Significant events associated with Farming and Agricultural Technology

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Farming in the Early 21st Century – as foreseen in 1970


See also Food for sales and consumption of foodstuffs.

See also Prices and other Economic Events for agricultural wages and trades unions

See also Great Britain pre 1901 for agricultural unrest e.g. Swing Revolt 1830

See also Canal-Sea for declining shipping rates of food etc.

See also Education-University for founding dates of agricultural colleges.


26/10/2000, Lord Phillips issued his report into BSE and variant-CJD; he was critical of UK government policy.

11/1998, The European Union lifted its ban on the export of British beef.

3/12/1997, UK Agriculture Secretary Jack Cunningham announced a ban on sales of beef on the bone as a measure against BSE causing CJD in humans,

2/10/1997, UK scientists Moira Bruce and (independently) John Collinge proved that new-variant brain disease CJD in humans was the same as BSE in cows.

1/8/1996, The UK Central Veterinary Laboratory published findings that Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis could be transmitted from mother cow to calf.

1/4/1996, In the UK Douglas Hogg, Agriculture Minister, announced plans to cull all British cattle over 6 years old, 4.6 million cows, to eradicate the threat from Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis.

20/3/1996, The European Union banned the export of British beef over concerns about CJD.

15/5/1990, In the UK, home-produced beef was banned from schools and hospitals as concerns rose over Bovine Spongiform Encelopathy.

15/3/2001. The UK began a programme to kill all farm animals suspected of carrying foot and mouth.

20/2/2001, The UK Foot and Mouth Crisis began, 20 years after the disease last hit the UK. Diseased pigs were discovered at an abattoir in Essex. They were traced back to Burnside farm at Heddon on the Wall, Northumbria. By this time over 40 other farms had been infected, by an unusually virulent strain of the disease first seen in India in 1990; probably arriving in the UK via illegally imported meat. Drastic measures in the UK contained the outbreak as thousand of animals were burned, footpaths closed, and farmers virtually put under house arrest. The last case was at a farm in Cumbria on 30/9/2001, by which time 2,030 farm animals had been identified with Foot and Mouth, and around 6 million sheep, cows, pigs and other livestock slaughtered, one eighth of Britain’s farm animals. Foot and Mouth was finally declared over on January 2002. Farmers were compensated for their lost animals, but the biggest loser was the tourist industry, as rural paths stayed closed through the summer of 2001.

29/6/2000. The discovery that a cow born after the introduction of controls to eradicate BSE was found to be suffering from the disease sparked new worries about transmission of the condition.

13/5/1999, The World Trade Organisation, having condemned the EU ban on imports of hormone-treated beef, had set a deadline of this day for the EU to revoke the ban. This deadline was not met, see 12/8/1999.

18/2/1999, The UK Government decided GM crops would not be grown commercially until field trials proved they were harmless.

23/11/1998, European Agriculture Ministers met to lift the ban on UK beef exports that had followed the BSE crisis.

27/3/1996, The European Commission imposed a total ban on the export of UK beef, worldwide, in the wake of the fatal CJD outbreak, linked to BSE or ‘mad cow’ disease.

20/3/1996. British beef was banned in Europe over BSE scares.

7/3/1996, Genetically-modified sheep Megan and Morag were introduced to the world.

7/12/1995. A link was revealed between BSE in cattle and CJD in humans.

31/5/1990. Fears about mad cow disease lead to a Europe-wide ban on British beef imports, led by France.

9/1/1990, The UK Government allotted £2.2 million for research into Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE).

16/12/1988, Edwina Curry, Britain’s Junior Health Minister, resigned over her statement a fortnight earlier that most British eggs were contaminated with salmonella. Egg sales plummeted and famers demanded compensation.

4/12/1988, Edwina Curry rashly claimed that most British eggs were infected with salmonella. She had to resign on 16/12/1988.

1986, The world grain harvest was 1,650 million tonnes, up 2.61x from the 631 million tonne harvest in 1950. This food increase outstripped world population growth, which over this period rose from 2.56 billion to 4.80 billion, a rise of 1.88x.

20/6/1986, Movement of sheep in Cumbria was banned because of radiation residues from Chernobyl.

28/2/1984. French farmers protested against foreign meat imports into France. There was a meat glut in Europe and President Mitterand’s government had ended rail subsidies for transport  of agricultural produce from Brittany. Farmers hijacked and burned lorries with agricultural produce from other EEC member states, or gave the lorries contents away to hospitals and schools. Farmers also blockaded railway lines and Channel ports, and main roads. In one incident farmers ransacked government offices in Brest, Brittany.

