Agricultural productivity in Québec 1762 to 1831

In answering to the questions regarding my book (in French), I discussed briefly what I was doing for my own doctoral research on Quebec’s economic growth between 1760 and 1840. As I stated, I do not agree with the presumption that there are “preindustrial culture” which prohibit welfare-enhancing behaviour and posits an inability to respond to market incentives on the part of “peasants”.

The ultimate test of my position (that peasants did maximize output) is to look at agricultural productivity. In the years I am interested in (1760-1840), there was a decline in piracy and a consolidation in the organization of overseas shipping which accompanied a great increase in shipping productivity. In turn this led to market integration on both side of the Atlantic – something well documented for the United States, but not for the Canadian colonies. By sheer virtue of “Smithian” growth (extension of market size), the scope for specialization expanded and allowed for returns in investing in agricultural productivity (especially by mixing crops in order to maximize the returns from subsistence farming measured in calories and the returns from commercial farming measured in monetary terms). So, the test is indeed agricultural productivity.
As of now, I have collected samples large enough to create consistent data sets of farms in Quebec to evaluate the evolution of productivity in agriculture. The most viable one I believe to have is based on two censuses for the area of Trois-Rivières – the third largest city in Quebec after the Conquest – for 1762 and 1831. Using calories produced by each crops harvested and the quantity of land used, I managed to derive the increase in productivity for agricultural operations in that area.

Below you will see the percentage figures of productivity growth. I will not publish the values in calories produced for I want to keep my data for myself until my thesis is handed back. But as you can see, productivity growth in Trois-Rivières agricultural operations stood somewhere between 19% and 27% between 1762 and 1831. This gives a compound annual growth rate ranging between 0.25% and 0.35%. This is a non-negligeable rate which is below the figure of 0.5% found by Winifred Rothenberg in her study of Massachussets agricultural productivity from 1771 to 1801 but in the same waters as the one observed for wheat production by Robert Gallman from 1800 to 1850.


Given that it is generally accepted that economic growth in America from the end of the revolutionary era to the early 1820s relied mostly on factors which increased the size of the markets (rather than on technologies and technique that shifted the production function upwards), this means that Quebec’s economic growth path before the 1830s could have followed a path quite similar to that of the United States. Such a possibility yields powerful implications for the literature on early Canadian economic growth. Namely, it means that the divergence that occurred at some point in the second half of the 1800s came not from the “cultural” explanations often presented (and rarely in an impressive manner) but rather from institutional factors.


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