Published by EH.NET (November 2001)

John Martin, The Development of Modern Agriculture: British Farming since

1931. London: Macmillan, 2000. xvii + 202 pp. $69.95 or ?50 (hardback),

ISBN: 0-312-22983-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Peter Dewey, Department of History, Royal Holloway,

University of London.

John Martin’s book presents in a coherent and concise fashion the main

developments in British farming since the early 1930s. The level of detail is

considerable, and one is left with a clear understanding of the history of

farming, its successes and its problems. The story inevitably starts with the

economic slump of the early 1930s. At this point, the British government,

which had been almost entirely supine in dealing with the agricultural slump

of the 1920s (the sugar-beet subsidy from 1925 excepted), revised its

policies. A plethora of marketing boards, and support for cereal farmers under

the Wheat Act of 1932 were the precursors of seventy years of government

intervention and income support for farmers. From 1936, the stakes were

higher, as the government was brought to realize that war was no longer a

distant prospect. Even so, planning was piecemeal and incoherent. It could not

be said that the farming industry was well prepared for war in 1939. The (to

farmers) welcome offer of a subsidy of ?2 an acre for ploughing grassland in

that year was something of a panic measure.

In the Second World War, the government, as in 1916-18, decided to plough up

grassland in order to expand the output of cereals and potatoes. Martin notes

that there was no serious consideration of alternative strategies, and refers

to K. A. H. Murray’s view that it would have been more effective to have built

up a large stockpile of wheat in peacetime than to have relied on ploughing up

grassland in wartime, with its concomitant loss of output in meat and milk. He

also questions the achievements of the ploughing-up campaign. The received

view (from Murray’s official history) is that the net output of calories from

home agriculture almost doubled during the war. Martin notes that the official

calculations of calorie supply were based on particularly favorable

assumptions. His tentative suggestion is that the supply of calories for human

consumption may have risen by no more than 50%. His criticism of official

policy is also directed at the County Agricultural Executive Committees, which

were established in order to carry out the central government’s policy. They

were certainly cheap to run, being staffed by volunteers, but may have been a

more unjust and blunt weapon than commonly thought. It is certainly true that

were a few scandalously bungled evictions of farmers from their holdings, most

notably in the case of George Walden, a small farmer who was shot dead by the

police in 1940.

In dealing with the post 1945 world, Martin ably summarizes the main

developments (which were shared by most agricultural sectors in industrial

societies). There was the continuance of government support for farm incomes

and investment, as enshrined in the 1947 Agriculture Act. There was

considerable technical support from government, beginning with the

establishment of the National Agricultural Advisory service in 1944. On top of

that, much research was done by the fertilizer, livestock and machinery

industries, and the results passed on to farmers. Buoyed up by what must have

seemed high incomes (at least in comparison with 1931), farmers responded

accordingly. The quality of farm buildings improved, there was heavy

investment in machinery, and rising quantities of fertilizer, pesticides and

herbicides were consumed. Breeds of livestock were improved. New ways were

found to supply goods formerly thought to be quasi-luxury items — notably

chickens and turkeys by way of the new broiler fowl industry. Cereal yields

rose substantially; the proportion of grassland sank considerably. Farming

could rightly be considered a success story in production terms.

However, rather than being a case of the good times coming to an end, it could

be said that the good times in financial terms never arrived. As the nation’s

real income rose, so it spent a smaller proportion of its increased income on

food, and the relative price of food declined. The more efficient farmers

could buck this trend to some extent by high investment and greater

efficiency. The less efficient probably staggered on with lower quality

capital and low incomes. The size of holdings was ratcheted up to increase

economies of scale, but even on the large holdings incomes remained low by

outside standards. The accession of the UK to the European Community in 1973

introduced a new element in the situation since the form of support changed

from deficiency payments to price support. This made state support for

agriculture more visible politically, although in the long run it has not

prevented the continuing decline in real farm incomes. More recent

developments include the use of farmland for recreation and public community,

and as a conservation area; by 1995/6 there were some four thousand Sites of

Special Scientific Interest, covering some 900,000 hectares, and

Environmentally Sensitive Areas covered some three million hectares. Finally

there has been the trend to organic farming, accelerated by the BSE crisis,

although by 1996 the relatively small amount of 51,000 hectares was farmed


Dr Martin’s book is a very satisfying summary of a complicated story, and will

be of use especially in analyzing the post-World War II history of farming for

a long time to come.

Peter Dewey is the author of British Agriculture in the First World

War (Routledge, 1998), and War and Progress: Britain 1914-1945

(Pearson Longman, 1997). His current research is on the history of the British

agricultural machinery industry, 1800-2000.