The industrialization of agriculture: the Early Modern Age

Quotation 1—The first agricultural revolution of modern times “By the end of the Middle Ages, Europe had already experienced three agricultural revolutions: the Neolithic, the ancient, and the medieval ... From the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, most areas of Europe were the scene of a new agricultural revolution, the first agricultural revolution of modern times. We call it that because it developed in close relationship with the first industrial revolution.”
—Mazoyer, Marcel and Laurence Roudart. 2006. A History of Agriculture: from the Neolithic age to the current crisis. Monthly Review Press: NY, NY.

Like peasant farmers a few centuries ago, farmers today must nurture the ecosystem of their soil; they must plan for and react to the vicissitudes of the weather; they must discern the health of their animals by the way they look and behave; and they must make critical decisions about when to plant and when to harvest—with the understanding that the outcome of any decision is far from certain.

Unlike those 17th century peasants, farmers today must also maintain and operate million-dollar machinery, handle toxic chemicals, crunch numbers to determine which semen they will use to artificially inseminate their livestock, and manage risk using futures and options markets. Agriculture is still an engineering of nature, but it also requires the same skills with which engineers operate large factories. In this six-part lecture on the industrialization of agriculture, we are going to witness how an agricultural revolution in the Early Modern Period (1500-1800) led to the Industrial Revolution, which in turn fueled another agricultural revolution.

In this series of lectures, I want to discuss the rise of modern agriculture, its evolution to what many call industrial agriculture. What is industrial agriculture? Critics describe is as:

Quotation 2—What is industrial agriculture?
“Industrial agriculture views the farm as a factory with ‘inputs’ (such as pesticides, feed, fertilizer, and fuel) and ‘output’ (corn, chickens, and so forth). The goal is to increase yield (such as bushels per acre) and decrease costs of production usually by exploiting economies of scale.”
—Nachman, Keeve and Robert S. Lawrence. 2014. An Introduction to the U.S. Food System: Perspectives from Public Health [MOOC]. Johns Hopkins University. Bloomberg School of Public Health. Available at

That doesn’t say much, but Keeve and Lawrence then describe it as a system where high production comes with pollution and high resources use. In short, industrial agriculture is lauded for its productive efficiency, but then criticized on more than several fronts.

Industrial agriculture, in short, is a term often meant as an insult—but it wasn’t always that way. To understand debates about modern agriculture we must understand its origins, and we will do that by beginning with 16th century England.

The dignity of business

In the Middle Ages, the farmer was a peasant, and the peasant wasn’t just a job but a social class. Today the farmer is a businessperson, and her social class (if there is still such a thing) depends on her ability to accumulate wealth, which in turn, depends on her ability to produce better goods at a lower price. By out-performing her competitors, she increases her wealth. Today, making an honest profit is a dignified endeavor. It wasn’t always that way.

The Industrial Revolution didn’t just result in cheaper goods, but a new social order. It is hard for us to understand this, but only recently has business, commerce, and trade been seen as a respectable occupation. From ancient Greece to the Late Middle Ages of Italy, from ancient China to the France of Quasimodo, if you wanted to insult someone you could just call them a merchant or a trader.(M1,M2)

Quotation 3—Aristotle on market trading “...In Thebes there used to be a law that one who had not abstained from the market for ten years could not share in [political] office.”
—Aristotle, approving of the degrading of business-people, as quoted in: McClosky, Deirdre N. 2011. Bourgeois Dignity. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, IL. Chapter 41.
Quotation 4—The denigration of market trading “Comrade! you have the air of a merchant of tennis-balls; and you come and sit yourself beside me! I am a nobleman, my friend! Trade is incompatible with nobility.”
—Hugo, Victor. 1831. The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The setting of the story is 15th century France, whose main character is Quasimodo.

From the ancient world to much of the Early Modern Period, prices were not determined by markets alone, but also subject to the idea of a “socially just price.” This meant that if grain became scarce and you had some to sell, society may prohibit your attempt to charge an abnormally high price. There is still today a concept of a socially just price—the minimum wage and price-gouging laws are examples. The difference is a matter of degree. The price of figs in ancient Athens was determined by a democratic vote.(E1,G1) Can you imagine the American public voting on the price of beef? In colonial America, you could be tried in court for profiteering if someone thought you were charging too much for a good, even if the buyer willingly paid that price.(P1) If this were possible today, just think of how many lawyers would be suing almost every business!

The guild system, so powerful in the Middle Ages, was established to control the supply and prices of every good. It was almost impossible to produce or sell anything unless you were a member of the guild. Today we only have the actor’s guild (plus a few others), but there used to be guilds for stone masons, carpenters, cobblers, and merchants. To say guilds were like unions has some truth, but they were not formed by workers to negotiate with employers. Instead, they better represented cartels, as it was the business owners who formed and operated the guild, not their workers. It wasn’t a conspiracy of workers against the company, but the company against the consumers.

