Popular Science Monthly/Volume 52/April 1898/The Question of Wheat: Introduction I
|THE QUESTION OF WHEAT.|
CHIEF OF THE BUREAU OF STATISTICS, TREASURY DEPARTMENT, WASHINGTON, D. C.
A YEAR of abnormal conditions in trade and industry brings; out a plentiful crop of predictions of great approaching changes. If the prophets of economic revolution, who base their prophecies upon half-digested statistics, were to be gathered, and their confident prognostications exhibited in the light of ascertained results, or even of rationally tested tendencies, the asylum of Laputa, as described by Swift, would be of secondary interest. We have been treated in recent years to many a sensational diagnosis of social trouble, fraught with dangers to the body politic. No one will deny that such dangers exist and are even threatening to break upon us or to carry on their operation until only an explosion can clear the atmosphere and permit a renovation on new lines of activity. It is because there are a number of true diseases of society to be met that the studied attempts to create new problems, neither imminent nor at present active, must be deprecated. When these attempts are based upon half knowledge of facts, to use no stronger term, they are still more to be discouraged as hostile to the welfare of the community, and as giving rise to policies that can only end in mischief or disaster. Much of the social unrest which finds expression in political activity has been bred and fostered by the agitation of half truths or of falsehood clothed in a quasi-scientific garb.
At present the question of the wheat supply of the world is prominent, and is being discussed in a manner that produces alarm, and with the alarm encourages every social quackery for its alleviation. Because the year 1897 was a phenomenal year in wheat—every one will admit that to be a fact—the fears of future famines and a general want throughout all wheat-consuming countries of the world are harped upon and magnified until the evidence seems to amount to a demonstration, and nothing remains for the civilized world but to become reconciled to a lowering of the standard of comfort, the substitution of a cereal of secondary quality for one that ranks next to meat in high food efficiency. The corners of the world are ransacked for figures to bear out so dire a prediction. Decreasing acreage devoted to wheat, reduced yield of crops, falling per-capita consumption of wheat, and market prices that seem to bear out the fact of an approaching if not existing famine, every incident of depression is carefully collated, and a picture drawn which casts into shade the fearfulest famine experienced in the world's history.
The error underlying such a presentation is a very common one, for it involves a partial study of a problem where the factors are so many as to present a double difficulty. Not only must the facts and statistics be collected, but they must be arranged in such a form as to be both intelligent and intelligible. Every statistician does not deserve implicit confidence. The most difficult task of the user of statistics is to attain to a proper appreciation of the relative value of compilers of statistics. Even Government work, though covered by the shield "official," is not above criticism, and if a bureau with the weight and authority of Government behind it is liable to go wrong, how much more liable to this mischance is an individual, whose interest may mislead, or whose eagerness to establish a thesis may blind to certain important phases of the problem. In the statistical treatment of any question the greatest care is needed to test fully the combination of figures presented, for a flaw in arrangement may lead to ridiculous conclusions.
These precautions of appreciating men and their work are all the more necessary in matters where the statistics at hand are imperfect or incomplete. This is the case with all agricultural statistics, and especially so with the returns of crops, always an estimate of uncertain foundation. No two fields of grain are exactly the same, and the variation of field to field is exaggerated when it is made the basis for an estimate of the condition or yield of crops in a township, a community, or a State. The observers are different, and each observer would look at the same field through the medium of a personal equation. No general rules can be laid down for preparing these estimates, and much latitude must be given to the agent. In our own crop service, as conducted by the Department of Agriculture, the estimates of crop condition are based upon reports from 56,700 regular correspondents, reporting monthly, and 140,500 special correspondents, reporting at particular seasons of the year. Even the Secretary of Agriculture is not satisfied with this machinery. "I am much impressed," he writes in his report for 1897, "with the extreme cumbrousness of the system of crop reporting that has been in use in this division" (of statistics) "during the last few years. Instead of conducing to completeness and accuracy, it would appear from the report of the statistician to in some measure defeat its own object by its unwieldiness, and by the fact that the indefinite multiplication of crop reporters weakens the sense of individual responsibility." The defects of the system have been recognized by others, who are obliged to be informed on the crop conditions, and who have been compelled to look elsewhere than to the Department of Agriculture for crop returns and estimates. The "commercial estimates" prepared by experts, and checked by actual receipts or movement of grain, find a more ready acceptance than do the "official" estimates. In the last season the commercial estimate placed the crop of wheat at 550,000,000 bushels, while the department forecast a yield of only 450,000,000 bushels, a difference too large to be admissible in a statistical examination of the same subject. The reporters for the department, practical farmers as most of them were, did not wish to report a heavy crop, lest the market be influenced and prices fall. A short crop appeals more to their interest, and their estimate inclines, consciously or unconsciously, to an understatement of conditions. "The best authorities are now agreed that in 1891 the bureau (of agriculture) underestimated the American wheat crop by 73,000,000 bushels, in 1892 by 64,000,000 bushels, and in 1893 by 79,000,000 bushels." "In 1894 the Government estimate in December of the wheat crop was 460,000,000 bushels, while the best commercial estimates of that year were 525,000,000 bushels."
