As the Middle Ages waned, increasing communications, the commercial revolution, and the rise of cities in Western Europe tended to turn agriculture away from subsistence farming toward the growing of crops for sale outside the community (commercial agriculture). In Britain the practice of inclosure allowed landlords to set aside plots of land, formerly subject to common rights, for intensive cropping or fenced pasturage, leading to efficient production of single crops.
In the 16th and 17th cent. horticulture was greatly developed and contributed to the so-called agricultural revolution. Exploration and intercontinental trade, as well as scientific investigation, led to the development of horticultural knowledge of various crops and the exchange of farming methods and products, such as the potato, which was introduced from America along with beans and corn (maize) and became almost as common in N Europe as rice is in SE Asia.
The appearance of mechanical devices such as the sugar mill and Eli Whitney's cotton gin helped to support the system of large plantations based on a single crop. The Industrial Revolution after the late 18th cent. swelled the population of towns and cities and increasingly forced agriculture into greater integration with general economic and financial patterns. In the American colonies the independent, more or less self-sufficient family farm became the norm in the North, while the plantation, using slave labor, was dominant (although not universal) in the South. The free farm pushed westward with the frontier.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.