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Fat of the land

By the time John Archibald Woodside painted "The Country Fair", in 1824, England's agricultural revolution was well advanced. Eighteenth-century enclosures consolidated land holdings; new classes of leisured squires, prosperous tenant farmers and landless labourers emerged; from 1760 to 1830 farming changed from a small-scale subsistence way of life towards today's intensive industry. The new ideas were spread by Arthur Young (1741-1820) who in 1792 became the first secretary of the Board of Agriculture. Viscount Charles "Turnip" Townsend (1674-1738) introduced crop rotation, planting wheat, turnips, clover and barley in successive years, which improved soil fertility and provied winter fodder for livestock, previously slaughtered every autumn. Jethro Tull (1674-1741) replaced oxen with horses for ploughing and transport, used seed drills and pioneered selective breeding of animals to increase yield. Robert Bakewell (1725-95) developed this, producing animals that matured and fattened faster. In this painting we see a huge barn for large herds; in the foreground are cows and sheep bulging with meat. Prosperous farmers enjoy the new market economy, trading stock and hiring labourers. It is the land of the Roast Beef of Old England: the idyll of abundant food - an idyll scarcely challenged until the public health scandals of recent decades.

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