It must be admitted that there are unusual difficulties in estimating such a crop as that of wheat. It is not purely a commercial crop, where the whole product comes into the market to be recorded commercially, as is the case with cotton. A part is consumed on the farm, another part is retained for seed, and the proportion of crop brought to market varies with the price offered and the necessities of the farmer. There are many opportunities of error in arriving at the resultant of these patent conditions, without undertaking to measure other influences that tend to check or promote deliveries and free movement of wheat from the producer to the market, not to speak of the international competition that overshadows the whole subject. It is not a little absurd to dogmatize in the face of so many uncertainties, and all the more absurd when a limited space of time is taken for study. In commerce, the shortest period on which to determine the trend of movement should not be less than twenty years, and as many more years as the returns will permit strengthen the argument. In agriculture the same rule holds. There is an undoubted periodicity in the ebb and flow of industry and agriculture, of commercial and financial movement—waves of prosperity and depression. It would be as misleading to accept a year of depression for a standard as to apply a year of prosperity. In the wish to throw some statistical light upon the position of wheat, I have prepared some notes upon the conditions surrounding the production of this important cereal in different parts of the world, and the conditions controlling its commercial movement in some of the leading markets. As the trade returns of import are more accurate than those of export, I begin with a consideration of the great free wheat market of Great Britain.
In 1849 the duty upon imported wheat was fixed at the nominal rate of one shilling per quarter. In ten years the trade had adapted itself to this rate, and no disturbing influence was exerted by any threatened change of rate, so that 1860 may be taken as a fair starting point for this examination. In that year the United Kingdom imported 25,484,151 quarters (one quarter equals eight bushels) of foreign wheat. Of this quantity the larger part—sixty-seven per cent—was obtainedEuropean countries, of which the more important were Germany and Russia. Outside of Europe the leading sources of supply were the United States, Egypt, and British North America. The general relation of those countries is shown as follows:
|British North America||794,829||"|
The civil war in the United States and the financial measures taken by our Government had a temporary influence, first, to stimulate exports, and secondly, to discourage them after the primary effect of an irredeemable paper currency had passed. The reaction was such as almost to destroy the ability of the United States to export wheat, and it was not till some years after the return of peace that its wheat recovered its true position in the English market. This course of the wheat trade was the most notable incident in the history of that trade since 1860, and a few figures are given to show its remarkable rise and fall. The comparison is of further interest as developing apparent sympathetic fluctuations in the imports from British North America and Egypt. The Canadian flow may be accounted for by the conditions then prevailing in the United States, but the Egyptian stands alone in its curious reflection of the rise and fall in American export.
|Imports into the United Kingdom from||Gazette price of|
|United States.||British North
In the period the need of England for foreign wheat increased, and yet one of the best countries of supply was, to all purposes, taken out of the race. In the five years (1861 to 1865) the average annual import of wheat was 24,902,576 hundredweight, and from 1866 to 1870 it was 31,807,745 hundredweight. The quantity received from Germany remained almost the same in the entire period, but the failure of the United States was in part made good by Russia, and in part by other countries of Europe, from which a small and somewhat unusual supply had been counted upon in the years past. The sudden appearance of these comparatively new sources of wheat, and their equally sudden disappearance, mark the exceptional conditions that gave them a temporary importance.
|Year.||Imports of wheat into the United Kingdom from|
Had this situation been discussed in the year 1866 or 1867, the critic might have concluded that America and Egypt were destined to fall out of the race as suppliers of wheat, and Russia, France, and Chile were to be the future wheat-growing countries. Two years later a new arrangement would have been found necessary, for Austria and Turkey, the United States and Egypt were the rising countries. So uncertain is a conclusion based upon a limited examination. Neither combination of countries would have been accurate, for the decade 1870 to 1880 wrought a revolution in wheat production the true extent of which it is even now difficult to appreciate, and the effect of which is yet felt. A blow was struck at European wheat interests from which they have never recovered, and from which the probability is they never will recover. This revolution may be studied in clear outline in the conditions in Great Britain.
