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Podcast Episode 51- War Modernizing the Farm

In the conscription debate of 1917, farmers asked the Canadian Government to exempt their sons from conscription into the First World War. They rallied for their efforts to be acknowledged and stressed the importance of wartime farming. The Borden government complied since farmer’s votes were crucial, though by April of 1918, the agreement was exempted as casualties overseas rose and recruitments faced shortages. This meant that all males aged 20-45 would be subject to military service if called upon. Because of this, farmers believed this to be a betrayal by Borden and started a protest. This uprising would continue after the war, fueling new political parties and leading to a boom in pro-agriculture politics.  

During WW1, the government was pursuing two contradictory goals, to recruit more men and to increase food production. These tasks were becoming more and more difficult for Canada to persevere with its war effort on two fronts at once. Due to most men being recruited, farmers relied on the help from older children for help. And so, a national initiative led by the Canadian Food Board began. This program was called ‘Soldiers of the soil’ also known as ‘SOS’. The program encouraged adolescent boys to volunteer farm service in 3-month increments. Even though service increments lasted 3 months, many young men offered to stay longer, trying to help the war in any way they could. Overall SOS recruited 22,385 children across Canada. In exchange for labor the volunteers received room and board, spending money, and exemption from school and exams in the case of high school students. Upon completion, the young men would receive an “honorable discharge”, and an SOS badge usually at a community ceremony acknowledging their service.  

Just like the young men serving on farms, the Ontario Government led an initiative called The Farm Service Corps, where they aimed in recruiting women to work the fields. Very quickly these women became known as “Farmettes”. Women assisted in all aspects of farming, replacing the labor of men who had gone to war. This initiative became so big, in 1918, 2,400 women picked fruit in the Niagra region alone. The YWCA and other charitable agencies and provincial departments of public works also ran similar agricultural work camps. Rural women contributed extensively to farm work here in Canada. Before the War women often helped around the farm but now, they did so without the help of their husbands, sons, brothers, and farm hands. It was labor like this that women and children tirelessly and quickly picked up, that helped Canada supply not only the country but a lot of the world. 

During WW1, Russian wheat exports were cut off. This meant a shortage was occurring. This necessitated North America to produce more wheat to feed not only those in their countries but allies as well. At the beginning of the war Canada sent 1 million sacks of flour to Britain, Ontario providing 500,000 of those sacks. With the continuation of the war, Britain relied heavily on its colonies to provide food for them, and Canada certainly stepped up to the plate in full force. By the end of World War 1, crop prices began to drop back down again, leaving farmers in an uncertain position. 

Now let’s talk a bit about how the War modernized farm machinery.  In our Agricultural Centre at Backus-Page House Museum, we have a large poster hanging from the ceiling showing farmers in 1916 taking delivery of Massey-Harris binder in Rodney.  The Black and white photograph is from the Elgin County Archives, Rodney Women’s Institute Tweedsmuir collection showing a group of 116 farmers and their horses with their new $100 Massey-Harris binders at the dealership of James A. McLean.  This picture gave us the idea for this episode.   

In the late 19th and early 20th century, farmers used horses for nearly everything on the farm. With mechanization, that changed everything. In the 1920’s gas powered tractors became increasingly popular. These new machines could do the same work as the horses in much less time. This also meant that acreage could be freed up as less horses were kept. What was once used to grow hay and oats for the horses, could now be used for other crops.  

Though the fossil-fueled tractors were a great advantage to farmers, they were very expensive to buy and maintain. As a result, farmers’ debt levels rose, and they became dependent on banks. During the Second World War, the government introduced measures that put caps on the amount of farm machinery that was allowed to be on one farm. These caps were established to reduce the amount of metals, in particular steel, being bought by those in the Homefront. Steel especially was in a high demand for war machinery. It wasn’t until the Second World War and after, that small tractors became commonplace on the average family farm. In the late 1920’s electricity started gaining momentum in Canada. However, rural Canada wouldn’t see electricity till after the Second World War. When power did start flowing to the countryside, it was common for electricity to be placed in barns before they were in the house, showing the importance of improving agricultural productivity. 

Another way the war aided in modernizing agriculture is by pushing the Green Revolution. Also known as the Third Agricultural Revolution took place post WW2. This revolution referrers to the transfer of technology that increased crop yields and agricultural productions. There were breakthroughs in synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and irrigation technologies. These methods helped feed the growing population, though today are seen by some as unsustainable due to the environmental impact. 

