and that is the system of farming which must now be adopted in these islands is one highly suitable to the habits of gentlemen, and others who do not feel inclined to rise early and eat the bread of carefulness. The farming of the future, therefore, will carry with it less risk of loss either to the landlord or to those who may choose to adopt farming as a profession, but who are not of the farming classes. And this consideration makes it highly probable that, and to the obvious advantage of our future prospects, much more capital, enterprise, and intelligence will be attracted to farming than is now the case. This remark has been suggested to me by the admirable advice given to landholders by Dr. Keith (in his General View of the Agriculture of Aberdeenshire), who advises them in general 'to be contented with raising grass and green crops, and a small proportion of corn, remembering that a tenant who rises early, and is his own bailiff, or farm overseer, is best qualified to be a corn farmer.' To suit the advice to these days, and for the general use of all agriculturists, instead of 'a small proportion of corn', we should say the smallest possible proportion of corn.
It must further be considered in this connection that the system of farming to be afterwards recommended as the one most suited to the times, not only, as I have said, carries with it less risk of loss, but ensures good crops of all kinds, whether the seasons may be over-wet or over-dry. For the system provides a deeply tilled and humus-fed soil, and when you have both you have those physical conditions which make failures in crops an impossibility, for, as has been pointed out by Mr. Hall in The Soil -- 'Mechanical texture is of fundamental importance, and many soils owe their value to this property alone, as is evidenced by the high rents obtained in East Kent for soils which contain but little plant food, but which are of uniformly fine texture owing to the fine-grained sand or silt of which they are composed.' And if this is the case with such soils, how much more productive must soils be which are cultivated on my system, in other words amply supplied with humus, and deeply tilled, aerated, and drained by the agency of the deep-rooting plants which are recommended in my mixtures.
In continuing these introductory remarks, I may be allowed to observe that, notwithstanding our present unsatisfactory agricultural conditions, I by no means take those gloomy views of our prospects which are entertained by a large number of my countrymen. Such views, I admit, are perfectly justifiable if any attempt is made to plod on with a system which was very suitable to the conditions of twenty years ago (though even then many modifications could have been profitably introduced), but which is entirely out of joint with times when constantly improving communications are bringing us more and more into competition with cheaper labour and better climates. But, judging by the financial result of my own farming in recent years, I see no reason to despond if we turn our attention to altering our system of agriculture in the direction of limiting our cereals to the utmost, producing them at the lowest possible cost, and introducing improved grasses and other kinds of forage plants. For we have an admirable forage-growing climate, and it must be remembered that the same communications which flood our country with agricultural produce can also bring hither cheaper feeding stuffs and manures, and that these have consequently already largely declined in price in recent years. And if these aids are taken full advantage of, and the necessary changes in our system are carried out, British agriculture will gradually rise, not perhaps into as profitable a state as it occupied in the best of times, but into as secure and satisfactory a position as any in the world.
Finally, it should be considered that the system I have to advocate -- one depending entirely upon stock -- will be much safer than our old arable culture. For with that we had the maximum of risk, combined with the maximum amount of destruction to the fertility of the soil. And as to that point we have the testimony of the first great meeting of 400 Aberdeenshire farmers, held upwards of twenty years ago, who declared that one of the three great causes of their difficulties was the exhaustion of the soil. But the system which I have to urge in these pages will continually enrich the soil, and, what is often of greater importance, improve its physical condition. And it may be well to notice in this connection that the system to be proposed will not only suit the times, but also the interests of both the landlords and tenants. Formerly, their interests were in a great measure opposed, the object of the tenant being to take all he could out of the land, and the object of the landlord to retain all the strength he could in it; and, with the aid of artificial manures, the tenants have been only too successful in depleting the soil, and, in, a large number of instances, after having sucked the orange, have thrown the empty peel in the landlord's face. But with the system I advocate it will be as much to the tenant's as to the landlord's interest that all the strength possible should be retained in the land, for, in the future, on no other principle can farming in these islands be profitably carried on. And here it may not be uninteresting to notice that similar principles were laid down by M. Porcius Cato (born 234 B.C.) in his agricultural treatise, De Re Rustica. He was asked what was the most certain profit rising out of land. 'To feed stock well,' he replied. Being asked what was the next point of importance, he said, 'To feed with moderation.' Evidently meaning to the extent that paid best, or, in other words, that the farmer should aim at a low cost of production. He also, I may add, laid down that 'a good husbandman should be a seller rather than a buyer', which, of course, means that he should breed his own stock, and produce for himself everything that he profitably can. And it seems hardly necessary to add that the Act which now requires that all imported animals should be slaughtered at the port of debarkation still further enforces the necessity for adhering, as far as possible, to these old Roman agricultural maxims. It is interesting to note that Cato estimates the value of manuring as below ploughing, and thus recognized as Sir John Lawes did that the physical condition of the soil is of more importance than its strictly speaking chemical composition. 'If I am asked,' says Cato-'what is the first point in good husbandry, I answer good ploughing; the second ploughing of any kind, and the third manuring.' 'In a very important sense tillage is manure' (Bailey's Principles of Agriculture, p. 65, Macmillan, New York). Tillage by the agency of roots is the best and by far the cheapest form of tillage, and that it is the best anyone can see for himself by digging up the soil in forest-clad land, and that it is the cheapest as well as the best in arable land is evidenced by the great depth to which chicory and burnet roots penetrate.
