That productivity revolution

Modern, GPS-guided combines can already cut a field without the driver touching the steering wheel for much of the time, and can cut and thresh a quantity of grain in a day — enough to make half a million loaves of bread — that would have required the work of a thousand peasants in the 18th century.

Add in that 17th century grain (well, OK, perhaps more by then, this is a medieval number) got 7 grains back for every seed corn. Last time I mentioned this one of our farmer readers here said that he didn’t actually know the multiple today but it was vastly more than that.

And our economics lesson for the day – the output of the tractor is the NHS. For we couldn’t have 10% of the population producing health care if we needed a thousand peasants in the field, could we?

20 thoughts on “That productivity revolution”

  1. Tim –

    This suggests the yield is considerably more than 7:1.

    It’s for hard winter whea, while most of what we grow in the UK is soft. No idea if that makes a difference.

  2. Modern, GPS-guided combines can already cut a field without the driver touching the steering wheel for much of the time,

    They’ve been doing that for the last 20 years. I heard even back then some combines were using satellite data to determine the yield variations in different parts of the field and adjusting the threshing process accordingly.

    Of course, the biggest impact of GPS was being able to accurately measure areas. That meant the contracting firms could charge by the acre, rather than the hour as they’d previously done. This drove the incentive to get a field done as quickly as possible, meaning tractors like the JCB Fastrac got invented.

  3. The combine is important, but in my mind less important than the highly portable and inexpensive energy source that replaces the muscle power of those thousand peasants – gasoline or diesel.

    Sure, we could replace that, but inefficiently.

  4. A very strange reading of history. Most of the lowering of numbers in Brit agriculture came from export oriented wool mania in Shakespeare’s time and then the abolition of the Corn Laws leading to imports of grain from the Americas.Rather than be absorbed in service industries, those so” liberated” from the land ended up in slums working at processing the imported products of slave labour: cotton , tobacco, sugar etc.Yeah we experienced globalisation a long time ago and its history has been written by the winners and celebrated by the eternal brown noses..

  5. @ DBC Reed
    Repeal of the Corn Laws by Peel as a result of the Irish Potato Famine (to permit the Irish to import cheap grain) 1846.
    Jethro Tull’s seed drill that started the Agricultural revolution 1700.
    Your timeline is wrong by well over a century.

  6. “It’s for hard winter wheat, while most of what we grow in the UK is soft. No idea if that makes a difference”: it did when I was a schoolboy. Canadian wheat -> bread, British wheat -> cakes.

    But you meant for the yield. Dunno. But your medieval peasant could sustain a lower yield on oats than on wheat because the oat straw was good fodder for horses and cattle whereas wheat straw was useless for that – it was just used for bedding. There’s an old Scottish saw about the yield on oats. I don’t take it literally, though. I grew up among farmers – they’re aye girnin’.

  7. @Tim
    ” determine the yield variations in different parts of the field and adjusting the threshing process accordingly.”

    My brother in law’s new machine analyses the soil as it goes and consequently can alter the fertiliser put down in any part of the field.

  8. I distrust that medieval grain yield figure, since I find it hard to see how a peasant could support a family of four-six, likely household servants/agricultural help (peasants were not the poorest bit of society), their local church and manorial authority, the aristocractic structure, the developing (and by late medieval time booming) towns and the rest of the small non-agrarian sector on such low yields. I generally read this as a legacy of mid-twentieth-century agrarian history, which was both progressive and rather socialistic (not normally Marxist though), and therefore was rather inclined to a story of steady improvement but only through the prism of yield – exactly the same sort of person who complains about jobs being lost now due to competition in fact, since they only see the one metric.

  9. DBC Reed,

    You do realise the slums you reference were in fact in general much preferable (other than perhaps in terms of fresh air) to the rural hovels their inhabitants moved into? Two-room houses, often shared with animals, were still the norm for the rural poor in the eighteenth century, and the rate of agricultural pay was far lower (even compensating for the ability to grow vegtables) than urban pay – hence people moving.

    You seem to have a wierd view of history (never mind chronology) where somehow people were forced off the land and made to move to cities. Even in the highland clearances this is not a real image, and certainly not in lowland Britain. Indeed, the agricultural revolution was probably sustained partially through needing to produce solutions to falling labour forces, with migration to cities being a driver of change not the result of it.

    But don’t let the actual facts ruin your narrative (I was going to accuse it of being a seconday-school narrative, then realised that I was certainly taught a bit more nuanced account than that, so if this is what you were taught you might want to question your teacher’s ability). After all, we live in an era of fake news and the like, so fake history must be OK as well.

  10. Tim Newman,

    Yeah. Not exactly state of the art.

    Experiments going on with drone photography for vineyards in California and Burgundy.

  11. I was arguing the same point on Saturday with some friends re number of man hours required to produce a ton of steel. It’s fallen by something like 99%, whence we make more steel with fewer steelworkers (which is, of course, a bad thing if you are not very bright).

  12. And the vast majority of the productivity gains in agriculture have accrued to the consumer, thanks to the competitive market in agricultural products. Wheat prices today are the same in nominal terms that they were 20 years ago. Indeed only a few years ago they were the same as 30 years previously. The entire agricultural sector makes the same amount of profit that one large bank does, and that includes a 3bn subsidy payment.

  13. Bloke in North Dorset

    The Economist did one of their Technology Quarterly articles on IT in farming recently. Where its going has only been touched on in the comments above.

    If anyone’s interested I’ll find the exact issue when I get home tomorrow evening.

  14. @ gareth
    Matt XIII 23 “… yields a hundredfold or sixtyfold or thirtyfold.”
    Various sites say generally two or three tillers per seed but “Successful farming” shows a picture of a plant with 5 tillers so the range is from 40 to 150.

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