During WW2, farmers faced some of the largest food shortages the world had ever seen. Allies of Canada sought the help of Canadian farmers in exporting an increase of pork, cheese, butter, and beef. Due to this, the increase in animals meant an increase in coarse grains, hay, and grass. In 1938, 3.4 million hogs were slaughtered. By 1944, that number had increased to 7.4 million. The number of cattle marketed for slaughter rose from 1.1 million head in 1938 to 2.1 million a decade later. Cheddar cheese production grew from 119 million pounds in 1938 to 177 million in 1945. This country exported some 737 million pounds of cheese during the war, accounting for 18 to 31 per cent of yearly British consumption. Egg production jumped from 219 million dozen in 1938 to 377 million in 1947. 

At the beginning of the war though, Canada had a problem. The whole country was awash in wheat. After the dust bowl of the 1930s, good weather returned, and western farmers produced bumper crops in 1938 and again in 1939. Then in 1940, they anticipated a repeat of the First World War when demand and prices exploded. Because of this they sowed more acres to wheat than ever before and harvested an astonishing 500 million bushels. However suddenly, farmyard granaries and country elevators across the Prairies of Canada were stuffed with more of the grain than could possibly be consumed domestically, or by the country’s closest ally, Great Britain.  

The war began to quickly take a toll on farmers. They had been working longer hours, their equipment suffered from neglect and deferred maintenance, and their fence posts needed fixings. With the list of tasks pushed off to the side, farmers set their minds to their main goal. Feeding the world. During this time farmers invested heavily in farm machinery, optimizing production and efficiency, while decreasing the workload. Though the sales for farm machinery went up, it was rather difficult to receive. Because of the need for war machinery, tractors and combines were reduced. This meant that it was rationed and made available only by permit. Most tractors and equipment at this time was imported from the United States. 

Not only were machines rationed, but hardware and everyday objects were as well. As the war progressed, tires began to be rationed, ensuring that the military had enough rubber. The compound was used in almost every military item, for example, one medium-sized tank used 800 kilograms of rubber. Not only did rubber reduce the amount of vibration from machinery, but it also silenced them. Luckily many tractors had steel wheels which could be equipped with rubber if extra grip was needed. This meant that ploughing fields, regardless of whether the work was done with horse or tractor, could continue. Like rubber, and steel, citizens were tasked with handing in any milkweed pods. Communities across North America gathered to harvest milkweed pods and gather as much bags as possible. Due to milkweeds naturally buoyant and water repellant fibres it was used to make life vests for soldiers.  It would take 2, 20-pound bags of milkweed pods to make a single life preserver. Therefore, community wide milkweed collecting became very needed.  

By spring of 1942, the government of Canada imposed controls on farms to regulate an adequate supply of labour. Like the first world war, students began taking leaves from school to help in the fields and women took to the farms to maintain the food supply. Farmers turned soldiers, often rented their farms out to neighbours and friends while they were overseas. Agreements would be made that those overseeing the farms would upkeep them and continue growing the crops and maintaining the animals. This was done to ensure that the farms would continue with production and provide food. This however did not work out great for some farmers. Upon arriving back from war, some discovered their farms engulfed in weeds, animals unkept, and not a thing touched.  

Canada began to find as much help as they could. In the later war years, German Prisoners of War began to be shipped over to work in the fields across North America. Not only were there prisoners of war working to provide food, but Canadians of Japanese descent who were held in internment camps were also assigned to agriculture jobs. In Glencoe, Japanese Canadians were sent to work in the fields in May of 1942. They lived on the Glencoe fairgrounds in a building called the ‘Crystal Palace’. Over 100 people worked tirelessly in the fields. What started off as cultivating sugar beets, transformed into all kinds of farm work. Brian Angyal from the Glencoe and District Historical Society states that all the workers at this camp were paid for their labour and were not prisoners.  

Throughout the First and Second World Wars farmers of Canada worked tirelessly to ensure that its citizens and allies received the food they needed, combatting major world shortages. It is because of the efforts of these men, women, and children, that Canada provided food for all. If you’ve made it to the end of this episode, thank you for sticking around! If you have any questions or stories of farming during the 1st or 2nd World Wars, let us know!