11/1/1984, Two British lorry drivers were hijacked by French farmers as they drove through France; the farmers were protesting at cheap meat imports into France.

23/11/1967. The UK government was about to ban meat imports from Europe because of the outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease there.

1954, Over 90% of US farms had electricity, up from 11% in 1935.

12/7/1952, The Soviets began to collectivise agriculture in East Germany.

4/2/1952, The UK Government offered farmers £5 an acre to plough up grassland for crops.

1950, The average US farm was 215.3 acres, up from 136.2 acres in 1900.

3/5/1939, British farmers were urged to plough up grassland to increase food production.

26/3/1937. Spinach growers in Crystal City, Texas, erected a statue of Popeye.

12/1931, Winston Churchill wrote in Strand Magazine “Fifty years hence we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium”.

10/1/1931. Molotov announced the collectivisation of USSR agriculture. In the Ukraine a famine was politically created to destroy the peasant kulaks; an estimated 5 – 6 million people died as a result.

1930, In the US, it took 0.25 man hours to produce 1 bushel of wheat. This was down from 0.87 man hours in 1920, 0.5 man hours in 1896, and 3 man hours in 1830.

13/1/1930. Two million Chinese had died of starvation and famine threatened millions more. China was in political chaos as Chiang Kai Shek tried to establish nationalist rule against the Communists. Japan watched the Chinese turmoil with interest, waiting for a chance to invade the wealthy northern provinces of Manchuria.

3/1/1930. Stalin collectivised all farms in the USSR.

1918, The German chemist Fritz Haber received the Nobel Prize for discovering, in 1908, how to synthesise ammonia directly from hydrogen and nitrogen. This greatly increased fertiliser production, leading to a huge increase in global food production.

1900, US farms possessed 15.5 million draught horses, up from 6.2 million in 1860. Between 1860 and 1900 the US ploughed up 400 million acres of previously uncultivated land. The flood of cheap US cereals into Europe caused the profitability of Norwegian farms, already marginal economically, to collapse and precipitated a flood of Norwegian migration to the US. In England many grain farmers were forced to convert to fruit or dairy. The Netherlands farming sector, which had always specialised in dairy, fruit and vegetables, was less affected by the US cheap grain exports. Denmark began to specialise in bacon production, which they could readily export to the UK. After the US, the Ukraine, Canada and Australia provided Europe with cheap grain.

31/12/1900, Wheat acreage in Britain stood at 1.8 million, down from 2.9 million acres in 1880. Cheap imports of wheat from the USA had increased dramatically since the 1870s.

1892, French farming was in a relatively undeveloped state, with just one farm in 15 possessing a horse-drawn hoe, and just 1 farm in 150 having a mechanical reaper.

1892, In Britain, large steam powered flour mills, generally located on rivers or near ports,where coal could be delivered easily, were putting local rural village windmills out of business. The rivers were also used for wheat delivereies to the mill and for taking away the flour.

1892, John Froelich of Iowa built the first successful petrol-powered tractor.

1889, The first petrol-driven tractor was produced. It weighed around 10 tonnes; by 1902 lighter models weighing under 2 tonnes were available.

13/5/1884, Cyrus Hall McCormick, inventor of the first successful reaping machine, died in Chicago.

20/10/1883. The Treaty of Ancon finally ended the war between Chile, Peru, and Bolivia, for land in the Atacama Desert, which was rich in nitrates for fertilisers. By the treaty, Peru ceded Tarapaca to Chile, and Chile also kept Tacna and Arica for ten years.

1877, Prices of barbed wire, or ‘the Devil’s rope’ stood at 8 cents per pound in the USA, down from 18 cents in 1876, as the Bessemer steel process invented in 1856 was used to produce the wire. This invention was crucial in facilitating cattle farming in the US mid-west, where fencing materials were scarce. Sales of barbed wire soared from 840,000 lbs in 1876 to 12.86 million lbs, or around 5,500 tons. One ton of barbed wire equated to 2 miles of three-strand fencing. US sales of barned wire further rose to 26.7 million lbs in 1878, 50.3 million lbs in 1879, 80.5 million lbs in 1880 and 120 million lbs in 1881.

