Wednesday, 18 June 2014

British Agriculture 1901 - 1951

This is believed to be the second part of a lecture given to a Workers Education Association weekend course, in December 1951, by Wilfred Bernard Mercer – who was the first principal of the Cheshire College of Agriculture (now known as Reaseheath College).

It is commonly said that the death of Victoria coincided with the end of a social era as well as the end of the century. Certainly we stood in 1900 on the threshold of a larger and more advanced life in Britain. The first fruits of the Education Act of 1872 were being gathered. We were becoming a better educated people. Thereafter everyone could at last read and write and were being supplied with a growing flood of popular literature, admittedly of very varying quality, but nevertheless better than no literature at all. The whole of the Western world was beginning to accumulate mechanical aids all of which tended to lessen physical toil. In the towns public services were improving vastly, water and gas were being laid into every house, modern plumbing, roads and sewerage, houses were better. Conditions of life in factories were improving, first as a result of numerous Factory Acts, child labour was abolished. Conditions in the country still lagged - no light, but no standardisation.

      The internal combustion engine had arrived. Admittedly the motor car was at first preceded by the man with a red flag, but its appearance on the road was a portent. It was destined in a few years to transform the life of England. In the first place, it enormously enlarged the radius of living for urban populations. More than anything else it brought into existence Acacia Road, Lime Grove and all the rest of suburbia. Its effects in the countryside were even more profound. For it brought down the isolation of a population which since the beginning of time had lived in loneliness.
As an industry, farming was of course at a very low ebb. Prices had fallen to a disastrous level, land was going out of cultivation, bankruptcies were common, rents were low, estates were degenerating, amongst farmers a spirit of defeatism was universal, no one had ever known prosperity, the memories of the disasters of ‘79 and ‘80 still lingered. The whole record of the preceding twenty years went to show that the people who survived were those who spent the least. George Elliot‘s immortal old Mrs. Patten (of Cross Farm) who had got rich chiefly by the negative process of spending nothing. Sheer graft was the supreme virtue in farming, writers of the period spoke of this attitude as a lack of confidence amongst farmers, but that was an understatement, it was more like cynical fatalism, it is difficult to exaggerate the influence of what such an atmosphere had on all the rising generation. They accepted penury the natural result of farming. Conditions like these were not likely to attract the leading spirits in any generation. most of the brighter boys looked therefore to urban life or to emigration, and so the trek from the countryside continued.

The report of the famous Royal Commission of 1893 to 97 (it took four years over its task) was one long dirge and members confessed their inability to suggest any permanent solution to the problem of the depression, especially monetary. Publication of their reports had, however, the real merit of attracting attention to the trials of farming and possible methods of bringing alleviation - worst in the east - small family farms – milk - tenure. Many of agriculture’s troubles were of course common to other industries, in particular fluctuation in prices. In some respects it was more fortunate indeed than other industries, there was much less labour unrest.

In industry strikes were a rare source of loss to everybody concerned. There was, however, in the country a great body of thought which for the sake of a name I include under the general head of liberalism, which was not content to accept the trials and frustrations of the existing order as due to the blind and uncontrollable forces of economics. Many of them were of course liberals in name as well as in principle, but outside of the liberal party there were many others: Wells, Shaw and the Webbs, to name a few who had no particular political loyalties and called themselves by various names, sufficient that they were all earnest students of economics and sociology. By far the most striking political figure was of course Joseph Chamberlain. Though associated with the Conservatives he was rational in outlook, a self-made man, never content with the existing order if he thought he could improve it. He had been a pioneer in municipal developments. He was three times the Lord Mayor of Birmingham and he had championed  municipal enterprise in directions which today we should call social welfare. He became convinced that most of our troubles arose from the fact that we were a free trade country in a world of protective trade, and that the only method of maintaining our commercial strength lay in imposition of tariffs on imported goods.  He included amongst the imported goods of course wheat, though he was not in the least interested in agriculture, and throughout the course of a long campaign his proposal to tax our stable food was of course a fact of first consequence: “Up on the stump lives Brummy Joe, it is taxing food that makes him go”. It proved, however, an abortive campaign and all he succeeded in doing was in wrecking his own party for the liberals pledged to free trade and came in in overwhelming force in 1906.

