Century of Endeavour

The Place of Wheat in Irish Agriculture

(c) Roy Johnston 1999

(comments to rjtechne@iol.ie)

(JJ's Unpublished 1937 Paper)

The modern economic history of Ireland begins at the opening of the seventeenth century, which witnessed her first complete conquest and the successful establishment of the Plantation of Ulster.

Recovery from these devastating wars was remarkably rapid and in 1615 an Irish official of James I was able to state that "the strings of the Irish harp were all in tune". Recovery was due, not only to the effect of two generations of internal peace, but to the comparative freedom which our internal and external commerce enjoyed. in 1639 it was stated, as a main cause of reviving prosperity, that "our in-gates and out-gates do stand open for trade and traffic", Then came the rebellion of 1641 and the Cromwellian conquest and settlement, if that can be called a "settlement" which was the main cause of agrarian unrest for nearly 300 years.

The Cromwellian settlement involved the transfer of millions of acres of Irish land to the ownership of a new class of planters, most of them Cromwellian soldiers and adventurers. Population was much diminished by these cruel wars, a sense of insecurity of land tenure was widespread, the potato was the national food, and there was no economic inducement to expand the cultivation of wheat, or indeed to practise any form of arable cultivation. Instead there rapidly developed a type of grass farming of which half-finished bullocks were the main product, and these began to exceed the possible consumption of the home market, and were exported in increasing numbers, on the hoof to England. This aroused the jealousy of English cattle breeders, and in consequence the Acts of 1663 and 1666 were passed which prohibited the import of all great cattle, sheep and swine and also all beef, pork and bacon. "the importation of either fat or lean cattle being unnecessarily destructive of the welfare of the kingdom and a public nuisance".

This legislation, which continued in force till 1759, was part of the commercial policy known as the "Old Colonial System" of which Ireland was the chief victim, and the American Revolution the chief political result. The subsequent development of the agricultural economy in Ireland was profoundly affected by it, but the limitation of cattle production did not lead to any expansion of wheat cultivation. It led instead to an expansion of sheep production which in turn led to the growth of a woollen industry in Ireland; by 1698 this appeared to threaten such competition with the English woollen industry in foreign markets that the export of Irish woollen goods to any country was absolutely prohibited by an act of English Parliament of 1699.

The next half century of our economic history was one of the most profound depression. In a sense the chief victims of English commercial policy in Ireland in the eighteenth century were the members of the (Protestant) English interest who tried to make an honest living in the country by agriculture, commerce or industry. The Roman Catholic majority was depressed so low that it could fall no further. The minority of Protestants who profited by the misrule of their country was a contemptible one in every sense. Archbishop King, writing in 1706, stated that "the poverty and discouragements of this country are so many that people think themselves happy if they can live, but for anything of curiosity or learning their hearts are dead to it."

Writing to a friend in 1717 he says with bitter irony: I wish you would get us a good tenant for the College here for so far as I can see by the present management there will be no occasion for students or learning in this kingdom, and the College will yield something if set for a barrack or an inn; this poor kingdom really needs friends, for I think we never were in worse circumstances since the Revolution."

Bishop Berkeley, writing In 1735, queries "whether it be not a new spectacle under the sun to behold in such a climate and such a soil so many roads untrodden, fields un-tilled, houses desolate and hands unemployed" (p86). He also queries "whether there be any other nation possessed of so much good lands, and so many able hands to work it, which yet is beholden for bread to foreign countries" (P39)>

Irish industry deprived of freedom of export, languished in this half century and Irish agriculture was mainly an affair of potato cultivation for subsistence on the part or small farmers and cottiers. There was however an important development of an export trade in provisions - butter, salted beef and pork - which found an outlet to France and Spain and to the West Indian plantations.

The Act of 1663 which deprived Ireland of the benefits of England's Colonial System forbade exportation from Ireland direct to the plantations of all goods except "servants, horses, victuals and salt". This trade was an aspect of the pastoral husbandry which was the only possible and profitable form of large scale agriculture. Wheat was the staple food-stuff of only a minority of the people but even for that limited consumption our native agriculture was unable or unwilling to cater.

Apart from the special circumstance of Irish agriculture the explanation of this phenomenon must be sought in contemporary English agricultural policy. As Hockaher has pointed out, English mercantilism differed from French in that the latter mainly sought the promotion of industry and put difficulties in the way or the free export of corn, whereas the "English form of mercantilist protection had in mind the principle that industry and agriculture should be equally promoted by protective tariffs". (H II, P151).