1870, Prices in the UK for automated farm machinery were relatively high – see Price Levels for comparative amounts to today. A hand-operated chaff cutter cost £6 8s, turnip cutters were £5 4s, horse hoes were £4 6s and seed drills cost from £6 12s; all could be bought for less second hand. By contrast a two-horse self-delivery reaper cost £35, portable steam engines started at £240, and a double engine steam ploughing unit was around £2,600. Automated dairy equipmemnt was also costly, with (in 1895) a horse powered cream separator costing £55-£60 and a milking machine priced at £50-£100, excluding the power unit.

25/6/1867. The first barbed wire was patented by Lucien B Smith of Kent, Ohio. The barbs protruded from small pieces of wood along the wire; this may not have been commercially manufactured but in 1868 a more successful design was commercially produced. This invention was vital for opening up the American west to ranchers since there was insufficient wood for cattle fencing. Barbed wire for defence was first used by American troops in the Spanish – American War of 1898. However cowboys lost out because their cattle-herding services were ;less oin demand. Bigger losers were the American Indians, whose hunting spaces were carved up by the new enclosures. Wildlife also suffered, with many animals becoming entangled on the wire.

1855, Various fertilisers were increasingly being added to British farmland to raise its productivity, including chimney soot, animal manure 9collected in special tanks to stop it being washed away by the rain), ‘night soil’ (human excrement collected from towns at night) and marl. Marl added to sandy soil in NW Norfolk raised the rental value of the farmland from 5s 0d an acre in 1780 to £1 5s 0d an acre in 1855.

29/6/1846. The protectionist wing of the Tory Party, led by Benjamin Disraeli, which was bitterly opposed to the repeal of the Corn Laws, mounted a revolt against Robert Peel’s Tory government, forcing Peel to resign as Prime Minister.

25/6/1846. Britain repealed the Corn Laws after a 5 month debate in Parliament. Import duties on wheat, oats, and barley were to be scrapped in 3 years, and meanwhile set at a nominal rate only, of one shilling a quarter. This was opposed by Tory protectionists, but the Irish potato famine in 1845 added urgency to the repeal. Bread would now be cheaper but the farming of the landed estates less profitable. The Irish potato blight spread from America and first appeared in the UK in the Isle of Wight. Hot dry weather in July gave way to chilly rain and fog, and the potatoes soon rotted. 4 million people in Ireland and 2 million in Britain relied almost totally on potatoes for food. Public works schemes were devised for some 750,000 workers which meant 3 million people relied on these for income. Many Irish migrated to the USA, even though the voyage was almost as deadly as the famine; one in six died on the voyage across the Atlantic. The Irish blamed English oppression for the famine even though England had provided almost £8million in relief.

The Corn Laws had been enacted in 1815 and essentially supported UK domestic farm process by prohibiting imports unless the price rose above a set amount, 8s/ quarter for rye, £2/ quarter for rye and £1.35/ quarter for oats. The urban poor, the landless, and unemployed soldiers returning from the Napoleonic Wars, suffered but landowners prospered.

In fact the Corn Laws hurt manufacturers, not only because wages were forced to be high enough for the workers to buy bread but because without grain imports to the UK, foreigners could not afford to buy UK manufactured products.

When the Corn Laws were repealed, the expected major drop in farm gate prices did not occur because a rising UK population propped up demand, and the railways had not yet spread to arreas like the US Plains, so cheap grain imports into Britain were not yet feasible. Meanwhile increasing efficiency in the farming industry meant that farm profits actually rose after Repeal. By 1842 the UK political climate had shifted in favour of Free Trade, away from Mercantilist Protectionism,  and the 1845 Irish Famine was the final event that precipitated the repeal of the Corn Laws.

1845, In the UK, the invention of a clay pipe making machine enabled marshy land to be drained and improved for agriculture.

29/4/1842, In Britain the Corn Act was passed, setting up a sliding scale relating to the price of domestic corn at which foreign corn imports were allowed.

1840, Justus von Leibig published his book, ‘Chemistry in its Application to Agriculture’, an important advance in scientific farming.

1840, A US farmer could produce 100 bushels of wheat in 233 man-hours, down from 300 man-hours in 1831. By 1920 it took just 87 man-hours.

1839, The first Agricultural Show was held at Oxford; in 1845 the first agricultuiral college opened at Cirencester in 1845. The spread of the railways helped farmers get their produce to shows nationwide.

18/9/1838, The Anti-Corn-Law League was established by Richard Cobden.

