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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 52

The Farmers and Protection

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The Farmers and Protection.

Buckle crest of the Cobden Club

The cycle of agricultural depression in England, which it is confidently believed will? soon be terminated, commenced in 1875, coincidently with a cycle of wet seasons which has been brought to a conclusion. From this period, the low prices of English wheat, caused, in all but the last two years, at all events, by its indifferent quality, and by the large importation of wheat and flour from America and other countries, have given great occasion to the enemies of Free Trade, who accordingly have exercised their ingenuity in propounding doctrines of Protection in the various guises of "Fair Trade," "Reciprocity," and "Retaliatory Tariffs." These heterodox doctrines have been glibly preached by so-called friends of the farmers, and have been advocated seriously and with much deliberation in certain periodicals. Mr. James Lowther, Mr. Chaplin, and other landlords are now openly advocating protection, and Lord Salisbury and Sir Stafford Northcote, whatever may be their real opinions, seem to be favouring the delusion. It is said that the recent election in South Warwickshire was largely influenced by these theories, and that a large number of the farmers of this county voted for the Conservative candidate in the hope of obtaining relief in the shape of duties upon imported articles of agricultural produce.

Without doubt there are many farmers who would like to have their own productions increased in value by the imposition of such duties, and who do not take the trouble to think much about the effect of such a policy upon the general community. Many, too, are deceived by the exponents of Fair Trade, which has such a plausible ring in its very name, and by the enticing arguments of the Reciprocity party, who, by the way, should be termed Recidivists, so that they would be willing to join any organisation to further these causes. Hut the farmers of this country, however much they may wish for protective duties in their secret hearts, should be too well informed to believe that they will ever he re-imposed. Nor is it at all likely that they will come forward in numbers and solemnly ask for such a reversal of policy, if they remember the peculiar circumstances of England, with its enormous and rapidly-increasing population, its limited area of land available for food production, and its peculiar requirements as the chief centre of the manufacturing industry of the world. That this intelligent feeling has some existence among farmers is remarkably shown in the evidence given before the Royal Commission on Agriculture in 1880, by farmers themselves, and by the reports of the Assistant-Commissioners appointed to visit the various districts, and to inquire into the causes of agricultural depression, in all of which it is stated that the farmers consider it impossible to return to protection. In Mr. Druce's able report upon fifteen counties, the following conclusion is arrived at: "But the great bulk of the farmers with whom I conversed were not in favour of a return to Protection, and it was felt that whatever might be the case as regarded other imported goods, corn could not be taxed." Mr. Little, reporting upon ten southern counties, said that "it is impossible to return to a system of protective duties."

Although there are very many Conservatives who professedly give adhesion to a Free-trade policy, it must not be forgotten that this is essentially a Liberal policy, and page 4 standing that incredible quantities of good quality have been sent from America; and it is a noteworthy fact that the price of English cheese has always ruled considerably higher than of that sent from America.

Poultry of all kinds, and eggs, are dearer than they have ever been, and the demand would be almost unlimited for these articles, at a fair price. Wool at this present time is low in price, and has been low for three or four years, and though the imports of wool during this term have certainly been somewhat larger than in previous years, this increase is not by any means sufficient to account for the recent diminution in its value. The price of wool has fluctuated in a curious manner throughout this century. It was lower in 1830 than it has been in any year since, and it was higher in 1865 than had ever been known, and from 1858 to 1875, spite of Free Trade, there was a series of very high prices, ranging from 1s. 6d. to 2s. 5d. per lb.

The value of lean animals has advanced pari passu with the price of meat, and breeders would have had a good time generally if disease had not prevailed. This was not due to Free Trade, and it is satisfactory to find that the stock of cattle in England is larger now than it was in 1872, while the stock of sheep is rapidly reaching the high numbers of its amount in 1872, before the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

From the figures and facts given above it will be gathered that free trade has not affected prices of farm produce in the manner suggested by alarmists. Except in the case of wheat there has been no important decrease in values, and in the case of wheat it is admitted that its cultivation at the prices now current is not profitable. Upon high-class land and land that is highly and properly farmed, cultivators of wheat may hold their own till prices improve. Upon poor, heavy, or badly-farmed land there must be a loss in growing wheat at present rates. The obvious remedy is to grow other crops, to lay such land down with grass, and to alter the systems and modes of cropping to meet altered circumstances and conditions. Mr. Gladstone has said frequently that fruit and vegetables should be more extensively grown by farmers, and he is perfectly right, as the consumption of these is enormous, and is daily increasing, and would increase still further if there were better methods of distributing these articles.

Mr. Jenkins, the secretary of the Royal Agricultural Society, has constantly iterated his recommendations to farmers to take a leaf out of the book of the French and Swiss cultivators, and produce fancy cheeses, and has often advised them to pay more attention to cheese and butter-making, and not only to largely extend their production of these articles, but to be more careful in their systems of manufacture. Surely there should be a large extension of dairy-farming when it is known that with careful management and in suitable conditions the gross returns for each cow in large dairies may be made to average from £19 to £24, as is shown in the Report of the Judges of Farms, in the last volume of I he "Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society." There must be a handsome profit hanging on in these circumstances. In short, it is clear that far more attention must be given to the "minor products" of agriculture, and to details which have hitherto been despised and neglected as beneath the consideration of farmers. Another very fertile source of income to farmers, which has only arisen within the last twenty-five years, is the sale of pedigree and well-bred animals to foreign farmers. It is obvious that only a limited number of breeders can take advantage of this branch of agricultural business; still a large amount of money has been placed to the credit of the agriculturists of this country on this account, and it is not too much to say that higher prices are at this time paid for all really good stock for breeding purposes, with the exception of shorthorns, than have ever held. There are, it appears then, many methods of farming by which agriculturists may make money, and by which much money has been made throughout this time of depression. Men may be found in every district who have held their own, and have more than held their own, by the exercise of ingenuity in adapting their modes to the altered conditions, and by the adoption of new cultures carried out with unflagging energy. To alter long-accustomed practice is, as everyone, knows, most difficult and tiresome, and it will be said that it is easy to recommend revolutions in long-established systems, but not so easy to carry them out successfully. But there are already pioneers who have led the way, and however great the wrench, however unpleasant or laborious the task, it is confidently believed that the British farmers will prefer to follow these with characteristic determination rather than to throw up their work in despair and join the retrogressive party, who would tax the food of the people and cripple the trade of the nation.

Messrs. Cassell & Company, Limited, La Belle Sauvage Yard, London, E.C., supply the Cobden Club Leaflets in packets of 100, price 2s.