In 1673 export bounties on English corn were introduced, the System was confirmed in 1689, and remained an important feature of English agricultural policy until 1766, when her rapidly increasing population began to make England a corn importing country. (AM p146).

The wheat imported into Ireland in the first half of the eighteenth century was largely this bounty-fed English wheat. The Irish Parliament made vain attempts to promote tillage and wheat production by direct legislation, as an insurance against the famine that might result from a failure of other crops at home, and an inability to buy imported wheat. It was unable to prevent serious famines in 1727, 1728, 1741 and 1742. (AM p143).

The Royal Dublin Society was founded in 1731 and began the work of fostering Irish agriculture which it still maintains. The home market was limited by the fact that not wheat but the potato was the staple foodstuff, while the export of wheat to England was out of the question owing to high English import duties. Hence the promotion of tillage and wheat cultivation was a fruitless task - until the market began to expand. In 1758 the Irish Parliament granted bounties on the inland carriage of corn to Dublin. In 1767 a small bounty was extended to the carriage of Irish corn coastways to Dublin (AM p145). Corn production in Ireland now began rapidly to expand, and after 1772, Ireland was not only self-supporting in the matter of wheat production, but her exports began to exceed her imports. The simple explanation was that between 1766 and 1773 England became, on balance, a corn importing country, and Ireland was a natural and convenient source of supply.

This natural tendency to expand production, when the market is expanding and prices are favourable, was artificially stimulated by the Irish Corn Laws of 1784, known as Foster's Corn Laws. It should be noted that the commercial restrictions which had bettered Irish trade were abolished in 1780 and the legislative sovereignty of the Irish Parliament restored in 1782. The second half of the eighteenth century was an era of rapidly expanding commerce, increasing population, rising prices of foodstuffs and reviving national prosperity for Ireland. The Irish Corn Laws of 1784 were an important and characteristic expression of national economic policy. They have generally been hailed as a triumph of legislative wisdom, but in fact they over stimulated a tendency which, it left to itself, might have found its own corrective. The export of corn to England was increasingly profitable to all classes connected with agriculture, its cultivation was expanded to the utmost degree, farms were subdivided and rents were raised, but methods of cultivation were primitive, the rotation of crops was little understood and practised, and in fact we were during those years exporting the fertility of the soil itself.

The high prices of the Napoleonic War period maintained this artificial stimulus even after the legislative Union had put to an end to Foster's Corn Laws. Population rapidly expanded while, at the came time, the capacity of our agriculture to supply the needs of even a stationary population was steadily diminishing.

The high prices of this period led to high rents and extravagant ways of living on the part of the landlord class. Rents did not readily come down when prices fell after the end of the Napoleonic Wars and thus the national economy was in a state of unstable equilibrium in the 30s and 40s of the nineteenth century, requiring only the unforeseen calamity of the failure of the potato crop in 1846-7 to precipitate national disaster on a tragic scale. In fact the wheat policy underlying Foster's Corn Laws was one of a series of causes that led indirectly but inevitably to the Great Famine.

In order to make this quite clear it to enough to refer to the information from contemporary sources, about the conditions under which wheat was actually cultivated. Arthur Young, who travelled widely in Ireland in 1776, 1777 and 1778, states:

"Tillage in Ireland is very little understood. In the greatest corn counties, such as Louth, Kildare, Carlow, and Kilkenny, where are to be seen very fine crops of wheat, all is under the old system exploded by good farmers in England, of sowing wheat upon a fallow, and succeeding it with as many crops of spring corn as the soil will bear. The bounty on the inland carriage or corn to Dublin has increased tillage very considerably but it has nowhere introduced any other system, and to this extreme bad management of adopting the exploded practice of a century ago, instead of turnips and clover, it is owing that Ireland with a soil, acre for acre, much better than England, has its products inferior." (AY p173).

Elsewhere he states that cattle feeding on grass farms was the usual practice of large farmers, while tillage "is everywhere left to the cottiers." (AY P173). There was thus a divorce between cattle production and wheat cultivation - with disastrous results to the fertility of the soil. "Were it not for potatoes, which necessarily prepare for corn, there would not be half of what we see at present". In the Barony of Lecale (Co. Down) no turnips were grown. "On the credit of one marling of the soil they take twenty corn crops running, with the result that the Deanery of Down, which depended on tithes in Lecale, fell from 2,200 a years, thirty-five years before, to 1600 at the time of Arthur Young's visit. (AY p49).