I may next allude to a difficulty, with a view of explaining it, and suggesting a remedy. And it is, a very important difficulty, and one that has often been wondered at, and -- shall I say? -- ignorantly wondered at. This consists of the severe resistance to agricultural changes, which was well exemplified by the English farmer who, when some agricultural changes were suggested to him, simply said, 'What we knows we knows, and what we don't know we don't want to know.' On mentioning this to a landed friend who is interested in agriculture, as well as many other subjects, he said, 'Why, that is just the case with the landlords in my county, and they don't know, and they don't want to know, nor to trouble themselves at all about the subject. 'And in Johnston and Cameron's book on agricultural chemistry, it is stated that 'the reception of scientific results and suggestions by the agricultural body generally have been so ungracious that little wonder can exist that so many chemists have quitted the field in disgust, and that the majority of capable men should studiously avoid it.' And I may mention that when lately making some inquiries relative to the subject of this book at the rooms of the Royal Agricultural Society in London, I was told by the clerk that never in his experience had a farmer come there to ask a question, or go into an inquiry of any kind relative to agriculture. He should have said that farmers rarely do so. Planters in India, like farmers here, will not read, as both have probably taken to cultivation from a liking to out-door life, and an indisposition to any form of intellectual exertion. Then it must be considered that the sharp lads in families are generally sent into law, or trade, or medicine, while the duller are considered to be only good enough for agriculture, or planting, where study, though quite as essential as in other professions, may be neglected without much loss until changing times require important modifications of system. As for our farmers in Scotland, I have often said to some of them that I believe most Scotch farmers would go five miles out of their way to avoid seeing an agricultural improvement. And yet all farmers are ready enough to adopt improvements in the shape of improved stock, and agricultural implements and machines; and the explanation of their resistance to agricultural change is that they cannot afford to attempt improvements which are to them of a more or less speculative character, and are afraid of being persuaded to adopt measures which may turn out to be failures. An improved animal they can see, and from it gain an immediate and certain result, and the same is the case with an improved or new implement. But the return from any new course, such as altering their rotation or laying down land to grass, either permanently or for five or six years, requires a considerable time in order to prove the utility of so doing, and, in the case of grass in especial, they are hampered, no doubt, by that part of the old saw as to 'making a pasture breaking a man' -- a saw once most true in consequence of bad and improper seeds and bad methods of laying down, and not so very long ago, but now most ridiculously false, as I shall afterwards clearly show. And now I come to a most important point, to which these remarks naturally lead up, and to which I desire to direct special attention.
I have said that our farmers are afraid to attempt agricultural changes which to them are of a more or less speculative character. I have italicized the words 'to them', because the very agricultural changes to be recommended here are precisely those which have been adopted in the La Manche district in Normandy, where the farmers have universally given up cereals for permanent pasture, and this, too, notwithstanding that they had the so-called advantages of Protection. Just enough land is now given up to wheat for household consumption, to buckwheat for the food of pigs and poultry, and to roots, lucerne, and other temporary pasture sufficient for the winter food of livestock. The adoption of this course is universally considered to have been the saving of farmers of La Manche. A similar course would have been the saving of farmers in many parts of these islands. Why, then, were such changes of front not at once adopted here? Why did the farmers of Normandy evidently not consider them to be of a speculative and risky character, while to our farmers they evidently were so? But a reference to our Cherbourg consul's report throws full light on the subject, and we find that he attributes the happy change, in La Manche to Government aid in the shape of agricultural schools and experimental farms. Had we had such advantages here, I see no reason to doubt that our farmers would long ago have had recourse to these steps which were the saving of their brethren in La Manche; and our landlords and land agents, having had equal opportunities, would have readily joined the tenants in aiding to bring about the necessary changes in our agricultural system. But there was ignorance all along the line -- a natural dread of embarking on new courses which might prove to be failures, and no means of enlightenment at hand in the shape of Government schools and experimental farms to show how the necessary changes could be best carried out. And has it not been evident to every civilized Government but ours that whereas a question in chemistry or machinery, or of any new method of manufacturing, can be brought to exact proof, and instantly decided one way or another, an agricultural problem not only takes years to work out, but is liable to be extremely difficult of solution owing to the great variety of circumstances and the numerous climatic causes which disturb the results of farming experiments? And, seeing that farmers and landlords pay taxes, are they not, therefore, as much entitled to Government aid as science, art, education, or any of the other subjects which are aided by the resources of the State? But it is now time to turn to a consideration of the whole subject before us, and, in concluding these introductory remarks, I only desire to add that if a certain amount of repetition is to be found in these pages, it is because I think it will be useful to those to whom the subject is new.
Next: Chapter 2: General Principles
Back to Contents
Back to Small Farms Library index
Community development | Rural development
City farms | Organic gardening | Composting | Small farms | Biofuel | Solar box cookers
Trees, soil and water | Seeds of the world | Appropriate technology | Project vehicles
Home | What people are saying about us | About Handmade Projects
Projects | Internet | Schools projects | Sitemap | Site Search | Donations | Contact us