From this date our present welfare state may be said to start, for the group which took over power under Campbell Bannerman and later Asquith was pledged to a break in political tradition They felt that the State could no longer stand aside from trade and social life, but was justified in direct steps to secure social welfare. They were concerned too to out the power of wealth partly too the landed interest. It happened that this campaign coincided with a purely constitutional struggle between the House of Commons and the House of Lords but that was a mere accident or a consequential. The landed classes were of course still a very powerful community, owing to the rise of the scale of trading rents were no longer of such great consequence in farming. as they had been, but the owner still controlled tenancies and after all a man cannot farm unless he has got a farm. The life of the country landlord was still the spacious gracious thing it had been. The social prestige of land ownership was still as high as ever. He suffered a great deal of vilification in the political controversies of the times but this did him no real harm on his own pitch where he was still the squire to everyone. Of far greater consequence was the steep increase in death duties which virtually set a limit to the continued existence of family estates. These duties were destined to be raised yet higher as time went on, but Lloyd George’s  death duties were in truth the knell of the great estates, for it was evident that no agricultural estate could stand the continued drain of a large part of its capital value at the death of each successive owner. From that date onwards it became virtually certain that large estates could be maintained only by continuous infusion of capital from some other source, and as a matter of history, practically all estates commenced to dwindle from that time.
For many reasons it is convenient to divide the first half century at the year 1930. For the great world-wide recession of the years 1929-32 might well be described as the black death has been described - as an economical water-shed.  The three decades 1910 to 1930 form a continuous tale, rent it is true by the great chasm of 1914-18, but unified at last by the fact that our trading life was carried on under the old regime.  We suffered throughout from booms and slumps in trade, with sharp rises and falls in prices and a growing burden of unemployment arising therefrom.  There was very little unemployment in farming because the industry was losing population steadily to industry.  Output was fairly static and the decline in labour strength was made good by a steady rise in mechanisation. Special returns were obtained by the ministry in 1908 and again in 1925, on the basis of which the Ministry calculated the total output of the country, so that we have a fair idea of the general progress made.   Before leaving the record of the liberal government, I must refer to another of Lloyd George’s Acts: the Road Fund Development Act of 1909. This act made available the sum of two million pounds for roads and agricultural development, a special Commission being set up to administer it. From this fund large grants were made available for agricultural research, this was largely due the powerful advocacy of A. D. Hall, who had taken over the Directorship of Rothamsted when Gilbert died.

The broad lines of our economic history are indicated by the general trend of prices. They rose to enormous heights, roughly trebled during the war.  Almost immediately afterwards they fell catastrophically to a level perhaps 50% above pre-war. It would take me far beyond the limits of this address to discuss the causes of these violent changes. Broadly they arose from the dissolution of the war.  Reparations, real and imaginary, and revolutionary political changes in European countries.  So far as agriculture was concerned, the one fact that stood out clearly was that hardly any nation could avoid the repercussions of international affairs on its own agricultural economy.   We of all countries in the world were most severely affected thereby since we were the chief importing country drawing vast supplies of wheat, oil seeds, meat dairy produce, from the ends of the earth.  By far the gravest effect of the violent price changes was the influence on level of employment.  Unemployment had been a growing social evil prior to the war.  From the end of the war onwards it was the dominant issue in our social life.  All through the ‘30s we had to maintain 10% to 20% of our people in idleness.  This had a great effect on the public conscience.

In respect of employment, agriculture fared perhaps better than industry.  All through the period the number of persons employed fell away steadily.  But there was never any real unemployment problem in farming. Trade Unionism grew very slowly indeed, but during the war statutory minima were fixed. It is true that the original Act was repealed almost immediately after the war, but it was revived in a different manner in 1924 by an Act which set up County Wages Committees with power to fix minimum rates.

