Friday, 15 July 2016
The Farmer and the War
—PART II. of ‘England in Arms’.
By Lacey Amy
From The Canadian Magazine, June 1917.
No one in England has been more intimately affected by the war than the farmer. No one in England will, in the long run, profit so completely.
“No doubt the State showed a lamentable indifference to the importance of agricultural industry, the very life of the nation. No civilized country spent less on agriculture, or even spent as little on it, directly or indirectly, as we did.”
In that frank confession before the House on a memorable day in February, nineteen-seventeen, Lloyd George, faced by a startling shortage of food as the result of the condition he now deplored, supported by the ready assent of a people who had, for the first time in its history, been forced to weigh its allowance, sounded a nation’s remorse. Ahead stared the menacing future of a struggle with a ruthless foe that was attacking in England’s most vulnerable spot. Behind were generations of neglect of the only industry that could surely save her in her extremity. Ahead lay even the uncertainty of a victory that might have been assured had England not so immutably set her course by a plan whose blindness was now recognized perhaps too late. “Seventy to eighty per cent. of our wheat has been imported,” groaned the Premier. “Our food stocks are low, alarmingly low—lower than they have ever been within recollection.” And a nation, paying the penalty of its own folly, grimly bent its tardy efforts to reforming the system, to remodeling its ideas of national industry and national life.
Hitherto the English farmer, in a country where man is classified largely by the work he does, moved on the lowest plane. He fulfilled no vital function of national existence. He lived on suffrance. His only recognized function was to render profitable some insignificant part of the huge tracts owned by wealthy landlords, and to keep them in shape for the latter’s amusements. He was little more than a servant of the landlord from whom he rented his land—for he seldom owned it. Generation after generation his family grovelled and dug, hopelessly, almost stupidly, ground down by the system that deprived him of every incentive of ambition. His sons who were worth while left him and sailed for the Colonies, where a man might be a man and still be a farmer, where the limits of the scale, social and financial, depended only on a man’s capacity.
There is another “farmer” in England, the landlord owner who never handled a hoe or stirred a spadeful of earth or harnessed a horse. His voice swells in the House of Commons, on the public platform, in rural organizations. The other day a London newspaper displayed a letter from a “Farmer” protesting against the cry for more cultivation when labourers were unavailable owing to the demands of the Army. On his 800 acre farm, he lamented, he had but sixteen hands, and the land was idle for want of workers. But the letter was sent from one of the most exclusive and expensive clubs in London. There are thousands like him in England—men who call themselves farmers but never farm, who bewail the dearth of help but scorn to remove their own coats. That is not the farmer of whom I am going to speak.
The English farm was but a corner of a large sporting estate. Where tens of acres were tilled hundreds were left wild for the deer, the fox, the pheasant, the rabbit to multiply for the sport of the landlord. Or parks and paddocks in the best locations represented the owner’s keenest concern. Deer browsed off the fields, and foxes and pheasants grew fat on the farmers’ work that the lord of the manor might find his sport at his door. And the sufferer from their depredations dare not shoot them. The huntsmen galloped across his fields in pursuit of the fleeing fox; they left open his gates and controlled the heights of his fences to the capacities of their horses. And the farmer had no redress. Even after two and a half years of war, when game had multiplied through lack of hunters until the farmers’ best efforts threatened to be nullified, it was only against keen opposition in the House that they were given the right to shoot the game that was assisting the enemy to cut down the nation’s subsistence. A conservative country fought to the last ditch any change that favoured the farmer against the idle landlord even when the latter’s food was at sake with the former’s.
England was a nation of sportsmen, of financiers, of shopkeepers. What need of the farmer? Were there not unending fleets of merchant ships to fetch the food the islands needed? Was there not the Navy to protect them against the world’s attacks in their passage? Folly, England declared, to break up the fields that formed the amusement of the wealthy. England would always be mistress of the seas. The rest of the world might be the world’s granary.
The result was inevitable. Smaller and smaller grew the farms, tighter and tighter the areas of tilled fields. The farmer did not develop for there was not the room. He made no experiments; he was not supposed to. Experiment was not for his class. He stuck to the beaten track of his grandfather, without a vision of better things. And his sons, disgusted, revolutionary, left him. Gradually land that had raised its average of thirty bushels of wheat passed into the interminable pasture that covers England. Five millions of acres ceased to cater to the needs of the people. For seventy miles round London there is no farming. Down in Kent there are broken acres set out with hop poles, but scarcely anywhere within that area, especially to the south and east and west, do growing fields of grain gladden the eye. No prairie was ever more unproductive. Golf links everywhere, rolling sweeps of meadow land adorned with a few sheep and cattle, rising heights of glorious parks—a dream of gentle, beautiful landscape, but useless, utterly useless to a country surrounded by water.
