Address by Mr Trevor Sargent T.D., Minister of State for Food and Horticulture at the launch of "A History of Irish Farming 1750-1950" on Thursday the 8th of May, 2008 in the National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks, Dublin
A Chairde Ladiess and Gentlemen
I am delighted to have been invited here this evening to the launch "A History of Irish Farming 1750-1950". I note the following from this hugely important record of the most important sector of the Irish economy so well, written by Jonathan Bell and Mervyn Watson.
Most of the landscape of fields enclosed with hedges and walls that we see today is relatively modern, dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This book examines the farming systems that produced this landscape.
In the late 18th century, differences in the scale of farming were immense. In North Tipperary, for example, a Mr McCarthy, a tenant farmer whose farm of 9,000 acres at Springhouse, was claimed by the agriculturalist Arthur Young to be 'the most considerable one in the world.' Huge farms like this were generally found in the wealthiest farming areas in Ireland, and as with the estate farms managed by progressive landlords, big tenant farms in these areas provide evidence for risky investments in new equipment.
At the level of medium sized tenant farms on the other hand, we find the earliest evidence for the introduction of new, standardised farm machinery, such as all-metal ploughs, reaping machines or horse drawn potato diggers. These medium sized commercial farms were also in the forefront of the development and introduction of standardised breeds of farm livestock during the later nineteenth century.
In the much of the west of Ireland, and especially on marginal land, many tenant farms were very small, and provision of a subsistence living for the farming family was a major goal. It is on farms such as these that we find the biggest reliance on manual labour, and also evidence for implements such as spades, sickles or flails, used in techniques which often showed great refinement in their adjustment to local conditions.
Just before the Famine of the 1840s, two-thirds of the Irish population depended on farming for their livelihood. There were 685,309 farms, well over three times the number of holdings today. 45% of farms were between one and five acres, and only 7% over 50 acres. Since the mid-nineteenth century, the average size of Irish farms has increased. In part this was due to emigration from the countryside.
Hilly areas especially became depopulated, and the small farms established on them were no longer viable. All over Ireland the implementation of the land acts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries produced owner-occupied farms that proved too small to be economically viable, and their owners sold up.
This allowed enterprising farmers to rent, or buy the land which then became available, and increase the size of their own holdings. Between the 1840s and 1911, the number of holdings between one and five acres fell from 182,000 to 62,000, and the average farm size was 15-30 acres.
By the end of the twentieth century, the average size of farm in Ireland was 30 hectares (almost 75 acres), and it has been predicted that the number of farmers will continue to decline dramatically.
Consolidation not only removed distinctive settlement features associated with the rundalesytem of landholding, or the cottier system of labour, it also led to the spread of standardisation and specialisation that first appeared among the medium sized tenant farms described above. Farming systems, implements, crops and livestock became less regionally distinctive and the farming economy became increasingly tied in to international markets.
The history of Irish farming in the twentieth century was at least as complex as that of the previous centuries. The long term swing away from tillage to pastoral farming continued, with some dramatic short-term reversals during the century's two World Wars. These wars also entrenched the direct engagement of government with farming, including the protection of farmers' incomes through guaranteed prices. There was also ongoing mechanisation of farming.
From the 1930s, the market for Irish agricultural produce was regulated by price controls and other mechanisms.
After 1932, the emphasis in the relationship between the Department of Agriculture and the farmers changed to one of price stabilisation, bounties and compensation payments, subsidies to domestic producers, and measures designed to achieve the Irish government's self-sufficiency programme.
Similar developments occurred in Northern Ireland, where successful protection schemes were put in place, and state marketing schemes led to the huge growth in the number of pigs and exports of fat cattle.
Within farming practice, there was increasing specialisation, and mechanisation. Ireland has a key place in the history of tractors, perhaps the most important single engineering development for farming in the first half of the century. In March 1917, The Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction established a motor tractor section. At this time there were only seventy tractors in Ireland. By September 1918, there were 640. Henry Ford, some of whose family came from Ireland, began to manufacture his Fordson tractors in 1917. These were the first tractors to be produced on a massive scale, and at a price affordable by ordinary farmers. Fordson Model F tractors were produced in Cork in 1918, as part of Ford's support for the British war effort. Production slumped in the 1920s, and the Ford factory in Cork was closed in 1928, but it was re-opened in 1929, in response to the demand for tractors from the Soviet Union. The factory was transferred to Dagenham in England in 1932
In the north, Harry Ferguson, a County Down man, began work on his world famous Ferguson system in 1917.
The system was revolutionary in that it transformed tractors from being simply haulage vehicles, to machines whose driver could also manipulate implements fixed behind them - raising and lowering, or moving them sideways, for example. Ferguson-Brown tractors, which incorporated the system, were manufactured in Huddersfield in the David Brown factory in 1936.
