Throughout Cornwall's history, farming has played an important part although the land is of variable quality, with granite uplands, heavy clays in the east, and free-draining loams, all of which make farming a particularly demanding occupation; but the climate can be generous, with longer than usual growing seasons and fewer spring frosts.
The growing of crops and keeping of animals was practised by Celts in the Iron Age. Fields were small and square and surrounded with granite or slate hedges, or earth banks and ditches. Within them oats, rye, pillas or wheat were grown. Fallow fields provided winter hay for the animals. By medieval times this field system was complemented in some areas around newer settlements by the Saxon one of strips. Grain stores grew larger and the market trading of animals began. By the 1600's Cornish farmers were investing most heavily in cattle and sheep for the profit in meat and milk, but also in bones and hides.
Cornish sheep had produced poor quality wool before the 1600's but selective breeding prompted a healthy wool industry. William Marshall wrote in 1817 in reviewing the Board of Agriculture's reports, that "...Cornwall comprises a greater proportion of in-arable lands, than any other English County."
Horses gradually replaced oxen for ploughing and more winter fodder was grown. Around 1800 growing turnips was a popular means of enriching the soil's nitrogen content, but they depleted the lime and they were less frequently used in Cornwall. Potatoes became essential to the diet of the poor. Riots resulted from scarcity of corn after bad harvests and the effects of the French Wars on trade.
By the late 19th century Cornish farms had a very high proportion of cattle in comparison with England and Wales, and relatively more pigs and sheep per acre. Farms remained mainly small, however [and even one hundred years on they are mostly less than 100 acres]. By this time, too, the market garden industry had begun to develop, especially in west Cornwall. Crops of spring cabbages, onions, carrots, lettuce, and early potatoes all benefited from the coming of the railways. A healthy Scillonian flower industry spurred growers in Mounts Bay to follow suit, providing daffodils and narcissi from November on.
An indisputable factor in Cornwall's agricultural environment is the independent and determined nature of the Cornish farmer. With a capacity for hard work, the average Cornish dairy farmer works over 80 hours a week beginning the day at 5.30am and in the summer months finishing up in the late evening and it's not unusual to hear of a market gardener who has cut broccoli round the clock.
Most of Cornwall's 9,500 holdings fall into two categories - those run by owner-occupiers and those by tenant farmers. Cornwall has a larger than average share of tenanted farms - more than half - but these estates are important in providing land security and despite the difficulties many growers and producers have faced, the estates are committed to the long haul in supporting Cornish agriculture and Cornish farming families. Tregothnan, belonging to Lord Falmouth, is perhaps the largest estate followed by the Duchy with 18,000 acres in Cornwall. Cornwall Council has what is called the County Farms Service with over 11,000 acres and 115 holdings and it is especially supportive with a commitment to helping tenants progress professionally as their business develops. Smaller estates like the St. Aubyn's Estate can have something of the quality of an extended family and certainly the St. Aubyn's Estate still holds an annual rent court, a tradition that is many centuries old.
One hundred and fifty years ago the steamboats leaving Hayle for Bristol were heavily laden with new potatoes, broccoli, strawberries and mackerel and today it is the very same crops that form the backbone of the horticultural industry. The Cornish early potato has an increasingly high profile and it is an exceptionally good potato; very delicate, full of flavour and with a higher vitamin and mineral content than other varieties grown elsewhere.
The mild climate augmented by the effects of careful soil husbandry by previous generations of farmers who composted today's rich topsoil from seaweed, sand and manure mean that Cornwall is important for brassicas, and grows 80 per cent of the UK's winter broccoli and spring greens. Figures like this serve to remind that, while we might think of a versatile cauliflower or a sweet, fresh cabbage as commonplace, other regions are not so fortunate. Then to strawberries, perfect companion to clotted cream and grown by an increasing number of the bigger farmers.
Some Cornish towns and districts take a very pro-active approach to the local food issue. Truro has more than half a dozen local produce markets and is very successful at promoting these markets and Marazion has also worked hard to champion local produce.
Although there is a loss of a 100 farms a year, the industry continues to develop pragmatically and the Objective One funding allocated to agriculture has been consistently well managed and is producing real and sustainable benefits.
There are indications that agriculture in the future may be in the hands of some very capable professionals. The Cornwall Federation of Young Farmers is active both socially and in teaching skills for life work and has a strong voice nationally both through the executive and thanks to competition successes.
The Cornwall Agricultural Council has initiated the industry-led Fresh Start programme, a pilot scheme to facilitate entry into the industry. This will help determined, well-trained young Cornish farmers who are looking for tenant farms to start their career.
Cornwall's History Mining in Cornwall