The fortunes of farmers fluctuated as violently as prices. Down to the beginning of the war it would perhaps be fair to say that most types of farming yielded a modest living. Certainly there was nothing comparable with the disasters of the ‘90s; during the war they naturally throve with soaring prices.  Equally, they suffered during the violent slump of 1921, when a considerable number were ruined. Cattle feeders for instance in one season saw the value of their stocks sink by something like £10 per head. The price of dairy cattle must have fallen 30% or 40%. Farming for the Cheshire County Council that year, I contrived to lose the ratepayers £10,000, mainly in the written down value of stock. The latter part of the 20’s was again a period of acute depression, and in 1930 every acre of wheat grown in the country must have been marketed at a loss. Neglecting for the moment the temporary effects of the war, the influence of these changes on the farming methods of the country was this. Arable land was reduced, the area under grass was increased.  There was a general trend towards purchase of the foods needed instead of producing them at home. Farming became two a considerable extent a matter of processing, for as in the 90’s, animal production was up on the whole more profitable than arable. In a sense dog ate dog. The keepers of cattle benefited from the misfortunes of the corn growers. The relative profitability of different types of farming stood out fairly clear. Milk was the sound stable product, for in this business the Farmer could benefit from cheap imports of food while his product was naturally protected.  The only real competition he had to fear was that of his neighbour. The beef feeders were not so well placed; frozen beef had for long years been something of a competitor, but frozen beef was poor stuff in comparison with home-killed. Mutton production also suffered from serious competition, New Zealand in this case being the main competitor.

Now it was very evident that there must be some limit to the extent to which the country could safely allow its agriculture to degenerate. It was all very well to argue that cheap food was an aid to trade in that it cheapened the cost of producing manufactured articles, but if by this means our whole countryside became derelict or fell to the level of a mere ranch, we should be risking disaster in war. Furthermore, we should not even maintain our native skill in cultivation. After long consideration the Government decided to found a beet industry. The experience of all European countries had shown that beet could not be established in competition with sugar cane except by subsidy and in 1924 the Government took the unprecedented step in granting, a subsidy (actually on the sugar itself, not on the beet), in order to found a beet industry.  A number of factories for sugar extraction were erected, mainly in the eastern counties.  From that date onwards sugar beet became a feature in arable farming of the country.

Farmers are a very dispersed body and do not regularly combine for any purpose. Trade Unionism grew slowly amongst them. Whilst there were many local associations, it was not until 1908 that steps were taken to found a national body. A National Farmers’ Union then came into existence though it was many years before its branches covered the whole country and even after the war they had by no means secured the adherence of all members of the farming community.

In some senses depression may be said to have benefited the industry, since the declining prices of the 20’ s undoubtedly helped to bring together the whole body of farmers within the orbit of the Union.

At this point it would be well to describe the effects of the war on our farming. We made a late start, not indeed until 1916 was any serious effort made to stimulate agricultural production. A Food Production Department was then set up as an off-shoot of the Ministry of Agriculture and under this Department campaign for increase of production was instituted. The main problem was ploughing grassland. It  necessary first of all to convince the farming public that more ploughing would have to be done and it was by no means an easy matter to prove that plough-land was more productive than grassland, though the essential facts were a matter of simple calculation and the evidence from Scotland where the plough policy had been maintained was simply overwhelming. The submarine, however, achieved what individual argument could not.  We came very near to starvation in 1917, the Food Product ion Department set up County Committees at first as an off-shoot of County Councils, but later direct agents of the Government, charging them with responsibility for increasing the area of ploughland in the country and in particular for increasing the wheat acreage. They were endowed with increasing powers as time went on and by the end of the war were authorised even to dispose of bad farmers; their powers were, however, never fully expanded and for the most part they proceeded by persuasion.  A new factor now came into farming in the shape of the tractor.