That was England up to 1917. Now the scene is changing. “The plough is our hope,” admitted Lloyd George, with that candid note of apology that promises bright things for the future. “The war at any rate has taught us one lesson—that the preservation of our essential industries is as important a part of the national defence as the maintenance of the Army and Navy.” And in that sentence rang hope to the dulled farmer, the emancipation of an industry that had been choked almost to extinction. The Island Kingdom had awakened to the fact that no nation can repudiate the essentials of life and thrive, even under its ordinary contingencies.
Yet even to-day there are Free Trade enthusiasts—so far publicly expressing themselves only in the House of Lords—who contend that had the farmer been protected, had he been encouraged, England would not have possessed its 12,500,000 tons of shipping when the war broke out. No one has troubled to reply. The outcome of the next three months will answer—it is answering now.
The war had been in progress almost two years when Mr. Asquith, then Premier, rose in the House and assured it that there was no need for worry. The submarine peril had been overcome; England might continue to import its food stuffs with perfect confidence in its future. There might be shortages here and there in certain luxuries, but the granaries of the world were at the nation’s door. It pleased England, the conservative, that it need not change. But a very few months later, while still there was no submarine ruthlessness, the Premier had risen to alter his tone. Wheat was climbing to unprecedented heights. The condition of the market was proving that, even should the country not starve, there was little profit in leaving itself in the hands of foreigners, whether the seas were free or not. But it was left to the Premier demanded by a people who had begun seriously to doubt to face the real crisis of England’s policy.
Of course every industry and occupation in England considers that it has been especially selected to bear the brunt of the war. But labour and food production, the two great sources of victory, quite as vital as the Army and the Navy, can bear only a certain amount without the entire nation paying the penalty. Both responded to the early call of the recruiting officers with a zeal that spoke well for their loyalty. The farming communities were unevenly affected, as were the towns. In certain districts the patriotism was of such an intense nature that farmers were shorn of their assistance almost to the point of stopping production. The Derby scheme took many more. One hundred and eight thousand farm-hands enlisted voluntarily.
In the early stages there was no thought of selection. England must have an Army, wherever it was obtained. Kitchener had to raise a million men almost by the stroke of the wand. Nothing else mattered but that France should have the instant support of its most powerful but most unprepared ally. Even when the pressing urgency of men grew less insistent there was no fear of the depletion of the farms. Where some sections had enlisted en masse others had not felt the call; the farmers thought that somewhere in England was labour enough. Their patriotism was more sensitive than their purses. All England was too sure of itself, too confident that history would be repeated without seriously disturbing the country ’s plan of life.
But when conscription ruthlessly took the fit, the loose labour market was thinned out and the farmer had nowhere to turn to make up his deficiency. So he did the thing that had for many years come so easy to him— turned his growing grain fields into grass lands. One of the difficulties was the English system of labour. Farms and private houses, factories and stores, are in ordinary times manned by an army of help that has learned to confine itself to its specified duties. A house that in Canada would be content with two servants, in England employs five. A farm that would be worked in Canada by two men, in England is shorthanded without seven or eight—probably with more intensive farming. It is an extravagance of labour from which there is much suffering now. And so many farms were devoted to fancy crops that required additional hands. Nevertheless the condition had to be taken as it was, and while it is changing rapidly under necessity, there is loss of energy in the process.
The work of the Tribunals appointed to decide on exemptions from the Army did little to improve matters. Some ignored every plea of the farmer and took his assistant. Others refused to make the farmer organize his work that fewer helpers might do it. Thus there were farm-hands to spare in places, and land that could not be worked in others. It depended upon the direction of one’s vision whether one condemned the Tribunals as careless of the Army or of the nation’s food. In general it was natural that the military representatives who appeared before these official bodies should insist on the farmer as most suited by his outdoor, severe work for the harsh life of the trenches.
In the fall of 1916 the country could no longer ignore the shortage of certain food stuffs. Hitherto it had deceived itself by imagining that the rising prices came entirely from profiteering and market manipulation. To the last moment the Asquith Government had delayed official interference. Now a Food Controller was proposed, his duties being vaguely named to include production and distribution. In August, two months before, a Committee had been appointed in response to public fears to inquire into the whole food question and to propose what remedies seemed advisable. Incidentally, it made its report seven months later, after the new Government had been forced to anticipate it, without its assistance, by several weeks. And the Food Controller idea was left untouched for two months to the consideration of the people. It was a habit of the Asquith Government.
