10 AUGUST 1907, Page 14



Sin,—We may suppose that the question of small holdings is outside the lines of party. A few ill-conditioned politicians may regard it as a way of " dishing " the landlords ; and one or two statesmen of repute have used language into which such a purpose might be read. On the other hand, a few landlords who still hold to feudal notions may view the pro- posed legislation with dislike. But, on the whole, both parties are genuinely anxious to do the best they can for agriculture and the population which lives by it. Nevertheless, it is not easy to feel sanguine of good results. One fact strikes one at once. The general movement of industry is going the other way. The small tradesman is being pushed to the wall by huge stores, Co-operative or other. All the conditions of business are adverse to him. He has not the same facilities of purchase ; the cost of distribution is larger to him in pro. portion to the volume of trade. He is commonly restricted to the worst kind of customers, to whom he is obliged to give credit. And something of the same kind has actually happened in agriculture. Where are the "statesmen " of the North P where are the yeomen of the South P This was the class which the popular party in Rome strove, and strove in vain, to preserve. Time after time Agrarian Laws were passed, forced sometimes at the point of the sword on an unwilling autocracy and plutocracy ; and what was the end? When the Republic was nearing its fall, the greater part of Italy was parcelled out into latifundia, which were worked by slave labour. The same economic causes are everlastingly at work. The small holdings are proportionately more expensive to equip than the large. The produce is smaller because the holder has not the capital wherewith to do justice to his land. The returns are less remunerative because the tenant cannot afford to wait for better markets. My own experience agrees with these conclusions. There are many small holdings in the parish where I live, and they are, as a rule, the worst cultivated and the least productive in the place. It is true that they are of a kind which favours the development of the worst qualities of the small holder. They are mostly under fruit, and fruit of a kind which does not imperatively demand attention,—nuts, for instance, apples, and pears. The common plan is for the tenant or owner to do as little as possible to his plantation, to earn his living by working out, and to make as much addition as he can to his income by harvesting "such things as grow of themselves." A nut-tree, for instance, ought to be carefully pruned, while the ground beneath it is kept clean by three or four hoeings. Still, it bears even though these things are not done to it. The fruit grows smaller if the tree is allowed to run up. The quantity and the quality are both injuriously affected if the soil is permitted to become foul. Something, however, is harvested, and all this goes to the credit side. I will put a concrete case. The cultivation of an acre costs about £7, if it is to be thoroughly done. If the result is £20, the transaction is fairly profitable, after allowance has been made for rent or interest on capital, rates, and tithe. But the tenant or owner who does nothing to his land, works out all the days which by rights he should give to it, and pockets in the autumn an " unearned increment," however small, seems, at least to himself, to do better. And if the season is a really bad one be actually does better. I suppose that the sound economical principle is that the land should be made to bear its greatest possible. If this is to be done, the owner or tenant must have capital, must be able to wait. I have five acres of my own which I work on this principle. Last year the gross produce Was about £30 per acre. But I had to wait for the money, and the adverse balance before the returns began to come in was large, more certainly than the small holder would be equal to. At this moment I am spending at the rate of £5 per acre in clearing away a specially noxious weed, the couch- grass. I put it to my gardener (a very intelligent man), who had just been telling me that he could have made a living out of the place had it been his, whether he would have ventured on this expenditure. He said " No." Doubtless from his point of view he was right, but not doing it would mean a diminished produce. There is another thing to be considered. Will the land bear all this labour that is to be sent back to it? The labourer receives forty per cent. more in wages than be did fifty years ago, and why ? Because he is not underbid. It is quite possible that the small holder may depress him again to the old level.—I am, Sir, &c., &MEX. P.S.—The Government has decided rightly, I think, in preferring tenancies to freeholds.