Tractors had indeed been developed simultaneously with motor cars.  But very few were employed in farming up to the outbreak of war. During the war, however, a good many were imported, and a tractor industry in England was founded. After long argument the principle of guaranteed minimum prices for wheat and certain other products  was introduced.

The whole effort came suddenly to an end when the war finished.  In the financial difficulties of 1921, the whole structure of guaranteed prices was swept away and a lump sum was paid over to farmers in respect of their wheat and oats by way of a quit (sic) pro quo. It was a violent reversal of policy, sudden and unapprehended, entirely in keeping with that erratic genius Lloyd George, and it had rather important psychological effects for it left the whole farming community with the idea that whatever their promises, no Government was prepared to ensure their well-being. The war brought of course some increase in the area of ploughland but its major effects can be summarised under three heads: first a revival of a very old controversy as to the relative productivity of ploughland and grassland, secondly, the introduction of the tractor and thirdly a confirmation of the long existing cynical attitude of farmers toward Government action.

Looking back, it is clear that a major event of the three decades was the passing of the Development Act: for this brought into being Research Institutes and made possible the organisation of an educational and advisory system throughout war. From that date onwards, one can observe the influence of three major factors in shaping agricultural technique. There was first organized research and propaganda and secondarily the work conducted by all the larger trading firms concerned with farming.

Thirdly, there was the influence of pioneer farmers. There have, of course, always been men of this type, by far the most outstanding in our history being Bakewell, Lord Townsend in the 18th century was another, Coke of Holkham in the early 19th century was another. Naturally they were limited by the profitability f farming in their day. Low prices don’t encourage enterprise but there were some even in the darkest days who demonstrated the ability of the human spirit to rise above adversities. In the depression of the 90’s there was Robert Elliot of Clifton Park - who tackled the problem of laying down land to grass in a very original way. There were men who foresaw the possibilities of modern fruit growing. There were men who divined that tomatoes would become a stable form of diet (the taste for tomatoes is quite modern, in my youth they were put upon the table hesitatingly and enquiringly). Yes, they are an acquired taste, aren’t they? On the whole, we have fared well in respect of pioneers in the 20th century. They appeared in considerable numbers after world war 1. There was Hosier for instance who revolutionised our ideas about how to keep dairy cattle. He had seen dairy cattle milked on the pastures in New Zealand and devised a system suitable for this country of gathering them twice a day in the coils and putting them through a movable shed or bale containing milking machines and so on. These three great forces organised education, trailers and pioneers acted and reacted upon one another and all the technical developments of the period can be traced to one or other of them. Even collectively, however, they did not profoundly increase the gross production of the country. Comprehensive reports on the productivity in 1908 and again in 1925 show the following figures:
The Development Commissioners took a long view over research. It was by this time clear that educational effort would fall under three heads: universities and colleges, research, and “county” or secondary education.

Clearly the key to the whole programme lay in the universities not only as prime providers of information but as training centres for researchers. We were grievously short of trained scientific men at the time, and obviously there could be no research institutes without highly trained researchers. It was equally clear that if the stream of information to be expected from the research centres was to reach the farmers of the country quickly there would have to be an advisory service of some kind and the advisory service would call for two types of worker, namely specialists in various scientific fields, plant pathology, soil chemistry and so forth, and fieldsmen with a wide general knowledge of practical farming contacts. The funds now made available were sufficient to found all of these lines of work though it was a good many years before the research institutes all came into being, and the war sadly hampered progress. It was a good many years too before the County Education Authorities responded to the call for county education for it was, of course, a permissive service.

Research was fostered by several different methods, in some cases, e.g. chemistry, there was already an active University agricultural department, and here the Development Commission provided funds for special research department of the university leaving it to the university to develop them. There were other cases in which it was thought advisable merely to support existing foundations, of these Rothamsted was by far the most notable. There were yet other instances in which completely new research institutes were founded.