In 1808 Dutton made a survey of County Clare as one of a series of surveys carried out under the auspices of the Royal Dublln Society. The best land in the county is known an "corcase" land. With reference to it he states that a very common course is first potatoes, without manure, second wheat, third wheat, fourth oats with clover and hayseeds, fifth very fine meadow; and then he adds:-

"It may easily be judged what ground it is that could produce such a scourging rotation."

Elsewhere he states that pasture in the hands of the lower kinds of farmers and cottiers is generally very bad, owing to the system they universally pursue in taking repeated corn crops and scarcely over sowing any kind of grass seeds but leaving the ground to nature (Dutton PP 54, 70, 77). Much spade labour was used in the cultivation of wheat in those days. According to Dutton a large portion of the labour of the County Clare was performed by the spades, and some of the best corn in the county was produced in that laborious and expensive manner. According to Edward Burrough's Irish Farmers' Calendar (published in 1835) (B p63), "when wheat is sown in begs and trenched in, if the plants look sickly in the spring, the soil should he shovelled lightly from the furrows on the young plants." Labour was cheap in those days.

The export of wheat and other kinds of corn from Ireland to Great Britain continued until well after the Repeal or the Corn Laws. Even during the famine years In Ireland when people were dying by the thousand from want of food and money, the export of corn continued, for the corn-growing farmer had no other means of acquiring the money with which to meet his rent and other liabilities.

From 1847 we possess abundant agricultural statistics which enable us to trace, in detail, the history of wheat cultivation in Ireland. The Repeal of the Corn Laws in England led to an expansion of the import of corn from foreign countries, and a consequent reduction in the acreage sown to wheat in Ireland.

In 1847 we had 670,000 acres under wheat. From 1851 to 1855 the average acreage was about 350,000. but in 1857 it rose again to 475,000 acres, doubtless an effect of the Crimean War. After that date the fall was practically continuous to a minimum lying between 20,000 and 40,000 acres within the period 1894 to 1914. The fall however was accompanied by a steady improvement in the yield per acre, not only of wheat but of all cultivated crops. In fact, although the acreage of ploughed land diminished from 3,509,000 acres in 1851 to 1,551,447 acres in 1926 the total production in Starch Tons of Corn, Root and Green Crops was 1,283,000 in 1926 as against 1,303,000 in 1851. (Ag. Stat. XXXII pll). Including hay there was an increase of starch tons between these dates of 61,000, and there was also the additional feeding value of a million acres added to permanent pasture.

In 1851 the total acreage of corn crops was 2,377,000 root crops 1,072,000 (Ag. Stat. 1-2). In 1926 the figures were 825,000 and 712,000 respectively. The old wasteful methods of agriculture had disappeared. Though wheat counted for less our agriculture as a whole was becoming more productive and efficient; the rotation of crops was more and more widely understood and practised as the closer approximation of the acreage of corn and root crops shows, and in particular the fatal divorce between cattle and tillage had come to an end. Our agriculture was specializing now on the production of livestock and live stock products, and even tillage was pursued mainly as a means of supplementing the live-stock feed which nature has provided so abundantly for us in the form of grass.

The simple explanation of this was that the Irish farmer, like other profit-making producers, followed the trend of prices. All agricultural prices fell from the seventies to the nineties but the prices of cereal products fell relatively more than the prices of animal products. The standard of living in Great Britain, our only export market, was steadily rising, and more money was being spent on animal food products than on bread stuffs. According to recent calculations the British housewife spends nearly 300 million annually on meat and only 83 millions on bread and flour, For us it was much cheaper to buy and import wheat than to produce it.

During the period of the Great War our acreage under wheat expanded to 135,000 and the total acreage under corn crops also expanded. In 1918 the total area under corn crops was 1,456,000, and there were 885,000 acres under root crops. The normal ratio of about 9.2 to 7.7 (as in 1910) was thus seriously departed from, and a ratio approximating to that of 1851 was temporarily restored. The yield per acre of all crops was well maintained during the war, but according to official statistics the yield per acre of all crops was from 15% to 26% less in 1920 - 24 than In 1913 - 1917.

The accumulated fertility of our soil enabled us rapidly to expand the cultivation of wheat in the national emergency occasioned by the war, but deficiency of manures and dislocation of the normal ratio of corn to root crops must be held accountable tor the serious post-war reduction in the productivity of our soil that statistics reveal; in both respects our agricultural history is similar to that of Great Britain. By 1926 our agriculture had reverted to the normal, both in acreage under different crops and in productivity per acre of all crops. Only 21,000 acres were under wheat in 1932.

