THE FARMERS' POSITION.
THE continued rise in the price of wheat at a season when markets are usually dull, because merchants like to keep their stocks as low as possible at the end of the year, is a
hopeful circumstance for farmers. Consequent upon the increase in the price of wool, too, the value of sheep has risen ; and, with abundance of winter keep, there is strong encouragement to breeding. But farmers are too utterly depressed in spirits to be thankful for small mercies, and it must be admitted that there is still a wide margin between the current quotations of wheat and other grain, and such prices as would be generally remunerative. It is quite possible that, after the Christmas holidays, prices may advance to an extent unknown in recent years, the stocks of wheat in the world being barely equal to consumptive requirements for the rest of the cereal year. It is the same with wool and mutton, the number of sheep in Europe, Australia, and America alike having diminished. Again, the imports of cattle, beef, and cheese have for a long time been decreasing, while those of butter have been stationary. On the whole, then, it is not at all improbable that next year will bring something like a general advance in the value of agricultural produce, and that such a period of agricultural depression as we have lately experienced may not recur for many years, if ever. But, as already intimated, farmers are not disposed to take a hopeful view of the future, having been so often and so bitterly disappointed in the past, and their frame of mind was pretty accurately portrayed by the doleful address delivered before the London Farmers' Club last week by Mr. C. S. Read, so far as that "Agricultural Jeremiah," as he has been appropriately named, really meant what he said. We cannot help suspecting, however, that Mr. Read indulged in a great deal of exaggeration for the sake of oratorical effect, and we notice that his grimly humorous expressions of pessimism were received with frequent bursts of laughter. We do not refer to his estimates of farmers' losses, which may have been quite equal to the ten millions a year during the past ten years at which he, or Sir James Caird, to whom he referred as an authority, computes them. In this, and in his doleful view of the future, we do not doubt that Mr. Read was serious enough. What we do question is the sincerity of his altogether unfair disparagement of almost everything that has been done or suggested for the benefit of agriculture.
If we are to take what Mr. Read said without a very great allowance for rhetorical exaggeration, we must suppose it to be his opinion that in the midst of progress, agriculture has stood still, at least as far as beneficial advancement is con- cerned. The most ignorant of clodhoppers could not say more in depreciation of what science has done for farmers than Mr. Read said. Agricultural chemistry, as an applied science, may be said to have come into existence in Mr. Read's time, for in his youth its teachings were rather those of the laboratory than of the experimental field. That is a brief period in the life of a science, and when we consider the complex difficulties which the agricultural chemist has to deal with, in variety of soil and crop, and the changes of climatic conditions, and bear in mind how few, com- paratively, the investigators have been, we are disposed to say that wonderful progress has been made. Yet Mr. Read did not hesitate to assert that the chemist had taught the farmer nothing more than that nitrogen is good for grain crops, and that phosphates are suitable for roots. Mr. Read was even more un- complimentary to the veterinarian than to the chemist, as he declared that the former could not even now tell us of any better remedy for cattle-disease than slaughter. That is true of certain diseases, just as it would be true, if human beings were valued only for the money they could be sold for, that slaughter would be the best remedy for Asiatic cholera, for instance ; but it is a very unfair thing to say, nevertheless, as every in- telligent owner of live stock knows. The improvements in agricultural machinery are so remarkable that Mr. Read could not entirely make light of them ; still, he was so determined to keep true to his tone of disparagement as to contend that our fathers did just as well without all the labour-saving appliances of the present day as we do with them.
Passing on to a comparison of the crops grown to-day with those grown fifty years ago, Mr. Read still harped upon his text of no improvement. New crops recommended to farmers, he declared, had been tried, and had failed to pay, and he no more believes in the success of tobacco than in that of sugar- beet, while he has not a word of encouragement to give to the undoubted success of the system of ensilage. That he is right in anticipating the failure of the attempt to grow tobacco with profit in this country, is very likely true, and the attempt to grow sugar-beet has certainly not been encouraging. But he quite ignores the increase in fruit-growing and market- gardening, both of which have been profitable, in spite of dis- advantages through high rail-rates and an abominable system of distribution, until quite recently, and which will be profitable again with those disadvantages removed. Nor did he make any allowance for the great improvement in the stocks of corn, roots, and potatoes, which has been made by careful selection and crossing since he was a young man.
We have dwelt too long upon this persistent fault-finding on the part of a speaker who seemed determined not to admit that farmers had derived substantial advantages from any source whatever. That their advantages have been more than counterbalanced by disadvantages, is obvious ; but that is no reason for declaring in effect that all is vanity and vexation of spirit, and that there is no good thing in the affairs of agriculture. The truth is, that farmers, like other people, have derived great benefits from the various improvements of modern times, but that bad seasons and low prices have made them losers in spite of those benefits. Mr. Read did admit some slight advantage derived from legislation relating to cattle-disease, game, and tenants' improvements, though not without grumbling at certain unsatisfactory circumstances arising thereform. But that was about all ; and it seems to us that he was most disposed to be grateful for the smallest mercies.