In the breeding of plants and animals a new world had opened up by the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’ s famous researches into the breeding of peas. Gregor Mendel was the abbot of a monastery and. for many years he carried out fundamental researches into the theory of heredity.  His work was published in an obscure journal  and remained unnoticed for more than fifty years. At the turn of the century three scientific workers simultaneously arrived at conclusions similar to Mendel’s and Mendel’s papers were unearthed.  His conclusions were revolutionary, but like most great discoveries simple. In his view every organism was made up of an infinitely large number of unit characters which he called factors and it was useless to study inheritance of the organisms as a whole since the characters were handed on from generation to generation independently. Moreover, inheritance of individual characters  was determined by a very simple mathematical law. It looked as though all the breeder had to do was to discover which were unit characters, he could then breed with absolute certainty. Clearly this was a discovery rivaling in importance Darwin’ s theory of evolution. Once Mendel’s papers had reached research journals his work was taken up all over the world.

It soon became evident that the results with peas could be repeated with an endless variety of plants and in certain instances the principles held good with animals.  But equally it became clear that the arithmetical rules were often far more complicated than in the simple case of peas with which Mendel had worked. Advances in study of the microscopic character of the living cell laid bare the physical foundation of the hereditary mechanism. For the composition of the chromosomes in the nucleus of the cell and the changes which went on in the formation and union of the gametes clearly fitted Mendel’s unit character theory. Practical development of Mendel’s work was taken up first at Cambridge University and it was not long before Biffen had demonstrated a whole host of characters in wheat which behaved on Mendelian principles and he was very soon able to produce a wheat which resisted rust, another which combined the character of strength from Canadian and the yielding capability of English sorts.  As the number recognizable unit characters grows it became possible to enlarge the scope of plant breeding almost indefinitely. It is possible to graft characters belonging to wild plants on to cultivated species and thereby virtually to create a new type of organism. Immunity to disease has frequently been grafted on to cultivated species in this way, half the earth has been searched for wild species of potatoes likely to possess characters which could be woven into the make-up of cultivated strains. We already have for instance a potato which will withstand the dreaded Blight. A whole stream of new and improved varieties of most cultivated plants has been coming from the Plant Breeding Stations during the past thirty years.

Animal breeding has proved more difficult. The animal is a much complex organism. It is much more difficult to separate the effect of heredity from that of environment than in the case of the plant.  Much of the improved performance of modern animals is due simply to the fact that they are better fed.  They are extremely slow in reproduction.  A single poppy plant produces many thousands of seeds, a cow reproduces itself but once per annum. All the larger animals are very costly to work with. Finally, an animal cannot be self-fertilised in the same way as a plant. It is therefore much more difficult to analyse its hereditary make-up. For all these reasons research in animal breeding, was for many years confined to the smaller animals, rats, mice and fowls.  As a matter of fact the animal which has yielded by far the most impotent results in breeding experiments is the fruit fly which can be hardly dignified by the name of domestic animal. Research Institutes for breeding of poultry were set up at Cambridge and Edinburgh.  Quite early the Cambridge work yielded the spectacular discovery of sex-linkage (which incidentally confirmed the chromosome theory in inheritance. It was noted that certain colour characters were inherited along with sex and it became possible therefore to select breeds for mating which would throw progeny whose sex was discoverable at birth by plumage colour.  Ultimately, virtually pure lines of auto-sexing breeds were created.

Again, working on similar lines, (Greenwood at Edinburgh was able to analyse the characters whereby fecundity could be determined. But practically all work on animal breeding tends to show that utility characters such as early maturity, fecundity, milking capacity, are not unit characters, they are resultant of the coming together of a number of characters, perhaps a very large number of characters. In some cases they appear to be additive.  Breeding for utility characters is therefore a very complex matter. Mendel’s theory cannot be directly utilised, all one can do is argue from a Mendelian bases.