The last vestige of a duty on imported wheat in the United Kingdom was removed in 1869. The duty of 1s. per quarter, which had been collected since 1849, could not have exerted any influence in encouraging the culture of wheat in the kingdom. In 1867 the acreage under wheat was 3,367,876 acres, and the deliveries of wheat in 170 towns, as reported to-the Government, were 2,724,673 quarters. The price of wheat as given in the gazette was such as to encourage some expansion of acreage, but in two years prices again tended downward, and acreage was contracted; so that in 1875 the acreage returned was 3,342,481 acres, and the deliveries were 2,515,098 quarters. To that year the conditions appeared normal so far as the home wheat interest was concerned.
A very different story is told by the imports. From 1871 to 1875 the average annual import was 43,756,956 hundredweight, and from 1876 to 1880 it rose to 52,696,932 hundredweight, or more than double the average import for 1861 to 1865. So large an increase in demand could not be met by continental Europe, though Russia did respond for two years, and at a rate which promised much. In 1871 Russia gave 15,654,000 hundredweight, and in the following year 17,855,658 hundredweight, a figure that was not again attained until 1888. This effort was all the more necessary, as Germany cut down her quota of supplies from an average of more than 6,000,000 hundredweight a year to one of 3,000,000 hundredweight, and after a slight recovery in 1877 and 1878 began to fall rapidly in the rank of wheat exporters to insignificance after 1880. Thus, at a time when England required larger supplies of foreign-grown wheat, Europe failed her. From 1871 to 1875 Europe gave an average of 18,138,823 hundredweight, and in 1876 to 1880 only two thirds of that quantity, or 12,806,670 hundredweight. Outside of Europe must be looked upon to make good the growing deficiency of European supplies.
The reason of this change of sources is not far to seek. The land in Great Britain could be turned to more profitable use than for wheat-growing. "Writing in 1878, before the full force of the current in agriculture could have been felt, Sir James Caird said: "'Excluding good lands capable of being rendered fertile by drainage, we appear to have approached a point in agricultural production beyond which capital can be otherwise more profitably expended in this country than in further attempting to force our poorer class of soils. It is cheaper for us as a nation to get the surplus from the richer lands of America and southern Russia, where the virgin soil is still unexhausted; or from the more ancient agriculture of India, which, with its cheap and abundant labor more skillfully applied, and its means of transport extended and better utilized,seems destined to become one of the principal sources of our future supply of corn (wheat)."
At the time this was written it was assumed that the cost of transporting a bushel of wheat from a distant country was about the same as the rent paid by the wheat farmer in Great Britain. Given ordinarily good returns, the home-grown wheat could meet the foreign wheat on an equality. Two circumstances combined to destroy this relation. The one was an extraordinary succession of bad seasons in England, and the other was such a development of production abroad as to result in a permanently lower range of price. This situation brought to bear an enormous pressure on agricultural properties, and a tendency to reduce rents.
The first notable drop in the wheat acreage in England occurred in 1876, and was due to the great floods in the autumn seedtime of 1875, which prevented a considerable proportion of the land being sown. In 1874 the acres returned under wheat were 3,391,440; in 1875, 3,128,547; and in 1876, only 2,823,342, a loss in two years of one sixth of the area. There was a recovery of about 200,000 acres in the years 1877 and 1878, but not only was this recovery lost in 1879, 105,000 acres more went out of wheat cultivation. The crop returns of these years tell a doleful story. In 1875 they reported "much under average"; in 1876, "under average"; in 1877, "much under average"; in 1878, "over average"; and in 1879, thought to be the culmination of a series of bad years, "much under average." From 1866 to 1870 the average yield per acre was 261 bushels, but from 1875 to 1880 this average was twice touched, and in 1879 the complete returns gave a yield of only 18 bushels to the acre, a record that marked a year of disaster.
It will be of interest to show how far these adverse conditions were due to natural causes, and therefore beyond the power of farmer or legislator to modify or even to forecast. The weather of 1875 was "cold, ungenial, and unsettled. The spring was one of the coldest, bleakest, and most backward of the century. In July came heavy, chill, and destructive rains, destroying the hay and the roots, and blighting the prospects of any abundant corn crops."In the next year, 1876, the hot weather of June and July came too late to mature the crops, and the result was not satisfactory—a crop "of a very imperfect character."