As nothing good for farmers has come of changes in the past, according to Mr. Read, it was only to be expected that the remedies now suggested for agricultural depression would be fruitless of good. Protection being hopeless, he thinks, unless the labourers ask for it, which they never will, there is little that Parliament can do for the farmers. Relief from local taxation is one thing ; but that, he believes, would be a matter of only about is. or is. 6d. an acre, while the rates would be increased by repre- sentative county government. Landlords are asked to reduce rents all over the country, as they have reduced them in places, to the level of fifty years ago, and to erect such build- ings as farmers need, and carry out other permanent improve- ments. An enormous increase of rents took place after the Crimean War, and the Income-tax Returns show that compara- tively little of that increase has yet been permanently remitted. Land is certainly not worth as much to farm as it was in 1850, and rents ought to be lower, instead of higher than they were then. Whether it is reasonable at the same time to ask land- lords to halve their incomes and to double their expenses on buildings and other improvements, or whether it is advisable to teach tenants to look to landlords as a kind of Providence in the future as in the past, are questions which Mr. Read does not appear to have duly considered. There are those
who contend that if farmers have complete security for im- provements, and perfect freedom of enterprise, they may safely
be left to their own devices ; and that until they are thus taught self-reliance, they will never do much good. The tenant-farmer has been too long in leading-strings, it is said ; give him security and a free hand, and leave him to shift for himself. But Mr. Read had very little to suggest to the farmers in the way of self-help, though he does believe that they have spirit enough to carry on their hard struggle till they have lost the whole of their capital. By far the most hopeful portion of Mr. Read's address was that in which, after pointing out that wheat had lately advanced 5s. a quarter (it is more than that now), and wool 3d. a pound, he expressed his belief that prices had touched the lowest point, and that wheat, at any rate, would probably be dearer in the future. He stands by the opinion which he and Mr. Pell formed as Assistant- Commissioners to the Duke of Richmond's Commission on Agricultural Depression, when they visited the United States in 1880,—namely, that the American farmers cannot grow wheat with profit to be sold in England for less than 42s. to 44s. a quarter. It has been coming to us for much less money, but, it is contended, at a loss to growers and carriers alike. There is abundance of evidence in support of this view of the case. Wheat-growing has been decreasing or remaining stationary in all the great producing countries except India, and it is well known that shipping companies have paid very small dividends, or none at all. The wheat acreage of the United States has nob decreased by 5,000,000 acres, as Mr. Read said it had. There was that difference between the area harvested in 1884 and that har- vested in 1885, but it was chiefly owing to nearly all that was sown being harvested in the former year, while a great deal was winter-killed in the latter. The area sown has been practically stationary since 1880, in spite of the opening-up of enormous tracts of new land for wheat in the North-Western States. This shows that wheat-production in America has not kept pace with increase in population ; and it is the same in Europe, while the wheat area has greatly diminished in Australasia. In India there has been an increase, though no one knows how much ; but Mr. Read, with other agricultural authorities, contends that this is mainly because, owing to the fall in the gold-value of silver, buyers of Indian wheat are able to pay as many rupees for it as they paid when prices were much higher in Europe, and that thus the ryots are placed at an advantage over other growers, the rupee not having fallen in purchasing power, at least as far as rent, interest, and wages are concerned. In spite of Indian competition, however, there seems good reason to expect better prices for wheat as a rule in future than those which have prevailed since 1883, though not high prices ; and as the values of other kinds of grain always fluctuate more or less with those of wheat, farmers, with rents reduced, may yet be able to hold their own. Nor is it only in respect of wheat competition that they have reason for keeping up their courage, as we have already stated. Several meat-exporting companies in Australia have come to grief ; and at present prices, even New Zealand or River Plate mutton cannot possibly pay the shippers, large quantities having been sold in London at 3d. per pound wholesale. In the case of cheese, again, there appears to be a decrease in production, both in America and in Canada. In short, foreign agricultural producers have glutted our markets for years past, and have suffered so severely that they are likely to be more cautious in future,—at least for a time. Home producers have, therefore, ground for encouragement.
But they must not raise their hopes too high. A comparatively small rise in prices will at any time increase supplies ; and farmers in this country must look to it that they are not handicapped too heavily by rent, by restrictions in their farming covenants, by taxation, by railway rates, and by the exactions of middle-men.