American Food and the Land Question

Written: late June 1881 Published: No. 9, July 2, 1881, as a leading article Reproduced from the newspaper Transcribed:, Labor Day 1996

Since autumn 1837 we have been quite accustomed to see money panics and commercial crises imported from New York into England. At least one out of every two of the decennial revulsions of industry broke out in America. But that America should also upset the time-honoured relations of British agriculture, revolutionise the immemorial feudal relations between landlord and tenant at will, smash up English rents, and lay waste English farms, was a sight reserved for the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

And yet so it is. The virgin soil of the Western prairie -- which is now coming into cultivation, not by piecemeal but in thousands of square miles -- is now beginning to rule the price of wheat, and, consequently, the rent of wheat land. And no old soil can compete with it. It is a wonderful land, level, or slightly undulating, undisturbed by violent upheavals, in exactly the same condition in which it was slowly deposited at the bottom of a Tertiary ocean; free from stones, rocks, trees; fit for immediate cultivation without any preparatory labour. No clearing or draining is required; you pass the plough over it and it is fit to receive the seed, and will bear twenty to thirty crops of wheat in succession and without manuring. It is a soil fit for agriculture on the grandest scale, and on the grandest scale it is worked. The British agriculturist used to pride himself of his large farms as opposed to the small farms of Continental peasant proprietors; but what are the largest farms in the United Kingdom compared to the farms of the American prairie, farms of 40,000 acres and more, worked by regular armies of men, horses, and implements, drilled, commanded, and organised like soldiers?

This American revolution in farming, together with the revolutionised means of transport as invented by the Americans, sends over to Europe wheat at such low prices that no European farmer can compete with it -- at least not while he is expected to pay rent. Look at the year 1879, when this was first felt. The crop was bad in all Western Europe; it was a failure in England. Yet, thanks to American corn, prices remained almost stationary. For the first time the British farmer had a bad crop and low prices of wheat at the same time. Then the farmers began to stir, the landlords felt alarmed. Next year, with a better crop, prices went lower still. The price of corn is now determined by the cost of production in America, plus the cost of transport. And this will be the case more and more every year, in proportion as new prairie-land is put under the plough. The agricultural armies required for that operation -- we find them ourselves in Europe by sending over emigrants.

Now, formerly there was this consolation for the farmer and the landlord, that if corn did not pay meat would. The plough-land was turned into grass-land, and everything was pleasant again. But now that resource is cut off too. American meat and American cattle are sent over in ever-increasing quantities. And not only that. There are at least two great cattle-producing countries which are on the alert for methods permitting them to send over to Europe, and especially to England, their immense excess of meat, now wasted. With the present state of science and the rapid progress made in its application, we may be sure that in a very few, s years -- at the very latest -- Australian and South American beet and mutton will be brought over in a perfect state of preservation and in enormous quantities. What is then to become of the prosperity of the British farmer, of the long rent-roll of the British landlord? It is all very well to grow gooseberries, strawberries, and so forth -- that market is well enough supplied as it is. No doubt the British workman could consume a deal more of these delicacies -- but then first raise his wages.

It is scarcely needful to say that the effect of this new American agricultural competition is felt on the Continent too. The small peasant proprietor mostly mortgaged over head and ears and paying interest and law expenses where the English and Irish farmer pays rent, he feels it quite as much. It is a peculiar effect of this American competition that it renders not only large landed property, but also small landed property useless, by rendering both unprofitable.

It may be said that this system of land exhaustion, as now practiced in the Far West, cannot go on for ever, and things must come right again. Of course, it cannot last for ever; but there is plenty of unexhausted land yet to carry on the process for another century. Moreover, there are other countries offering similar advantages. There is the whole South Russian steppe, where, indeed, commercial men have bought land and done the same thing. There are the vast pampas of the Argentine Republic, there are others still; all lands equally fit for this modern system of giant farming and cheap production. So that before this thing is exhausted it will have lived long enough to kill all the landlords of Europe, great and small, at least twice over.

Well, and the upshot of all this? The upshot will and must be that it will force upon us the nationalisation of the land and its cultivation by co-operative societies under national control. Then, and then alone, it will again pay both the cultivators and the nation to work it, whatever the price of American or any other corn and meat may be. And if the landlords in the meantime, as they seem to be half inclined to do, actually do go to America, we wish them a pleasant journey.