In December, when the people changed leaders, nothing practical had been done. The Food Controller had not been named. A score of proposals had gone no further. Week after week the newspapers were left to urge their own particular hobbies, to resist that which did not meet their fancy. And day by day conditions were growing more desperate. When Lloyd George took the reins one of his first appointments was the Food Controller, his duties limited to food distribution and food consumption; and other officials followed for the great problem of production. No one man could handle all ends of the food question.
Almost before the new Premier had settled down to individual problems came the submarine menace to importations, and instantly everything else had to be dropped for the greater anxiety. Without delay he realized that in the farmer was the only hope. There might be discovered means of destroying the submarine; there might not. And the latter contingency had to be considered first. An appeal was made to the farmer to break every available acre, and power was given the authorities to commandeer for tillage idle land. Allotments were laid out all over England for the townspeople to work after hours. A large order for tractor ploughs was wired to America.
But the farmers had become disgusted with the lack of consideration shown them thus far. Their response was: “How can we break land without the help to do it”? And when most of the tractor ploughs were sunk on the way over it became more than a condition that could be met by appeal.
The Ministry of National Service, a special production of Lloyd George’s brain in anticipation of such problems, went to work. It concentrated on furnishing the farmer with the help he needed. It invited every man who could handle a plough to give up his present work and spend the next six weeks on the land while yet the season’s crops might be planted. It began to train women for work they had never anticipated in their wildest dreams.
The Army was combed. Eleven thousand farm-hands were lent from the units training in England.
Twenty-seven thousand were taken from the trenches and returned to the land, subject to twenty-four hours’ recall. Camp commandants were ordered to let out their draft horses to the farmers at a dollar a day. Five thousand German prisoners were put at work. Of the 60,000 farm-hands whose Tribunal exemptions were up only 30,000 were asked for, and before they could respond their number was reduced to 10,610.
The Government spent two million dollars on farm machinery. In the shortage of tractor ploughs every one was commandeered and men sought to keep them at work in three shifts day and night.
The Cabinet took a peremptory hand in the disagreements between the War Office and the Board of Agriculture. “In this particular case,” it said diplomatically, “we regard the production of food as more important even than sending men to the Army.” That was the last word. And to back up its decision it formulated conditions to control the relationship of farmer and helper, of farmer and the public.
In establishing terms that would induce the utmost extension of land cultivation the Government was faced by two problems—the “plough-fright” of the farmer, and the reluctance of the labourer. To a Canadian it may seem strange that concessions should be necessary to prevail upon the farmer to break all the land he could work, but peculiar English conditions had made it seem more profitable for him to let his land go to grass. Back in the early eighties and nineties he had felt the keen suffering of land poverty, when the inadequacy of prices for grain made his work a loss. And now the unknown future was further blackened by an uncertainty of labour to enable him to profit from the capacity of the land put under cultivation. Unless he could be assured reasonable returns from his labour for a certain course of years, he would not be likely to invite a repetition of his insolvency of thirty years ago. Next, the protection of the farmer would be of little avail if conditions were made insufficiently attractive to draw the labour to him in steady supply.
Therefore the Government attempted in one stroke to overcome both obstacles. It established minimum prices for six years for wheat and oats, and minimum wages for the worker. Wheat, at the time this announcement was made, had reached $2.25 a bushel, and working roughly from this basis and considering the cost of production, the minimum price for 1917 was set at $1.78 per bushel, ranging down to $1.34 during the last three years of the period. Oats were to bring not less than 65 cents this year and 45 for the last years affected.
It must be remembered that the prices were minimum only. That is, there was nothing to prevent the farmer accepting whatever the market would give him above the scale. As I write wheat is quoted at $2.75 in England, and should the submarines continue, even as at the present, the price will advance much higher before the year is finished. At first glance it might seem an unwarranted protection, an unjustified drain on the country during its struggle for reconstruction and a world’s markets in the early period of peace. But there is no more theoretical right to the Government to force the farmer to raise wheat than a tool maker to make shells. The latter has been forced, or practically forced, but common equity demanded that the country take the risk. And the nation must have wheat whatever the cost.
The matter of wages was equally important. No one in England with ambition went into farming before the war unless that was what he had been brought up to. The wages were only a few cents a day, and the life was miserable, as befitted the social scale to which the industry had been driven. A cowman had become the symbol of stupidity—because no one with thought would accept the pittance of reward for his labours. Under the rising prices of war times the farm-hand could not purchase the necessaries of existence on the old rates, and wages had to rise. The scarcity of help was another factor that forced the farmer to pay more. But when the Government saw the necessity of turning labour to the land by the hundreds of thousands it realized that something adequate in the way of wage must be assured. Accordingly the minimum wage for even the novice was set at $6.25 a week, which is not high when it is considered that the farm-hand keeps himself. That it is not too high is proved by the lack of protest from the farmers. In fact some are offering two dollars a week more, and even higher. The farmer’s outlook on life has broadened with the new conditions and with the prospect that opens up to him in the future. The war has remade him.