The guilds probably provided communities with stability, but they impeded innovation. If, in 1300 Europe, you developed a new machine that could produce lots of shoes at very low cost, it is unlikely you would be allowed to use it. The cobbler guilds, knowing they couldn’t match your low price, and knowing your entry into the market for shoes would drive them into bankruptcy, would not let you sell shoes. And they did indeed have the authority to physically prohibit you from doing so. It was not against the law for guilds to write their own rules and enforce their own laws, so long as their enforcement pertained only to the goods they sold. There was thus little reason to innovate and discover more efficient production methods, as it would be almost impossible for you to profit.(M3)

This all changed with the Industrial Revolution in the Netherlands and Britain in the 18th and early 19th century. Society was evolving from a system where nobles reigned to one where power went to those who could generate the most wealth. This transfer of power became especially evident in the 19th century when financiers like the Rothschilds could tell an Austrian emperor how to run his country (as was depicted in the 1970 mini-series Fall of Eagles). An emperor in the 19th century could not wage war without taking substantial loans from some very rich individuals, and so those rich men became the most powerful men in the world. This new social arrangement was also depicted in the PBS hit show Downton Abbey, where an English nobleman, too financially incompetent to manage his inherited estate, had to marry a rich American in order to pay the bills.

Whereas the pursuit of profits by market competition was once thought to be an ignoble way of life, the earning of profits through trade and factory production became an admirable activity. Now, there was nothing wrong with running your competitors out of business by producing better products or selling at a lower price. Now, the world would innovate indeed, and bring with it the modern world. This is the reason it is called the Early Modern Age.

Quotation 5—The reign of markets begins
“The Industrial Enlightenment developed a new set of criteria by which projects and devices were judged: efficiency and commercial viability. Markets, rather than government officials or aristocratic aesthetes, were to be the ultimate arbiters.”
—Joel Mokyr. 2012. The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain 1700-1850. Pages 55-56.

Men with money to invest (something we call capital) learned they could buy large, expensive machines that turned an unskilled worker into a powerhouse of production. Artisans (those who produced goods out of small shops) could not match the low prices of factory goods, and as they closed shop to work as wage laborers, they closed the door to guilds, and with it, the Middle Ages.

These factories were so productive because they employed economies-of-scale and specialization (the two inseparable twins of industry), and these factory-like methods of production would later be transferred to agriculture to create what we call “industrial agriculture.” To proceed directly to the twentieth century, however, would be to sidestep a crucial turning-point in agriculture. Centuries before the Industrial Revolution, an audacious English king caused agricultural productivity to surge. This was no deliberate plan of the king, but was instead an unintended consequence of his land reforms.

The conversion of the commons into private property changed the incentives to agricultural innovation, and people responded by investing in better tools, new crops, and better breeding programs. Agriculture became more productive, requiring fewer workers on the farm to produce the same amount of food, and in the process, released peasant farmers into the cities, where they were embraced by the new titans of industry.

The Industrial Revolution was made possible in part by economies-of-scale and specialization in agriculture that began centuries before, during the reign of Henry VIII in England (1491 – 1547). In a way, agriculture became industrialized before the Industrial Revolution.

The first industrialization of agriculture

Many of you know Henry VIII as the man who chopped off the head of his second wife (and his fifth), who he was able to marry only after he broke from the Catholic Church. As he severed ties with the Pope, he also confiscated monastery lands and sold them to his favorites. Then he confiscated agricultural lands called “the commons” (called so because the land was held in common property by a village of peasants). The peasants lived in something like communes, using traditional, relatively inefficient farming methods.

Peasants don’t generally innovate, because an experiment gone wrong might mean starvation. Also, there is little incentive for an individual peasant to improve the productivity of the commons, since he is not the sole recipient of the increased production.

King Henry began a tradition of confiscating the peasants’ commons, enclosing it, converting it to private property, and then selling them to favored nobles. Although it pushed many peasants into extreme poverty (a sad event depicted in the movie Lady Jane), turning the commons into private property made England, and most everyone within its borders, richer.

Quotation 6—Privatizing land
“Present-day distinctions among governments and societies across the globe, Linklater argues, are the result of land ownership evolving along different lines. In one of these lines, the history of the modern Western world takes as its starting point a novel concept introduced in 16th century England, toward the end of medieval feudalism: the idea that land could be owned individually, without obligations to earthly or heavenly lords and masters or to communities, tribes and families. This was a gradual process but well-developed by the 1540’s, when Henry VIII sold off half of the land that he had confiscated from the monasteries, mainly to well-positioned courtiers.”
Altenberg, Karin. December 7-8, 2013. “Separating Mine From Thine.” A book review of Owning the Earth by Andro Linklater. The Wall Street Journal. C7.