Over the next twelve years, the system was developed so that many more of the heavy tasks on the farm could be carried out using a tractor, including manure spreading, grass mowing, threshing, and transport of produce.
Ferguson and Ford met in the USA, shortly after the manufacture of Ferguson-Browns had started. The two men agreed that Ferguson's system could be incorporated in the new Ford tractors, the Ford 9N, with Ferguson having control over marketing the machines. This became known as the 'handshake agreement', and mass production of 9N tractors in the USA began. However, after Ford died in 1948, the agreement collapsed, and Ford's grandson Henry Ford 11 tried to take control of the marketing of the 9N from Ferguson. The ensuing court case, won by Ferguson, was one of the lengthiest and most expensive in history. Ferguson tractors were developed into the 1950s, and the TO35, 'The Wee Grey Fergie,' which was designed under the supervision of Herman Klemm, became known worldwide, with many still in use today.
The Second World War led to even greater government intervention in farm production.
The expectation that government would support farming through grants and subsidies was well established by the end of the war, in both parts of Ireland, and indeed throughout Europe. One massive consequence of this was the Common Agricultural Policy of the European Common Market., the dismantling of which has proved a lengthy and controversial task.
The old notion that Irish agriculture was backward and inefficient at any time during the last three hundred years is now largely discredited. In their criticisms, agriculturalists tended to contrast the backwardness of Irish cultivation techniques with those currently advocated, and to some extent implemented, on English and Scottish farms. This 'improved' farming was believed to arise from the systematic application of scientific ideas. There was some recognition that, as with any successful experimentation, the theory and practice of agriculture should enrich one another, but it was very rarely conceded that Irish farming was also advanced by an interaction between 'improved' and 'common' farming methods.
The differing and constantly changing views of theoretical agriculturalists were often criticised by contemporary observers as hindering rather than advancing the cause of improvement amongst farmers. E. Burroughs, commenting on the progress of agricultural improvement in Ireland, complained: 'We find so much difference of opinion, even among the most experienced writers, that the young practitioner is often puzzled to decide on which he is to place confidence'.
This confusion also showed that the promotion of some improved practices and the rejection of some common practices by theorists were based on incomplete scientific knowledge. This book shows that within limited capital resources, and where labour was plentiful and cheap, the 'common' practices generally dismissed by improvers could be efficient. Hand-tools might be simple in construction, but the techniques in which they were used were remarkable for refinement rather than crudity. Spadework and associated techniques of ridge cultivation show this very clearly, as does the use of sickles for harvesting grain.
However, the fact that that Irish farming methods were generally efficient within the resources available, does not mean that agricultural research was in any way superfluous. The practical successes of this research have been as impressive as those of any other applied science. In 1863, Purdon's Practical Farmer admirably described the state of agricultural research:
We have yet much to learn, and ... in general, we are only groping after, and have yet but faint conceptions of what are the true principles by which we should be guided, or the correct modes of reducing those principles to practice. But the knowledge of our deficiencies on these points ought to induce us to strain every nerve in order that all doubts may be cleared away, and that agriculture, the most important in its results of all the arts, shall be placed in its proper station, based upon and guided by the truths of general science.
The integration of 'improved' and 'common' techniques was also practised by small farmers. This is especially clear when we look at the history of livestock farming. The most successful local breeds of horses, sheep, pigs and cattle (even Kerry cattle) were produced by breeding programmes which selected the best characteristics of local types of animal, and improved imports.
The ingenuity of farmers in adapting the new tractor technology to their needs can be seen in their use in making cultivation ridges. Lazy bed ridges were still being made in County Kerry in the 1970s, using a swing plough made for use with horses, pulled behind a tractor. The annual ploughing competition at Carrigallen, County Leitrim still has a section for ridges made in this way, and at least one local farmer is experimenting with modifications to ploughs to allow ridgemaking using tractors to become even more efficient.
The technical history of Irish agriculture is full of examples of the ingenuity with which farmers adopted or modified new techniques, if convinced of their value. All in all Irish agriculturalists were eclectics. They resisted repeated entreaties to conform and so earned the condemnation of the true believers. The success of their approach was demonstrated by the high yields produced by Irish commercial farming, and the skill with which the smallest subsistence farmers created a living out of previously waste land.
Examining the relationship between the resources available to small farmers, and their farming techniques, raises another point that has been well made by Joel Mokyr. Although 'in a certain way... the Irish economy was well organised and [the Irish] were not throwing away resources ... [This] is not quite the same as saying they were not poor'. Farming techniques cannot be considered in isolation.
The skills of ridgemaking and reaping developed by the Irish rural poor could not save vast numbers of them from extinction when the odds became overwhelming. The ongoing struggle for farming to survive in the new millennium, happily carried on in a much more affluent context, involves the same mixture of environmental, economic and social factors, but on a global scale. It remains to be seen whether farmers, the great class of survivors, will be able to overcome these obstacles raised in the future.