Conditions were brighter in 1878. The crop was only an average one, but that seemed grateful to the farmers after three bad harvests in succession. Whatever hopes were raised by favoring markets and improved returns were dashed in 1879, a year of disaster in agriculture, and giving the worst crop of wheat since 1816 As agriculture represented one tenth of the total produce of the country, and hardly a branch of agriculture escaped injury, the mischief was so pronounced as to call for an examination by a royal commission. The London Statist, a conservative and able judge, thus summed up the agricultural operations of 1879, a year that many thought marked the total ruin of the British farmer: "There can be no doubt as regards the corn crops that last season was one of the worst on record. After the harvest each succeeding estimate of the yield of the wheat crop appeared to be worse than its predecessor, and these low estimates have been fully confirmed by the remarkable falling off in the quantities brought to market. The reduction of yield must have been at least thirty per cent below the average. . . . The barley harvest has also been most deficient, the result being peculiarly disastrous to the excise revenue. In minor crops, such as hops, there has been quite as serious failure. The season has also been far from favorable to green crops and live stock."
It is not to be denied that other causes contributed to depress agriculture in England—causes which operated on every form of industry and commercial activity. The Franco-Prussian War checked exports to two very good customers of English industries; the financial crisis of 1873 was world-wide in its influence; in 1875 came the collapse of many foreign loans, ending in default, ruin, and great suffering to the many who had put their savings into such risks. In 1877 Russia and Turkey went to war, one of the effects of which was to close the ports of both countries and thereby lessen the quantity of wheat exported. In 1878 the City of Glasgow Bank failed and produced a commercial crisis—the last of the important events before the revival of trade and industry began to make itself felt in 1879. But it was the climatic conditions that weighed most heavily upon the farmer, preventing him from meeting his losses, or even from putting himself in a condition to meet the competition of the foreigner. He no longer enjoyed a natural protection of distance. That margin had long since been wiped out by falling prices in the home market, in the places of production, and in the cost of transportation. In 1872 the gazette price of wheat was 57s. the quarter, and the quotation did not fall below 55s. until 1875, when 45s. 2d. was given—a low return in comparison with the previous ten years. A rise brought it up to, 56s. 9d. in 1877, but a fall to 46s. 5d. in 1878, severe as it was, gave a price that has not since been recorded. From that year the market value of wheat steadily declined.
The English farmer thus contended against a double pressure—bad seasons and a foreign competition that was in a position to dictate prices. Against both he was powerless, though he could break the full force of the blow from competition by changing his culture, as in growing barley in place of wheat, or by more carefully selecting his lands, and appropriating them to the most distinctly suitable form of crop. As a fact, these measures were adopted on an extensive scale. In England the period 1870 to 1879 gave a decreased acreage under wheat of 529,000 acres, and an increased acreage under barley of 229,000 acres.
At the instance of the royal commission, two of its members visited the United States, and in an able report gave figures to prove that wheat could not be grown in the United States in an average of years and delivered in Great Britain much below 48s. a quarter. This would have been comforting had it been capable of demonstration. Unfortunately for the farmer, the market quotations and the import movement of wheat directly disproved such a hard-and-fast limit. The highest authority on agriculture, Mr. Caird, reiterated his warnings of continued pressure: "Our system of agriculture is thus already beginning to accommodate itself to the change which American competition will certainly render necessary. In the northern and western parts of the country, where live stock predominates over corn, and where the labor bill is comparatively moderate, the effects of this connection are little felt, and the suffering that has arisen of late years has been more the result of ungenial seasons and grazings unthrifty for the herds and flocks. In the corn districts the loss has been greater, because not only were the crops inferior, but prices were low, while the labor was very costly. In the least fertile tracts of poor clay, where every operation is expensive and the land is unkindly for grass, it must either go out of cultivation or be turned to some other purpose than that of growing food. It is hopeless to expect that such soils can maintain their old position. Indeed, nothing but the greatest prudence and freedom of action will carry our landowners and farmers, on even the better class of corn lands, through the earlier years of the competition on which they are entered."
The estimates of the losses suffered by the British farm|er through the succession of "calamitous" seasons from 1873 to 1879 varied widely, but all agreed in naming a very large amount. Only two good crops in ten years, and the last of the series, that of 1879, the "worst of the century," naturally gave a severe and, as it proved, a lasting blow to wheat-growing in England. Indeed, the loss was placed at one third of the total farming capital of the kingdom, and in many corn (or wheat) districts more than one half of the farmers' capital had disappeared. The acreage under wheat, the gazette price, and the imports of foreign supplies during this period make an interesting and suggestive study.
|Year.||Wheat acreage.||Gazette price
|Total imports.||Imports from|
These figures alone would be sufficient to indicate a revolution in the wheat interests of Great Britain. The acreage under wheat decreased nearly one fifth, yet the price of wheat fell in more than the same proportion. The supplies obtained from European countries fell off in quantity, and would, indeed, have fallen to nothing had it not been for Russia. With her black-earth region, rapidly settled by her own population, she was in nearly the same position as the United States, and responded for a time freely to the demands of the English market.
