The Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

The Agrarian crisis of the 1880s brought yet another transformation. Again, this was mainly a grain crisis, caused by the competition of Russian and, particularly, American grain. The transport revolution – intercontinental trains and ever larger transatlantic steamships – tipped the balance and within a few years American grain, cheaply produced on large farms, flooded the European market.

European countries reacted differently, dependent on internal balances of power. France, Germany, and Italy, for example, started protecting their farmers, but the urbanized and industrialized Britain chose for free trade, as did small trade oriented countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands. The last two countries developed into large exporters of agrarian products. Here, the crisis stimulated radical changes in agriculture. In the sandy landscapes of the southeastern half of the Netherlands, the farmers had for centuries kept animals mainly to get enough manure for their poor arable lands. Now they started specializing in intensive production of dairy products and meat for export, using the cheap grain from the arable as animal fodder. Another large change in the sand belt was the division of the commons, that still occupied more than half the total surface. In the 1890s, the availability of chemical fertilizers made it possible to turn most of the former commons into arable and pasture.

The next large crisis, during the 1930s, more or less repeated the earlier one. Again a number of countries, with Germany as the best example, turned to market regulations. Many countries even turned to import restrictions to protect their own farmers. This global crisis was followed by World War II, with an increasing state intervention in the occupied countries. During the last year of the war, scarcities of food occurred in some regions, including a number of towns in Holland. Although a logistics rather than a production problem, the feeling of scarcity influenced post war agriculture, which became characterized by an active role of the states.