1837, Illinois blacksmith John Deere created a steel plough with combined share and mouldboard.

1837, The Royal Agricultural Society was founded in Britain, promoting new ideas and technology in farming.

1836, J Hascall and Hiram Moore, of Michigan, patented a machine that could harvest,thresh, clean and bag the grain crop. This ‘combined harvester’ was horse drawn; the combine harvester took another century to become commonplace. In 1935 the All-Crop harvester was produced by the Allis-Chalmers Company; it was cheap and could be pulled by a low-powered tractor. Used with a grain dryer, much of the uncertainty of harvesting was removed. Harvested wheat no longer needed to be stacked in ‘stooks’ in the field to dry.

21/6/1833. An automatic grain reaping machine was invented in the USA by Cyrus Hall McCormick.

16/5/1832, Philip Armour, American meat packer, was born in Stockbridge, New York.

1827, The first reaping machine was invented by Dr Patrick Bell, a Scottish clergyman. Before this, corn was cut by hand with a scythe or sickle.

1819, The first steam pump in the Fens was installed at Littleport. The significance of this was that steam pumps alone could lift water to heights greater than the peat shrank down to.

16/8/1819. At St Peters Fields, or Peterloo, Manchester, a meeting demanding parliamentary reforms was dispersed by the military. There was a crowd of 60,000 present to hear the speech of the pugnacious reformer Henry Hunt, who also demanded an end to the Corn Laws. 11 demonstrators were killed and 600 injured by the Manchester Yeomanry. After this the UK government issued the Six Laws, in 1819, banning any gathering of over 50 people, and any flag-bearing procession, authorising the arrest of anyone carrying a firearm, and imposing a tax on newspapers.

1817, The fertiliser superphosphate was invented by Irish farmer James Murray. It was made from  sulphuric acid and animal bones,

1815, Most land that could feasibly be used for agriculture in Britain was already in use. In 1795 the UK Board of Agriculture had claimed that a further 8 million acres (3.25 million hectares) of land was available for agriculture, but by 1815 most moorland and waste left was iuncultivable. During the French Napoleonic Wars domestic food production was a priority; chalkland and moorland was brought into food production in areas such as the New Forest and Dartmoor, then subsequently abandoned.

23/3/1815, In Britain, the Corn Laws halted the imports of grain.

17/2/1815. Corn Laws introduced in Britain.

27/11/1811, Andrew Meikle, Scottish agricultural engineer, inventor of the threshing machine in 1786, died in Dunbar, East Lothian.

15/2/1809, Cyrus Hall McCormick, American inventor of the first mechanical crop reaper, was born in Rockbridge county, Virginia.

1808, The English inventor Robert Ransome devised an all-iron plough at his works in Ipswich.

7/2/1804, John Deere, manufacturer of agricultural equipment, was born in Vermont.

1800, Agricultural productivity had improved in Britain; one agricultural worker could now feed 2.5 people, as against 1.7 in 1700.

26/6/1797. Charles Newbold patented the cast iron plough.

1787, Scottish millwright Andrew Meikle designed the first threshing machine, to replace the flail, Corn was fed into a rotating drum with metal beaters to remove the husk. In riots in the 1830s, many such machines were destroyed by British agricukltural workers fearing unemployment,

1760, The Rotherham Ploiugh came into general use. It was simpler to make and maintain the older ploughs, and the depth of the furrow could be adjusted. Initially made of wood, by the early 19800s they were being made of iron.

21/2/1741, The agricultural pioneer Jethro Tull, who invented the seed drill around 1701, died near Hungerford, Berkshire, aged 67. He was inspired to develop the seed drill by the pipes of the church organ he played on Sundays. He also pioneered crop rotation, developing a new hoe for planting turnips between the grain crops; turnips meant winter feed, so more manure, so more fertile soil that didn’t need a whole year fallow to recover. Turnips also provided winter feed for cattle, so removing the need to slaughter most of the herd in autumn; this meant larger cattle could be produced for market.

1732, The average bullock sold at London’s Smithfield Market weighed 250kg, as against 168 kg just 22 years earlier in 1710. In the absence of rail transport, cows and sheep destined for consumption in London, which originated in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, had to be driven on foot overland. Those from Ireland were landed at Holyhead and then made to swim the kilometre of water across the Menai Strait. They were droven to the Barnet area, just north of London, where they were fattened up. However their meat was generally tough, and expensive. See 1858.

