What Is The Norfolk System?

The Norfolk system is one of the changes that the century of the Industrial Revolution saw in the field of new agricultural techniques. By 1794, the Norfolk region of England was producing 90% of the grain produced in the entire United Kingdom. Curiosity soon began to emerge about the methods used there.

This system was invented by Charles Townshend after abandoning his political career in 1730 and retiring to his properties in Norfolk, in the United Kingdom.

This article focuses on describing what the Norfolk system actually consisted of, the conditions that gave rise to it, and what relationship existed between this system and the progress in agriculture at the time.

Agriculture before the Norfolk system

To fully understand what the system consisted of, it is necessary to know in detail what British agriculture was like before its appearance. Since the Middle Ages , peasants used a three-year system of crop rotation.

Peasants worked the land that had been given to them by a landowner, who often belonged to the nobility. In return, the peasants swore allegiance to the landowner and were ready to fight for him in conflicts that arose.

Every December, in assembly, the peasants assigned each other narrow strips of land. At the beginning, each strip was about 0.4 hectares in area. In the end, each farmer would be assigned around 12 hectares.

These were evenly divided into three open fields. Over time, each of these strips became narrower, as the farming families became more numerous and the land was divided among its members.

In the period between the 15th and 18th centuries, the amount of fenced land began to increase. These were not divided into stripes, but were treated as a unit.

This happened for several reasons: shortly after the War of the Roses (1455-1485), some nobles sold their lands because they needed quick money. Later, during the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547), the lands of the monasteries became the property of the Crown and then sold.

Traditionally, wool and its by-products were the UK’s main export. As the profit from these exports increased in the 15th century, more and more fenced lands were dedicated to sheep farming.

In the seventeenth century, the new livestock techniques were, in part, those that forced more fencing of land. When forage crops used to feed livestock were grown on open land, communal farming benefited ranchers more than farmers.

Due to all this, between the years 1700 and 1845, more than 2.4 million hectares were fenced in England. The new landowners gradually took over the farmers’ lands.

This left many people destitute. Many were forced to beg. However, the owners of the land, developed their livestock activities on fenced land. One of those landowners was Charles Townshend.

After retiring from politics in 1730, he focused on managing his estates in the state of Norfolk. As a result of this, and to maximize its benefits, it introduced a new type of crop rotation that was already being practiced in the Netherlands. The Norfolk system was born.

What is the Norfolk system?

It is a system of crop rotation. In agriculture, when something is grown, it takes time for the crop to develop, mature, and be ready for harvest. The earth is full of nutrients and water. From there the crops obtain their food to complete their life cycle.

In order not to deplete the land, farmers often change the type of crop in their fields from one year to the next. Sometimes they even leave the land uncultivated for a whole year to re-absorb nutrients. This is called laying fallow.

If the soil were to be depleted, it would be land unsuitable for cultivation. It is the wasteland. Before the Norfolk system of crop rotation, three different crop types were used for each cycle. With the Norfolk system, four came into use.

In addition, the land is left fallow. Instead of being left uncultivated, turnips and clovers are planted. These are an excellent food for livestock during the winter and also enrich the soil with nitrogen found at the ends of their roots.

When the plant is uprooted from the ground, its roots, together with the nitrogen they contain, remain in the soil, enriching it.

The four-field system

Townshend successfully introduced the new method. It divided each one of its lands into four sectors dedicated to different types of crops.

In the first sector, he grew wheat. In the second clovers or herbs edible by livestock. In the third, oats or barley. Finally, in the room he grew turnips or nabicoles.

Tulips were used as fodder to feed cattle during the winter. Clovers and grass were good pasture for cattle. Using this system, Townshend realized that he could get a higher economic return from the land.

In addition, the four-sector rotary farming system increased the amount of feed produced. If the crops were not rotated in each of the sectors, the level of nutrients in the land decreased over time.

The crop yield on that land was declining. Using the system of four rotating crops per sector, the land not only recovered but also increased its level of nutrients by alternating the type of crop to which it was dedicated.

Clovers and grass were grown in a sector after wheat, barley, or oats had been grown. This naturally returned the nutrients to the soil. No land was left fallow. Furthermore, when cattle grazed on them, they fertilized the land with their droppings.


  1. How does the Norfolk crop rotation lead to the end of fallow fields. Recovered from: answers.com.
  2. Riches, Naomi “The Agricultural Revolution in Norfolk.” Edited by: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd; 2nd edition (1967).

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