The Life Of A European Farmer

150 years of food and agriculture: farming worldwide around 1865

Historical Farmland

For many farmers throughout the world in 1865, farming was about small plots of land to grow vegetables, some cereals and having a handful of livestock including pigs, cows and chickens. The main aim was to provide enough fresh or preserved food for the family, with surpluses sold locally, while a landlord might expect as much as a tenth of anything produced as rent. But by 1865 these smallholders in Europe had been joined by a new generation of farmers farming much larger areas of land either as tenants or owners to feed a growing urban and industrial population.

From oxen to steam driven engines – new form of power

These farmers needed help to farm the land and a 200 hectare European farm would employ at least ten men and boys to care for the land and stock. The days of those farmers and farmworkers were long and hard – although they got strong support by oxen as the chief working animal and form of power on many farms at that time. By the end of the nineteenth century they were largely replaced by powerful carthorses (a dozen horses were needed on a 200 hectare farm).


By 1865 the machinery was becoming more sophisticated:

  • Ploughs were becoming larger allowing more area to be covered, although one working team would not be able to plough more than a hectare a day.
  • Within a few years of 1865, steam driven traction engines would have made their first appearance on European farms. For farmers and workers still familiar with working animals, their power and presence must have been impressive, if a little frightening.
  • New harvesting technology: Out went the scythe and in came the horse-drawn reaper and binder which cut the crop using a series of bar-mounted knives, similar to today’s combines, then tied it into bundles or sheaves which could be stacked.

Aside from the evolution of machinery, farmer could draw upon a growing volume of agricultural scientific and technical knowledge. A few privileged farmers would have had received formal education in the first agricultural universities and colleges, such as Hohenheim in Stuttgart Germany which was opened in 1818. Other farmers would have been getting advice and ideas through newly published journals.

Let's talk yield and money

In the latter part of the nineteenth century a typical European commercial farm’s wheat yield was the equivalent of 2.3 tonnes/hectare with barley at 2.1 tonnes/hectare. In the UK a tonne of wheat or barley would be around € 15.20 in 1865, but with pressure from North American imports, the price had tumbled to € 10/tonne by the end of the Century. Considering that a farm labourer would only be making € 0.80 a week, the value of grain was still far in excess of the current € 200/tonne a farmer will get for wheat.


And by talking about income, let us have a look at the typical costs of goods for a farm laborer family in 1865:

  • Tonne of wheat: € 15
  • Farm labourer income: € 42/year
  • Rent: € 6.00/year
  • Bread and flour: € 6.75/year
  • Cheese, butter & bacon: € 3/year
  • Groceries: € 4.30/year
  • Fruit and vegetables: € 4/year
  • Meat and fish: € 8/year
  • Clothes: € 7/year