1716, Swedish engineer Martin Triewald installed the first hot water based heating system in an English greenhouse. Tropical plants could now be better cultivated.

1716, French scientist Daubenton published his book ‘Advice to Shepherds and Owners of Flocks’.

1701 Jethro Tull, a Berkshire farmer, invented the seed drill machine. This sowed seeds in straight lines, eliminating much wastage and making it easier to keep weeds down. Previously, farmers had ‘broadcast’ seed, just scattering it, and birds ate much of it. Now, his drill placed the seed then a harrow covered it in a layer of earth. Since the corn now grew in straight rows, it could easily be weeded with a hoe. Farm workers were apprehensive of reduced employment and some went on strike against the new machine.

550, The Slavs of north-east Europe introduced an improved plough that could tackle heavy clay lands; areas of forest now became useable as farmland. However unlike the old scratch plough that could be pulled by a single animal or even a human, the new plough required a team of six to eight oxen. Therefore less affluent farmers either had to form co-operatives to afford this, or were squeezed out by wealthier landowners.

1 BCE, The Romans utilised blood and bones as fertiliser, and grew clover and alfalfa, but disdained the use of excrement as fertiliser. However some Romans were aware of the improvements in fertility resulting from dung-spreading.

1100 BCE, The upper rotating stone of the quern, the stone used to grind grain into flour between two stones, was fitted with a handle to make the grinding job easier. By 100 BCE, donkeys were in use in Rome togrind the grain between quern stones.

1400 BCE, Domestication of poultry began in China, descended from the Guinea Fowl of the Malay Peninsula.

1500 BCE, By now all the major food plants in use in the 21st century, excepting sugar beet, were being cultivated somewhere in the world.

1700 BCE, The Babylonians began using windmills to power irrigation.

1700 BCE, Rye cultivation began in eastern Europe, where the growing season was too short for dependable wheat cultivation.

1,800 BCE, Taboos against eating pork began to spread amongst some Middle-Eastern peoples. This might have been because they were nomadic shepherds, and pork was eaten by their farmer enemies. However archeological evidence suggests that Egyptian peasants kept pigs as late as 1350 BCE.

2,000 BCE, In Egypt, attempts to domesticate antelope, oryx and gazelle were abandoned in favour of cultivation of celery, lotus, and other plant foods, also hunting and fishing, in the Nile Delta. Watermelons were being cultivated in Africa, figs in Saudi Arabia, and bananas were being grown in India.

2,200 BCE, In China, dogs, goats, oxen, pigs and sheep were now domesticated; grain was being milled.

2,300 BCE, Rice cultivation, imported from the Indus Valley, began in northern China (see 800 BCE).

2,475 BCE, Maize cultivation began in Central America. Olive trees were cultivated in Crete, which grew wealthy on the export of olive oil and timber.

2,600 BCE, Oxen were being harnessed to ploughs in the Middle east, greatly improving agricultural productivity. In Egypt, fish and poultry were being preserved by sun-drying.

2,800 BCE, The sickle was in use in Sumeria for grain harvesting.

3,000 BCE, In Sumeria, foods recorded by Gilgamesh included capers, cucucmbers, figs, grapes, honey, meat seasoned wth herbs, and bread. The sickle, a small curved hand tool for harvesting grain, was invented; the scythe was developed from this.

4,350 BCE, The horse was domesticated in Europe, providing agricultural power and transportation.

5,500 BCE, The world’s first irrigation system constructed, in Mesopotamia. Early irrigation tended to salinize the soil after some centuries of usage, rendering the region infertile.

6,500 BCE, Cattle (aurochs) became the last major food animal to be domesticated, in central Europe.

7,000 BCE, Pigs were first domesticated, in Greece. They were less useful than goats or sheep, because they gave no milk or textiles, need shade, and cannot eat grass or straw, only scraps of food that humans themselves eat, such as nuts or old meat. However pigs could eat food that had spoiled, and convert this into edible meat and fertiliser (dung). Sedentary agriculture had now spread to SE Europe.

9,000 BCE, Einkorn wheat cultivation began in northern Syria. Sheep were now domesticated in northern Mesopotamia.

10,000 BCE, The goat was first domesticated, in the Middle East. Sedentary agriculture first began in the world in the Middle East.

12,000 BCE, The dog was first domesticated, from the common Asian wolf, and used for hunting game, and, later, herding domesticated animals such as sheep. The domestication of dogs for hunting reached Britain by 7,000 BCE.


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