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The Wheat Harvest of 1883


THE public must be somewhat puzzled with the divergent opinions of authorities upon the yield of the wheat crop of the present year. On the one side, for example, stands Sir John Lawes with his accurate balances and wonderful wheat field, which experience has taught him usually proves a fair criterion of the yield of the English crop. On the other side is arrayed, a somewhat formidable party, which we may take as well represented and led by the very able article in the Times of Saturday last, headed “The Result of the Harvest.” To put the matter briefly, there is a difference of opinion as to whether we have reaped an average crop or an under-average crop of wheat. And there is also a good deal of difference in opinion as to what an average crop is. The point of greater interest no doubt to us is whether we have just secured an abundant harvest or not. It is a point of very great importance not only intrinsically but as a matter of opinion. If business men believe that our national wealth has been recently increased by an unusual augmentation of our food supply, they may make this opinion a basis for enterprise or speculation. If the opinion which prompted them to action should prove a false one, the results would be inflation, panic, and loss. It is therefore very essential that public opinion should be guided in a right direction upon this important point. Any person who has read our leading newspapers carefully upon the subject of harvests for a series of years will probably have observed a tendency to over-estimate production. The prospect is usually depicted couleur de rose, and the public is congratulated upon its harvest prospects, while practical farmers remain in doubt as to the yield of their cornfields. Of one thing we may be certain—that wheat needs heat. The average temperature of our islands is scarcely suitable to the wheat plant, which is rightly viewed as somewhat exotic in its requirements. A slight elevation above the sea-level, or a slight decrease in solar heat, invariably lowers the yield of wheat. Properly read with regard to its distribution throughout the season, the temperature of the summer months ought to guide us to a judgment with regard to the probable yield of wheat. It is the same with regard to wine. Good wheat and good wine years run together. 1868, 1870, and 1874 will probably all continue to be remembered as good wine years, and they are well known as among the best wheat years of the present half-century. In judging as to the effects of temperature upon the wheat crops, we must not only take average temperature but fluctuations between night and day. A single cold night may do incalculable damage, and a few cold days at blooming time may do much to blight a wheat-grower's prospects. Those who watch the weather closely will usually lay the foundation of a sound judgment upon wheat prospects. We require, first, a good seed time; second, a dry March; third, a hot June, July, and August. So much for the weather. We require also a good “plant,” i.e. plenty of young wheat plants uniformly scattered over the surface. The growing crop must be fairly free from those unaccountable visitations known as “blights,” both insect and vegetable, and if we can secure these good conditions we reap a good wheat crop. Let us then endeavour to apply these rules to the actual state of things during the months between seed time of 1882 and harvest of 1883, and let us glance at the various opinions expressed as to the yield of wheat for the present year in the light of these facts. First, then, we passed through a period of incessant rainfall during the time when fanners usually sow their wheat. A worse seed time we have rarely experienced. Constant rain and destructive floods were the characteristics of October, November, January, and February last. Now we owe to Sir John Lawes, in a great measure, the knowledge of the fact that a wet winter washes out that element of fertility which of all is the most important, namely, the nitrates. Here then we have to record a very wet winter, in which seeding was interrupted and nitrates were washed through into the drains and subsoil, and that to an unusual degree.

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