Let us stress how converting common property to private property changes incentives. When land is communal there is little incentive to put forth effort to make the land more productive, because you pay all the costs but the benefits must be shared by everyone. Now, if you own land, any increase in productivity due to your actions goes to you and you alone.

With the conversion (or "enclosure", as it was called) of the commons, people who would have been independent, peasant farmers now become wage-laborers to the landowners. In pursuit of greater wealth, landowners purchased better equipment that would have been too expensive for the peasants. Now the land was farmed with better plows, and harvested with more efficient equipment. This was one among many changes that increased the supply of food in the Early Modern Age. Other changes were alterations in crop rotations, the use of legumes, feeding turnips to livestock, and selective breeding.

Before the Early Modern Age, for every month a field would be growing a crop it would be left fallow for about two months. Planting nothing. Harvesting nothing. Leaving a field fallow gives soil bacteria time to capture nitrogen from the air and store it in the soil. Without giving the soil time to “rest” the harvesting of crops would remove nitrogen from the soil faster than it would be able to replenish, eventually leaving the soil infertile. Peasants didn’t understand how fallowing land restored its fertility, only that it did.

Consider a typical crop rotation scheme used throughout Europe before King Henry. For more than a year—August till the next October—the land is left fallow. Nothing is planted. Nothing is harvested. In November a winter cereal like wheat is planted, and when it is harvested in July the land is left fallow until March, after which a spring cereal like summer rye is planted. The cycle then repeats. Consider how much more productive a farm could be if it could be producing food throughout year, never having to be fallowed.

Figure 1—Crop rotation with fallowing

Obviously, having to leave land fallow impedes productivity because for a long period of time a field is not producing anything. Another thing hindering productivity was the high cost of feeding livestock in winter. Peasants would slaughter many of their animals in late fall because they could not grow enough food to keep them alive all winter. This limited the amount of livestock peasant farmers could keep for breeding, and as such, gave them little financial incentive to spend time improving their breeding program.

The new landowners then found a more efficient way to farm. It really borrowed from methods used as long ago as ancient Egypt, which for some reason had been lost and either rediscovered or reinvented.

Where lands would have been left fallow in the past, this new method plants the field in a fodder crop for animals. The fodder would often be a legume, a plant able to snatch nitrogen from the air and store it in the soil, thereby helping to fertilize the field without leaving it fallow. An example is clover, a legume cows love to eat. Planting clover allows the farmer to fertilizer the field and feed more cattle at the same time.

Farmers also learned to raise turnips, which stored well and could be fed to cattle during the winter. While the turnips extracted nutrients from the soil as they were harvested, these nutrients would be captured in the livestock manure and returned to land. Animals would often be confined in barns throughout the winter so that their manure could be conveniently stored.

Legumes and turnips eliminated the need for fallowing land and allowed farmers to raise considerably more animals. There were a number of crop rotations which used legumes and turnips along with other crops like grain. For instance, a farmer might plant clover one year for animals to graze, and then plant winter grain on the field next year to take advantage of the nitrogen captured in the soil by the clover. Then, turnips would be raised for livestock feed, and after the livestock manure is returned to the field, a spring cereal is planted. This way, the land is constantly growing food, whether it be food for livestock that will produce meat, milk, and eggs, or food for direct consumption by humans. It is hard to understate just how revolutionary this change was in regards to food production.

Figure 2—Crop rotation without fallowing

With the turnips and legumes it was easier to support livestock over the winter, which meant there were higher financial returns to selective breeding, where considerable time is spent determining which animals to breed, with the intent of raising more productive offspring. Before, paying close attention to which animals were bred yielded only a small return because farmers could not breed many animals. Now, investing time in smart selective breeding had a larger payoff because it was applied to more animals. Consequently, selective breeding was practiced on a wider scale than before.

This selective breeding did not always have the same objective. Some landowners wanted faster growing animals, while others wanted greater volumes of milk. This led to separate breeds of cattle, some for meat and some for dairy, whereas before most cattle served both purposes. Livestock production became more specialized. Selective breeding was applied to all crops and livestock.

All of this really did increase the amount of food England could produce. The large, capital-intensive farms could farm profitably even when prices were low, and food prices really did fall, so low that small farmers were driven out-of-business. Although many don’t like the idea of many small farms being replaced by a few large farms, it should be noted that England was the first nation to eliminate subsistence farming. Never more would a healthy man not be able to feed his family, regardless of the weather. (A1,M1)

This, I believe, is one of the most important events in human history. The process was sufficiently gradual that few have called it an agricultural revolution, but the manner in which agriculture evolved would be replicated in the 20th century on a much larger scale. We might call this period (the 16th through the 18th century in England) the first industrialization of agriculture.