The Agricultural Revolution

Vol. 8 No. 2 - 2003

The agricultural revolution

by William McGeown

The Fordson tractor, pulling a threshing machine and Red Jones baler, looked like a circus cavalcade as it came down the avenue to Prospect Hall Farm.

The time was autumn 1940 - the first harvest since the outbreak of war. Supplies of grain and foodstuffs of all kinds were no longer available from abroad. The Atlantic Sea routes were blockaded by German U-boats. Many ships with their crews and cargoes were sunk and Britain was facing very severe food rationing.

A Ministry of Agriculture directive decreed that 40% of arable land would be devoted to growing grain or food crops so this was the first grain harvest since the slump in grain prices at the beginning of the previous decade.

The threshing was a very important occasion in the farming year. Here was the result of all the ploughing, cultivation, weeding, binding, drying and stacking of the previous year's work, A team of at least 10 men (or women) were required to operate a mill and baling outfit. Two good men were required to pitch the sheaves from the stack to the top of the mill. These men set the pace for the whole operation.

One person took the sheaves as they were thrown on the platform of the machine and cut the strings. The contractor fed the now loose sheaf into the cylinder, which stripped the grain from the straw. After this everybody else had to cope with their part of the job, at the rate that the grain, straw and chaff came out. It was really a little production line. The heaviest job was the task of carrying and stacking the big wire tied bales of straw. The grain was bagged and carried up to the barn loft where it was spread in a layer on the floor. If it was not dry enough it might "heat"; if this happened it was necessary to turn it with shovels, to cool and let it dry.


Probably some or most of the crew were neighbours, and so had to be fed with a substantial lunch, and afternoon tea, not so easy for the farmer's wife, as food was scarce and there were no freezers or fridges. The threshing contractor could be a bit vague as to the exact day he would arrive, due to many variables not least of which was the weather, and the farmer's wife wanted to put up as good a show as possible. All the neighbours had to be repaid by helping them in turn on their threshing days.

The outbreak of war made many changes to town and country, not least the black out.

The sky nowadays is never really dark. The glow from street lights, flood lights, and motorway lighting is always reflected in the clouds. In 1939 things were different. No street lighting, all windows covered with blinds of some sort, even doorways were shielded in some way. The air-raid wardens were always on the look out for anyone breaking the regulations. Cars had the head lamps covered with tin discs with about 3 little louvred slots. The total light would be a bit less than we now have from the sidelights.

There was very little traffic apart from military vehicles. Petrol was strictly rationed and one had to have some priority need to obtain any "petrol coupons".

Very little of the countryside had an electricity supply in the 1940s and any new connections were an impossibility. The high tension power lines were only about 1000 yards from our house and farm, yet it was not for another 12 years that the great "switch on" came amidst great excitement, and a rush to get rid of the paraffin burning table lamps, which are now valuable antiques.

Farmyard lighting was by hurricane lamps which had to be filled, globes cleaned, and wicks trimmed almost daily. Indoors in the home the height of fashion was to have an "Aladdin" lamp, which had an incandescent mantle, and gave a very white light. The mantle had a habit of smoking and turning black, just when one least expected it.

Fordson tractor

The start of war gave impetus to bringing tractors on to the farms. First was the Fordson, which was a very basic machine with no electrics, just a magneto to make the sparking plugs work, starting "sometimes" by swinging the starting handle, which could kick back and give one a very sore wrist. Petrol was used for starting, and after a few minutes turned over to T.V.O. -"Tractor Vapourising Oil".

The Fordson could only tow implements such as ploughs, harrows, and trailers.

Harry Ferguson tractor - the Ford Ferguson system was the first tractor to have an electric start and a three-point linkage system of lifting and carrying implements. This was achieved by a sophisticated hydraulic system, which used the downward pull or weight of the implement to increase the traction of the driving wheels and adjust the depth of the plow or other implement. Great as this "little grey Fergie" was, it still had only 30-horse power and four gears and reverse. Started on petrol, and run on T.V.O. of course. An iron seat and little or no shelter. Tractor cabs were still about 15 years away and even then were only made as accessories by specialist firms. They were inclined to be made of tubes and canvas and were draughty. Today's tractors have air-conditioned cabs, weight adjustable seats and most of the gears and traction controls are electronically controlled. The first thing some of the younger drivers will check out on a new tractor is how good a "stereo" is on board. Most people will be aware of the mass of work lights, which are now standard. Speeds of over 30mph are common. Spring suspension systems make for a very comfortable ride even when carrying very heavy loads.

Signs removed

During wartime there were many changes in the countryside, first of all being the removal of all road signs and names on public buildings and post offices etc. This was intended I think to make it difficult for invasion forces, or grounded enemy airmen to navigate. This was a little naive perhaps, for if they had got this far they would surely have had maps and compasses.

