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From the NS archive: The capacity of an acre

18 February 1922: Is the soil of England and Wales being turned to the best account?

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During the First World War there was a boom in British agriculture. Previously Britain had imported 80 per cent of its grain and 40 per cent of its meat. With trade routes cut off, the government was required to impose new systems and find labour to make Britain self-sufficient. But in the years that followed, land changed hands frequently – many of the 150,000 farmers who were conscripted did not return home – and peacetime trade deals were renegotiated. The Agriculture Act of 1920 supposedly guaranteed farmers’ wages and crop prices, but the Act was repealed a year later and the price of wheat plummeted. And so, in this piece from early 1922, our correspondent SLB considers, in a turbulent time for agriculture, the value and potential of a British acre, and how to make the most of the green and pleasant land.

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Nowadays, when the question of the land’s real value is canvassed so frequently and with so small a measure of agreement, it is interesting to turn to figures that stand beyond dispute. Rather more than a year ago Daniel Hall, one of the “three-decker brains” of agriculture, delivered a lecture setting out the food production potentialities of land in terms of calories, the ugly word by which we express those heat or energy producing units that are needed by every human being to replace the tissues wasted by physical or mental effort. Food values cannot be canvassed safely in terms of weight, and consequently we fall back upon the calorie, the standard unit of energy of production. The average demand of a man is 3,000 calories daily, that is to say his food, if the human machine is to function adequately, must produce 8,000 energy units. Man is a furnace, the calories are its fuel.

Daniel Hall took a theoretical acre of land and divided it into fortieths, that it to say into four-rod parts. Eight parts, that is to say 32 rods, were to be sown to wheat, ten, or 40 rods, were to be given to milk production, one, equivalent to four rods, would be reserved for potatoes, the like area would be devoted to sugar beet, two-fortieths, ie, eight rods, would go to fruit and vegetables and the remainder to meat. The daily ration over a year from these various sources of energy was estimated as follows. Wheat in the form of bread, 18 ounces or 1,860 calories. Residues in the form of offals from the corn area, if fed to pigs, would be worth about two ounces of bacon a week or 42 calories a day. The quarter of an acre given to milk would afford daily half a pint, which is more than the average consumption in this country, nearly twice as much, in fact, together with one ounce of butter and half an ounce of cheese, making 467 calories. The rod of potatoes would yield a pound a day, 250 calories, and from the two rods devoted to fruit and vegetables a like amount would be won, equal to 140 calories. Four ounces of sugar beet representing 465 calories would be forthcoming. The 72 rods given to meat production would supply a daily ration of 4 1/2 ounces or 887 calories, far less in proportion than either the wheat or dairy plots, but sufficient to bring the day’s production up to 8,161 calories, some 8 per cent above the pre-war unit average of the United Kingdom.

Here, if I remember rightly, the lecturer left his subject, but it is clear that he had not exhausted it. There is a theoretical stubble item for chicken fattening, a slight reduction of the meat area would leave more space for vegetables of more energy value, catch crops might be raised, there is the possibility of keeping bees and adding so largely to the sugar return that the beet might go, while, if a man on his acre decided to leave other meat alone and get more milling offals for his pigs, he would undoubtedly grow more food and find that the acre left more than an 8 per cent margin of maintenance. It is conceivable that the returns from a theoretical holding of three acres, cultivated up to the hilt, would maintain man, wife and three young children.

We may be disinclined to take the theoretical acre very seriously just now, first because there is a very serious decline in arable farming, and secondly because for reasons hard to justify, our food problem is not regarded as acute. But, in view of the national poverty, the burden of taxation, and the sordid unhealthiness of cities, the last an ever-increasing menace to the established order, the time may come when we shall begin to ask awkward questions of those who own and farm land. At the present time, we have about 26 million acres under all crops and grass, not reckoning some four and a half million acres of rough grazing. One-fifth of one acre has been proved equal to the task of supporting a man with bread for a year on a ration of 18 ounces per diem, while yielding milling offals that make a rough return of about six pounds of bacon per annum. Allowing for 50 million people in this country, we should require ten million acres of wheat to feed them on this basis, but the 50 million include children, elderly people and invalids, who do not need nearly as much bread, so that the ten million might be cut down to six and yield about an 11 ounce average per unit of the population. Again, the wheat ration would be reckoned on the average yield, and when the strong new wheats that are coming slowly into cultivation have taken their proper place in the scheme of farming things, so that the returns are, say, six-quarters to the acre instead of four, the minimum acreage should shrink to the neighbourhood of four million, less than the acreage devoted today to wheat, barley and oats together.