Britain has for centuries been famed as a centre for stock-breeding.  Our pedigree blood has gone out pretty well all over the world. All our breeds have been formed by inbreeding and selection.  Now more recent work has tended to show that cross bred animals tend to grow faster than pure bred.  Hence, although we still worship at the shrine of pedigree we have to admit that the best utility results are sometimes obtained by breaking down the purity of the blood line.  We have, however, a useful export trade in pedigree stock which brings us in an income of a million or more per annum, partly from race horses.

An element of centralized organization and of State control entered into breeding practice with the institution of a licensing system for stallions and a scheme for the provision of premium bulls for use in dairy herd. These schemes brought into being the nucleus of a State livestock service. It remained a modest undertaking until in the 20’s licensing of bulls was introduced.
The record of research with milk takes a very different line. Breeding for milk has indeed been encouraged by the formation of milk recording societies grant aided by the Ministry.  For a long time societies were autonomous bodies merely acting under the general guidance of the Ministry.  In recent times responsibility for recording had been taken over by the Milk Marketing Boards.  Control of quality in milk has been regulated by a Food and Drugs Act operated by County Councils. The need for research in bacteriological quality rose partly from the demands of traders for information on means of avoiding waste, partly owing to pressure from the Health Authorities concerned with consumers’ welfare. Pure milk became the main line of work in the National Institute for Research in Dairying when this was set up. It called for a lowly kind of research for after all everybody new that pure milk kept better than dirty milk, but there were hosts of problems and ways and means to be investigated and a new attitude of mind had to be created. In this work the Research Institute of the County Councils showed a notable degree of co-operation.