There was a total ban on all military news. Things like a crashed aeroplane would only be news to those in the immediate neighbourhood. On trains and public notice board were signs such as "Careless Talk Costs Lives". All letters from service men to their families were severely censored. The sensitive portions were cut out and if not written carefully, little of the letter might remain. Most of the big houses that had tree cover were requisitioned and had army camps built among the trees. Many airfields were built where the ground was reasonably flat. The nearest to Lurgan were at Megaberry, [Maghaberry] and at Long Kesh, near to where the Maze Prison now is, and Nutts Corner, which later became the civilian airport for Belfast.

The beautiful house at "Kircassock" estate on the Lurgan to Dromore road was occupied by Polish soldiers. Some of their charcoal murals on the walls were so good that the later owners did not remove them.

Prior to the D-day landings in France many thousands of American soldiers were stationed in Northern Ireland. They made quite an impact on the community. All ethnic groups were present from white to black and all groups in between.

Arrival of American soldiers

American soldiers were much better dressed and equipped than their British counterparts, and had many facilities which were not available to our armed forces.

American dispatch riders used Willis Jeeps - little 4 wheel drive vehicles, which were very versatile. They were the forerunners of all the off road vehicles which are now so common. British army dispatch riders used motor cycles!

On the social front the way to a girl's heart might be influenced by a pair of nylons and boxes of "candies" which gave our US friends a head start.

Apart from more mechanisation, farm tractors did not change very much during the 1940-50 years. There was a guaranteed market for all the food that could be produced. Many of the prices were fixed 12 months ahead by the Ministry of Food. Livestock production was profitable, but was limited by the amount of feeding stuff which was available. The feed ration was based on the number of livestock on the holding at the June census. This set the feed one could buy for the next year - a chicken and egg situation. Food rationing continued for some commodities right up to the early 1950s.

The strides made in medicine by the discovery of sulphonamide and penicillin had a great effect on animal husbandry when they became available. Previously many of the treatments were aimed at treating the effect rather than the cause. If some of the remedies had a terrible smell that was taken as a token of their effectiveness.

It was not really until the nineteen fifties that the great changes in all branches of husbandry took place. The Ministry of Agriculture did much research work on their educational and research farms. Much of the new initiative came from farming pioneers although the college research workers adapted and polished these new ideas. They also disseminated this knowledge to the community at large. Some of the things that changed forever the customs of older times were - Silage making, replacing haymaking. It was not so dependent on nearly a week's good weather, and was very much more nutritious.

Arrival of the combine harvester

The combine harvester and grain dryers combined into one operation cutting and threshing. One man could now harvest in one hour more than a threshing team could do in a day as well as the time taken to cut, "stock" and stack the crop,

Livestock husbandry also changed dramatically. Better breeding policies and husbandry techniques increased production enormously. Milking machines replaced hand milking. Herd numbers went from herds of 10-20 head to herds of 70-80, probably the average size, and some into hundreds. So much milk was produced that a "quota" system was introduced to limit the amount that each dairy farm could produce.

Poultry farming changed also. Much is written today about "natural" and "free range" systems of production. Forty years ago the normal rearing system for replacement pullets for laying flocks was in little wooden "arks" placed in grass fields and moved every few days to fresh ground. The ways that chickens could die, or commit suicide were legion. Foxes and stoats could decimate a pen in a few minutes. Smothering could occur when the birds crowded into the corners of their arks and suffocated the ones at the bottom. Diseases such as coccidiosis were picked up from the ground [Protozoal parasites of the Eimeria genus are responsible for the disease]. A reasonable percentage reared from day old to maturity would have been 85%. Intensively reared flocks now are numbered in thousands with mortality rates of 1-2%, Chicken meat is the most efficient way of converting grain into flesh. 1.85 lbs. of meal can produce one pound of meat. This is the reason that chicken is the most common and cheapest meat dish. It is also worth noting that poultry production is not subsidised in food production.

The years from 1950 with food still rationed and a ready market for all that could be produced were a very interesting time to be farming. Much of the heavy manual work was replaced by machines and electric motors. A small fractional horsepower motor could replace muscle power, and did not get tired. Success now depended on management of the business. As the various types of production became more and more specialised more capital was needed and new techniques had to be learned. Instead of most farms having a great number of small enterprises, in many cases these were reduced to one or two with a great improvement in efficiency. The days of over-production with European "grain mountains", "milk lakes", over production in beef and pork were still to come as was computer management in all sorts of ways, from dairy farm programmes to total environment control of light and heat and ventilation of broiler housing. The Internet meant more information being available at the touch of a few "keys" than ever before.

The closing years of the twentieth century were not very happy ones for many industries as well as agriculture, textiles, ship building, synthetic fibre, to name but a few. Very few young men are going into agricultural training at the present time. With the fall in average farm income to now being £1.50 per hour including the return from capital, who could blame them?

Some things to think about...

There is no more land being made, yet land is being removed for buildings, roads, factories, golf courses and amenity facilities. Half of the world's population is almost continually hungry.

The world population is still increasing at an alarming rate. Will the underdeveloped countries be able to make up for the fall in production, which must inevitably come if the affluent countries of the western world continue down the road which we are now going?