[see also: From the NS archive: An East Anglian squire]

In 1840, with relatively primitive agricultural methods, England grew wheat for 24 million people; in 1914 there was only enough raised to feed eight million! We have 15 million acres down to permanent grass that is not hayed, including the rough grazing referred to already. Much of this grass is not properly productive. The bed is not drained; it has no acquaintance with phosphatic manures. If it were treated properly one of two things should happen. The present head of stock could be kept on a very smaller area, releasing suitable land for the plough, or the head of stock could be augmented so largely that home-grown meat would tend to become plentiful and cheap. Of the two alternatives the former is to be preferred. The larger corn area would tend to make us self-supplying in the matter of bread, and would increase the production of oats for horses, barley for pigs and brewers, and milling offals, sold at a most extravagant price during and since the war, for the farm.

We should cease to depend upon the United States, Denmark and other sources for indifferent bacon and upon the exporting countries for bread. Food would be plentiful, and there would be a greater demand for labour. The supplies of imported food might still require maintenance in some measure, but not at anything like the present figures, and the farmer would find that he still made profits though they were spread over a much larger return. In parts of the country where arable dairying is practicable, little more than an acre and a half will support a cow; at present we have about two and a half million cows and heifers in milk, or calf, in the country. We have three million other cattle of all ages, a million and a half horses, and there are sheep – 14 million of them. Call the total number 21 million. Including meadows for haying, meadows for feeding and rough grazings, we have 19 million acres reserved for these 21 million animals, out of a total of 30 and a half million acres under all crops. Expressed in other terms, it means that an animal demands its theoretical acre, just as the human does. In a country that, after a supreme and strikingly successful war effort, is losing the power to feed itself, such a position may be taken lightly or seriously, but it does not admit of two answers to the grave question of the near future: is the soil of England and Wales being turned to the best account?

It is well to remember that agriculture did not come to an end with the repeal of Part I of the Agriculture Act of 1920. Today, as when Mr Lloyd George addressed the farmers at Caxton Hall in 1919, it remains, as he described it, our greatest national industry. Perplexed, mishandled, beset with difficulties it may be, but the failure to find a lasting solution of a great problem does not end the problem. The bad landlord, the ignorant farmer, the submerged farm labourer, may excite indignation, contempt and pity in turn, and yet remain unchanged in their respective spheres; but when a great productive industry fails to do itself justice, or to render proper service to the state, men question the conditions under which it exists. Particularly shrewd becomes the questioning when they find that by reason of the failure of the existing system they must pay £700m annually for the food they eat, pay nearly £600m of this to the foreign producer, in a depreciated currency and render tribute to a horde of middlemen.

If we have 26 million acres of land under cultivation in England and Wales today, they should provide for the greater part of the population in times of stress on the basis of the 3,161 calories per day per unit. What England could do in 1840 she could improve in 1922, our seed corn, fertilisers and modern machinery leaving no room for doubt on the point. Reducing the meat bill, we should provide for at least three-fifths of the population, but under existing conditions we are increasing the least productive side of farming and reducing the part that in the widest national sense of the term is profitable. Of Germany's poor soil only a third is down to grass; of ours nearly three-quarters. Here is a deadly reflection upon our statesmanship. I know from close observation that administrative problems bristle with difficulties, but there is always one sure foothold for the statesman; he will find it where Lord Lee of Fareham found it, on the rock of sound basic principles. For a time it looked as though agriculture was to be blessed with a scheme that was built on impregnable foundations; then in a disastrous moment it became subservient to politics and makeshifts.

The moment the fixed intent becomes unstable, agricultural administration is at the mercy of conflicting interests, represented by the House of Lords, the Agricultural Committee of the House of Commons (there are fine, practical men, wise in counsel, honest in practice, in both), the National Farmers’ Union, the trade in its Protean aspects. Agriculture becomes the sport of political chance. A strong man steers to his harbour, steers by the stars. Other men trim their sails, travel as the wind blows, reach no haven and leave no mark.

It is a matter of common fairness in criticising the existing chaos in farming to remember the economic crisis, but when every allowance has been made, the hard truth remains. The theoretical acre will support at least a unit of the population; we have upwards of 30 million acres under crops, grass and rough grazing. The tendency of the hour is for more land to be laid down, or allowed to fall down, to grass. How far can existing methods, whether of farming administration or practice, be said to justify our needs? What is going to happen when the general public calls for new men and new methods to render old acres productive?

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)