Research in animal health was promoted mainly through the veterinary colleges, though in this instance, the industry itself set up a Department which acted simultaneously as a research department and as a controlling centre for a network of animal disease officers. The latter service is engaged mainly in controlling seven or eight contagious diseases listed under the Contagious Diseases of Animals Act. Control is based on compulsory notification by owners when cases of disease occur on their farm (it is no defence in English law for a farmer to plead that he doesn’t know: Glanders or swine fever, anthrax or foot and mouth). Tuberculosis in cattle, though not listed under the Contagious Diseases Act, has engaged the active attention of research departments and of veterinary field staff for many years.  Shortly after the war, two schemes were launched having as their object the elimination of this disease from dairy herds.  The first of these schemes known as the Designated Milks Order was a typical piece of permissive legislation.  It merely laid down conditions under which milk could be sold as tuberculin tested.  These conditions included testing of the herd, elimination of all reactors and certain special precautions in production of milk.  A few years later the Ministry launched the Attested Herds Scheme which aimed at virtual elimination of tuberculosis from any herd but took no account of the milk produced.  In some degree the two schemes overlapped: both schemes invited farmers to incur costs in management of their herds and to find recompense in sales of milk at special prices and in the improved health of their herds before either Schemes could achieve much success it was necessary to create a premium market for Tuberculin Treated milk but this task fell largely to the pioneer farmers that sell.    
Precautions against plant diseases are somewhat similar though much less costly.  An Act known as the Destructive Insects and Pests Act was passed in the 90’s.  This also required notification of certain diseases of plants and a few destructive insects, the chief of which is the Colorado Beetle.  With one or two exceptions of which the colorado beetle is the chief, this Act is of little more than academic interest.  There is, however, a disease of potatoes known as Black Scab or Wart Disease in which the Order has proved of importance.  Research centres for study of plant diseases were founded about the same time as all other research institutes and plant pathology has of course for more than a 10 years been a subject of research in universities. The bulk of our diseases are caused by fungi and bacteria, many of which have extremely complicated life histories and the unravelling of these has been a fruitful field of research for a long time.  Wart disease is caused by a fungus.  In the early years of the century it was discovered that certain varieties of potatoes suffered very badly from this disease, others less so, while some are absolutely immune from attack, precisely why no one has yet discovered.  Once this fact had become established, orders were made prohibiting non-immune varieties on infected land.  A research centre was set up to test out all know varieties to determine which were in fact immune.  At this centre it was soon discovered that many varieties were synonymous and that most varieties in commerce were in some degree mixed.  It became important therefore to devise machinery for certification of stock.  Difficult as this task may seem to a layman (for all potatoes look very much alike), it has in fact proved quite easy to train a succession of young people, commonly students in universities, to examine all potato fields in the country from which seed is sown and on the basis of their reports to issue certificates of purity, and from this much follows.  There are many troubles of potatoes other than wart disease.  It has long been known that some of these troubles are much less common in Scotland than in England.  A trade in Scottish seed is therefore longstanding.  The explanation of this peculiar virtue of Scottish seed had to await the discovery of viruses.  Plant pathologists have long been aware that certain degenerate types of disease could not be ascribed to any know organism, yet the evidence for the existence of some active principle capable of reproducing itself and spreading from plant to plant after the fashion of bacteria was well known.  For a long time these diseases had to be studied by inference rather than by direct observation for it was only with the coming of the election (sic) microscope in the 20’s that the causative agent could be seen.  Even now the precise nature of this event which has for long answered to the name of virus is a matter of speculation.  The virus appear to occupy a place about half way between the living and the dead, possibly they are the connecting link.  Now the superiority of Scottish seed turned out to be explicable on simple ground.  In England most potatoes suffered to a greater of lesser extent from two virus diseases, one causing a mottling of the leaf, the other the curious growth in the leaf and both reducing yield considerably.  The viruses causing the troubles are spread by aphids.  The aphids in question rarely occur in Scotland hence Scottish seed is not infected while English seed usually is. In order to remove what chance of infection there might be, the certification system devised for wart disease was extended to cover virus disease also.  But although seed potatoes are the best known of the virus cases, the principles applied to potatoes have been applied to many other plants vegetated.  Thus, black currants, raspberries, strawberries all suffer from virus troubles which give rise to degenerate plants.  The secret of health maintenance consists of raising stock in isolation in areas not subject to the agent (it is usually an aphis).  In all cases careful check and certification of the stock plants is essential.
Machinery is basically an industrial rather than a farm problem.   Ever since the industrial revolution manufacture of farm machinery has been an important industry, but it was entirely in the hands of private firms and their future hung largely on the prosperity of arable cultivation.  Machinery design was not therefore rapidly advancing.  In order to promote advance, an Institute for Research in Agricultural Engineering was set up in Oxford.  Their early work was concerned in part with study of basic principles and in part design of entirely new machines.  They were for instance primarily responsible for the development of machines for drying grass and they took steps to actively develop machines for cutting drain trenches.

The main centre for research on soil problems and plant nutrition remained at Rothamsted and their work expanded greatly when after the war greater funds became available.  While in the main they continued to study the basic problems of crop nutrition which Lawes and Gilbert opened up, and their experimentation spread out on to many farms concentrated throughout the country, new lines of work opened up in the laboratory discoveries.    Studies on the rotting of cellulose led to the design of schemes for manufacture of a sort of artificial farmyard manure by rotting down of straw.  Studies on bacteriology led to inoculation of seeds of clover and in particular of Lucerne making possible the cultivation of this valuable crop over years where hitherto it had failed.  Investigations into bacterial members in the soil threw a flood of light on the general bacteriology of the soil. It was found that there were predatory organisms in particular protozoa and these could easily be controlled by sterilisation.   For a time it appeared that a new approach to nutrition was being made.  The practical difficulties in the way are however enormous and apart from soil sterilisation have remained an academic matter.

Note from the transcriber
I'd like to thank Wilfred Bernard Mercer's family for donating the typed original copy of this talk to the archivist at Reaseheath College.  Please email me if you spot any errors. 

I've added some pictures to illustrate this article - thanks to the archivist at Reaseheath for providing these.

I'll try and add the first part of this lecture when I get time.

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