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Revolutionary Agricultural Technology

One reason historians like to discount the degree to which the Agricultural Revolution was truly revolutionary is the length of time it took for all the developments to be widely used and to pay dividends.

One of the earliest advancements came as early as the seventeenth century in a seemingly unlikely place. In the Low Countries, much of the land lay below sea level and was covered with marshes and swamps. Because the population of the Netherlands grew so rapidly in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, drawing the maximum yield from the land was vital.

The ingenious Dutch drained the swamplands, enclosed fields, practiced crop rotation, and used manure to fertilize the fields. They maximized the land they had, and their techniques served as the model first for England and then for the rest of Europe. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden (1595-1683) traveled to England where he led a land reclamation project that eventually drained tens of thousands of English acres that became valuable farmland. It was on just such land that English farmers, and later farmers in other parts of Europe, experimented with new crops, new gadgets, and new methods of farming.

As a Matter of Fact

The land reclamation project of Cornelius Vermuyden in the low marshlands of England, land known as the Fens, proved highly successful in providing new, arable land for English farmers. However, the project ran into a major snag before completion. Vermuyden, a Dutchman, employed Dutch laborers and engineers for the project. Furthermore, the Fensmen who lived off the land were stripped of their livelihoods during the reclamation process. In response, the Fensmen attacked Vermuyden and the Dutch workers. Vermuyden, in order to finish the project, had to employ English workers and had to pay the Fensmen for lost wages.

Nitrogen Replenishing Crops

The word nitrogen would have meant absolutely nothing to Europeans in the eighteenth century. Little did they know that nitrogen, and the crops that put nitrogen into the soil, played a major role in the Agricultural Revolution. The revolutionary crops that changed the way Europe farmed were legumes. Legumes, also called nitrogen-fixing plants, converted nitrogen from the air and put nitrogen into the soil in a form usable by other vegetation.

Europeans had used legumes such as beans and peas for centuries, but sometime in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, the farmers of the Netherlands used them in a revolutionary way. They planted turnips and clover in fields that had traditionally been left fallow. After a few years of the turnips and clover, the wheat and other grains planted in those fields exceeded expectations. As an added bonus, the turnips and clover made great fodder for the animals, rather than using other resources to feed the horses and oxen. The manure produced by the animals could, in turn, be used to fertilize the fields.

One of the biggest advocates of the use of turnips was a wealthy English statesman named Charles “Turnip” Townsend (1674-1738). Townsend discovered the revolutionary effects of turnips and clover while serving as an ambassador across the English Channel. It was said that Turnip Townsend spoke of little else but turnips and their benefits. On his large estate, Townsend abandoned his fallow fields in favor of turnips; he used plenty of manure and reaped huge rewards. His obsession, and more importantly his willingness to be innovative, inspired many other aristocratic landowners to try new agricultural methods.

New Agricultural Techniques

Just as innovators and new crops helped improve the bottom line, so did new devices and techniques. One of the more interesting innovators was Jethro Tull (1674-1741). Tull, another Englishman, set out to be a lawyer but his health prevented him finishing his studies. Tull reportedly disliked manual labor, and liked his laborers even less because of their inability to do things the way he wanted.

Tull realized that his laborers were inefficient when spreading seeds by hand, so he invented a seed drill. The drill created evenly spaced holes drilled at precise depths and had a funnel that sent a precise amount of seeds into the drilled holes. It took quite a while and several revisions for the drill to catch on, but it finally did years later as the aristocracy became fascinated with innovative agriculture.

For all of Tull’s innovative ideas, he often was thought of as a quack and the stereotypical crazy inventor. Not all his ideas were as on target as his seed drill. For example, he thought the use of manure in fields was overrated. Instead of using manure, he pounded and crushed the soil to release nutrients. He certainly deserves credit, however, for thinking outside the box, for not relying on tradition, and for using the typical English empirical approach to problems.

Another innovative Englishman whose contributions were important was Robert Bakewell (1725-1795). Bakewell worked in animal husbandry and is often called the father of animal breeding. Bakewell set out to breed certain characteristics into and out of lines of sheep, cattle, and horses. The medieval practice of allowing the village animals to graze the commons often resulted in random breeding. The males and females were allowed to intermingle and breed as they pleased.

Bakewell changed that and allowed males and females to breed only when he wanted them to breed. Furthermore, he ignored the medieval taboos of inbreeding, or breeding animals from the same family. Bakewell bred two animals together to reproduce certain traits. One example of such breeding was a particular line of sheep he perfected with fatty shoulders to accommodate the taste of the English for fatty mutton. The practice of selective breeding led to improvements in livestock that, in turn, led to better milk-producing animals, better work animals, and hardier animals in general.

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