And then came the change of agricultural policy and the so-called Economic War. Eighty per cent of our cattle output was being exported, and thus cattle were the most vulnerable object of the British taxes. On the other hand practically our whole requirements of wheat were being imported. Sentiment and circumstances combined to suggest the wisdom of a policy of expanding the cultivation of wheat at all costs and cutting down the volume of our cattle production. Hence the establishment of a fixed price for home grown wheat in August 1935. That price was 9/5d per cwt.

The farmers, whose land was suitable, went into wheat growing as rapidly as possible and not without misgivings, for they knew that wheat is an exhausting crop, and they have difficulties about keeping up the normal relations between tillage and stall-fed cattle. Anyhow in 1935 we had 163,000 acres under wheat - a figure not exceeded during the war period. Our total area under corn crops was in that year 919,000, under root crops 661,000.

Once more the ratio moves in the direction of the ratio that prevailed in the hungry fifties. In 1926 it was 8.3 to 7.1, now it is 9.2 to 6.6. The best farmers grow wheat to make money, but they are worried about the growing deficiency of humus in their soil, and they regard a substantial portion of the money they make not as income, but as a financial offset to the long-term depreciation in the fertility of their land. The smaller and more ignorant types of farmer snatches a quick cash profit from the wheat that fresh land will grow for a year or two, and makes no provision of any kind for the maintenance of its fertility.

Thus the disastrous agricultural policy that was accentuated by Foster's Corn Laws, the Napoleonic Wars, and the evil landlord systems is revived in our own day in a minor but increasing degree. This is the real and lasting damage that our country is suffering in consequence of the Economic War, and the agricultural "readjustment" that it appeared to necessitate.

If freedom of export for our cattle, especially for our fat cattle, existed, a policy of artificial encouragement to tillage would have much to recommend it, and even a wheat policy like the present one might yield valuable indirect results in spite of its heavy cost to the consumer. The danger lies in the present tendency to expand wheat cultivation while the fattening of cattle becomes quite unprofitable, and to almost a thing of the past.

The destruction of our fat cattle trade is not at all the result of the Economic War. It is the result of a combination of policies British and Irish. The British Quota on the import of fat cattle is one important element in it, and the British subsidy of 5/- per cwt payable in respect of fat cattle which have been three months or more in Great Britain, before sale for slaughter, is another, and an even more important one. This enables the British stock farmer to bid up the price of our export store cattle to a figure at which our cattle fatteners, who might otherwise finish cattle for the British market, cannot possibly compete. Finished fat cattle imported from the Irish Free State are not eligible for the subsidy.

The present and prospective effect of this on our agriculture can hardly be exaggerated. The rapid disappearance of our export trade in fat cattle is the least important element in it. Cattle manure and straw must be restored to the land in adequate measure if wheat cultivation is to expand without progressive loss of fertility. The manurial value of the droppings of half-fed store cattle is negligible in comparison with that of stall-fed cattle receiving a full finishing ration in the last three months of their lives.

No one in his senses now stall-feeds cattle in the Irish Free State with any expectation of profit from this transaction in itself. A few wise farmers continue the practice, not so much to produce beef as to produce dung, and recover their financial loss by subsequent transactions in wheat and beet. But circumstances compel the great majority of farmers to pursue a rotation which many of them know to be injurious, and which in due course will afford Economists another illustration of the Law of Diminishing Returns.

For three successive years our climate, normally unfavourable to a successful wheat harvest, has been so favourable as to give grounds for the belief that our Government can make the weather suit its agricultural policies. Wheat has now become so important an element in our total agricultural production that a bad wheat harvest would be a disaster of considerable magnitude. It is to be hoped that our commercial relations with our neighbours will soon be such that a more normal agricultural economy can be restored before our harvest weather resumes its normal character.

JJ used the material in the above unpublished paper in his first Seanad speech in 1938, and in various speeches during the Emergency, in which he pointed out that because of the unnecessary 1930s wheat policy the land had been left in a run-down condition and less fit to support the necessary emergency self-sufficiency policies.

He considered it for inclusion in his 1970 Berkeley publication, but decided against it, as it had been unpublished, and he wanted his Berkeley commentaries to have scholarly status. He had made an attempt to get it published in 1967 through the Agricultural Institute; there is a letter among his papers from Dr EA Attwood of the Rural Economy Division to the effect that it was unsuitable for a technical journal, and suggesting that he should submit it to Hibernia for a more popular readership. I don't think he tried to do this; its topicality related to the 1937 situation.

This rebuff must have hurt him, as he had been Attwood's PhD supervisor, and had commented generously on the related paper which Attwood read to the SSISI in April 1967, and he submitted his paper to Attwood subsequently. RJ December 2000.

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Copyright Dr Roy Johnston 1999