farming and estate management

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farming and estate management. Agriculture was the principal basis of wealth in Britain until its relative importance waned as a consequence of increasing financial returns from commerce and manufacturing industries. Surviving fragments of Anglo-Saxon accounts show that landowners controlled extensive properties but the earliest statements of the principles underlying practices of estate management only survive from the 13th cent. Manuscript treatises on farming and estate management were copied for many larger landowners. For example, Walter of Henley's Husbandry gave advice on estate management: appointing and supervising managers and workers, the necessity for surveys of property and assets, keeping accounts, guidelines for estimating likely yields per acre of seeds and of produce from livestock, and conducting audits.

During the 16th and 17th cents. new techniques of farming had implications for the management of estates. Conversion of common land to enclosures made possible new practices: creating water meadows and growing new crops such as sainfoin and lucerne to augment supplies of animal winter fodder. Enclosures for permanent pasture enabled sheep flocks to increase in size. In the 17th cent. Dutch techniques for land reclamation, as in the Fens, necessitated enclosures. Landowners protected their interests by studying land law at the Inns of Court and by appointing qualified stewards to manage estates effectively. Encouraging or coercing tenants to adopt new ways of farming challenged tradition, and changes were often achieved only after lengthy legal proceedings.

By the 18th cent. notable advances were made in improving returns to major landowners. Further enclosure in England was achieved by private Acts of Parliament which cost less money and time than the legal procedures of earlier centuries. These Acts became increasingly common after the middle of the century. Estate managers drew up leases specifying minimum standards of good agricultural practices, such as crop rotations, to be used by tenant farmers.

In the Scottish Lowlands landowners faced few legal problems during the 18th cent. and pioneered agricultural innovations. For example, the duke of Richmond brought his experienced estate steward to manage his English estates. In the Scottish Highlands, clan chieftains encouraged their followers to adopt improved farming practices. In contrast, in the early 19th cent. the Highland clearances were undertaken to suit the convenience of landowners, whose priorities often ignored severe hardships imposed on dispossessed tenants.

During the 19th cent. many agricultural innovations were promoted by landowners who wanted to sustain or improve their incomes. This was the period of books and magazines about agriculture and of the agricultural show for disseminating new ideas. In 1839 formal agrarian education for landowners began in England at the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester. Later in the century local colleges were opened for educating aspiring and working farmers.

In Ireland the history of landownership was characterized by many absentee landlords whose incomes came from the smallholdings of tenant farmers. Traditional farming methods continued into the 19th cent., dominated by the monoculture of the potato. The failure of the potato crop in the 1840s proved calamitous for the rural population. The mass migration precipitated by the famine altered farming practices, changed the social and political relationships of landowners and tenants, and resulted in legislation about tenants' rights.

During the 20th cent. farming was characterized by innovations: chemical fertilizers, labour-saving machinery for both arable and pastoral farming, hygiene legislation, and interventions in livestock breeding and care. As a consequence estate management has become increasingly like other business management, demanding high capital investment, financial expertise, skills in labour relations, and access to research and development. Sustained government intervention began in the Second World War and still continues. From 1940 subsidies provided much of the finance needed to increase food output and this support continued until Britain joined the Common Market in 1975, when farming began to operate within the framework of the Common Agricultural Policy. See also enclosures; field systems.

Ian John Ernest Keil

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