The economic movement thus fixed upon English wheat interests by adverse conditions proceeded rapidly in the ten years following 1880, and the great changesnot in England itself, but in the development of competition among outside growers of wheat for export. In 1880 and 1881 it seemed as if the United States held a practical monopoly of the British wheat market. In these years nearly two thirds of the total imports came from the United States, and British India was the only competitor in sight, but far behind America in importance. The quantities of wheat taken from our producers have never since been equaled, and still stand as the record years in this one line of exports. For the rest of the decade the movement fluctuated within wide limits, and it seemed at times as if the position of American wheat in England was seriously threatened. Russia showed a remarkable increase in an ability to export, while British India, its own population not being consumers of wheat, was thought to offer an almost unlimited field for wheat culture and commerce, limited, in fact, only by the difficulties of assuring certain water supply and ready means of transport. A new and not unfavored competitor gave signs of activity in Australasia, while before the year 1890 experts were speculating upon the possibilities of Argentina as a wheat country. Europe, outside of Russia, was practically out of the race; but that loss was more than made good by so many new countries coming forward with a promise of abundant and cheap production. The former table on acreage and price in England is here continued for the decade 1881 and 1890:
|Year.||Wheat acreage.||Gazette price
|Total imports.||Imports from|
Interesting as has been the record of wheat imports into the United Kingdom for the twenty years from 1871 to 1890, the course of events since has been sensational in their number and suddenness. The famine of 1891 in Russia crippled her export trade for the time, and, indeed, threatened to destroy it by the necessity of creating deposits of grain to guard against the recurrence of so dread a visitation. A series of poor crops in India raised domestic prices of grains to a point at which shipments became unprofitable, and this weakening of wheat supply culminated in the plague and famine which wiped Indian wheat out of the European market. Argentina began to fulfill its promise of production, and after a meteoric progress collapsed in disaster, its entire crop being destroyed by a plague of locusts. Russia and the United States alone remained as a source of supply, and under the stress of demand the price of wheat rose rapidly in 1897. These various conditions may best be related in the next article.
The English wheat acreage meanwhile has gone steadily down under the strain of outside competition. In 1895 only 1,417,483 acres were returned as under wheat—a loss of nearly 2,000,000 acres since 1867. The prediction that the United States could not export wheat under 48s. per quarter has been answered by continued export with wheat at 22s. per quarter. A royal commission on agriculture can make no definite suggestion for its betterment, and the following tables express more eloquently than could any words the kaleidoscopic changes in sources of imports since 1890, all of which have depressed wheat-growing in England, while shuffling these outside sources of supply in a manner truly remarkable. As a record of sudden change, these figures could hardly be matched in recent economic experience:
|Year.||Total Imports.||Imports of wheat into the United Kingdom from|
|From Europe.||From India.||From
A period of stress such as English agriculture has passed through leaves its permanent results, and the social changes wrought in the British Islands have been great and trying. The landowner has seen his rents fall to a point below which no profit can accrue from keeping his lands under wheat. The land occupier has seen his profit wiped out, and has been forced to obtain a reduction in rent, or to migrate to the towns, colonies, or foreign countries. The farm laborer, never in even a good position, has found precarious work, and has become migratory in his restlessness. This has been followed by a rise in wages, through the scarcity of farm hands, but the employers complain that under higher wages less and therefore more costly results are obtained. The value of land in the return for taxation shows a great shrinkage. In 1872 the value of lands in England so returned was £48,964,149, and it increased each year, reaching a maximum of £51,811,234 in 1877. In 1895 it had fallen to £39,680,346—a decrease of twenty-three per cent, or nearly one fourth. This becomes the more striking when compared with the rise in the value of houses from £76,475,194 in 1872, to £133,511,890 in 1895. From these figures it may be judged how severe has been the crisis in English agriculture, yet a crisis that has not permanently increased the cost of wheat and thus burdened the other industries of the empire.
- New York Evening Post, August 11, 1897.
- Ibid., August 16, 1897.
- Fiscal years, from Commerce and Navigation.
- Calendar years, from English trade returns.
- Caird. The Landed Interest, p.6.
- Ibid., p. 9.
- London Economist, March 11, 1876.
- Ibid., March 10, 1877.
- London Times.
- Statist, January 31, 1880.
- Address as President of the Royal Statistical Society, 1880.