One of the surprises of the war is the facility with which women learned the disagreeable, arduous tasks of the farm. And the farmers, after fighting female labour on principle as contrary to common sense and destined to deprive them of the men they preferred, are ready to declare their conversion. Six months ago 140,000 women were performing men’s work on the farm, and the number has doubled since. Training farms have been set aside for them now, with free keep and training. After that they are placed on farms under female supervision, and paid $4.50 a week, without keep, uniforms found. That there is insufficient margin seems evident from the attempted justification of the Department that munition hostels have proved that their keep need cost no more than $3.75 a week. Of course the woman may take as much as she can induce her employer to pay, and with experience she has demonstrated her ability to earn the equal of the English man. Formerly women were not paid enough on the farm to keep them, in many cases, so that their volunteering was a sacrifice even of money. Under the new condition thousands of girls are leaving the kitchen and the factory to till the soil.
The introduction of Sunday labour is another feature of the war affecting the farmer. While England has never—at least of late years—observed the Sabbath as strictly as Canada, Sunday labour was not recognized as either necessary or desirable. The immediate necessity of spending every moment on the land could not, however, be denied during the early months of this year. All over London allotment workers were busiest on their only free day, and even an official appeal advocated uninterrupted ploughing. And several Bishops gave it their sanction. The farmer’s week has become, therefore, a full seven days of work.
The exciting market conditions that have marked the progress of the war and its effect on the supply of food stuffs have brought the English farmer into personal touch as never before with the reason and justification of price levels. It has revealed to him his inexperience in marketing and the profit accruing from a more intimate knowledge of the conditions that affect prices. That inexperience has left him thus far the prey sometimes of the middleman’s smartness, sometimes of his own greed. From the first he has insisted through his organizations that he be left to reap the utmost benefit from the relationship between supply and demand, ignoring the fact that much of the fluctuation of price has been due to the manipulations of the supply house from whom all incentive to bring about higher prices would be removed if the farmer were to pocket the extra profit. Undoubtedly the farmer’s demand is justified, with certain restrictions, but it would be the public who would profit, not the farmer. Should the farmer, however, have been left to take full advantage of public panic and prearranged manipulation, the conditions of living in England would have been intolerable; for he alone has the final control of the supplies.
The joint efforts of the three hands through which the farmer’s productions reached the public threatened such dire things, however, that the Government was forced to establish prices. The most interesting commodity thus affected was potatoes. There was a world shortage, and it must, or should, have been known that the deficiency would centre in England, since the past season’s crop had been largely ruined. England was supplying more than her share to the armies, and importation was difficult and unprofitable. Yet no attempt had been made to curtail waste or limit consumption. Thousands of tons a week were even being shipped from the country to adjacent neutrals. The extent of stocks was made public suddenly, a trick of the wholesalers and of little profit to the farmer at the moment. In two days the price leaped from two cents a pound to six. Threat of Government action sent it back again equally swiftly. But the fact was not to be ignored that England was going to be short of its favourite food. The farmer began to see his opportunity, and for weeks he was receiving as high as three and a half cents a pound. Then the Government took a firm stand. At first it was considered sufficient to limit the retail price, but the retailer and wholesaler tried to force the farmer down to such a ridiculous price as a consequence that he refused to accept it. And so the entire gamut of selling was covered by the Government order. The farmer was to receive $45 a ton from the wholesaler, the wholesaler $52.50 from the retailer, who received in turn $70 from the consumer. The initial attempt to make the farmer accept $40 was reviewed in a couple of days and the price raised a pound. But as there was nothing to prevent the farmer selling direct to the retailer, or even to the consumer, thousands of tons reached the table at the legal price with more profit to the farmer.
To meet the inadequacy of supplies appeals were sent all over the country that the wealthy should eat subsitutes and leave potatoes to the poor. Hotels began to have potatoless days, and by April 1st, when the legal price was to increase, several clubs were serving no potatoes whatever. Whether this decrease in demand will make the farmer regret having held back his stocks until the higher price was obtainable is not evident at the time of writing.
Wheat, of course, travelled steadily upwards to heights unknown since the Crimean War. And the farmer reaped the profit. Milk advanced to twelve cents a quart, the farmer following its rise more closely than his other productions, until at that price it could not be handled by the dairies. And again the Government interfered. But the result of the interference was to drive the farmers from keeping dairy herds; and now a higher price is announced for next winter’s supply in order to encourage the farmer to continue his herds.
One contingency of the war painful to the farmer and working with seeming injustice was the commandeering of supplies for the Army. At first this was done with little regard to market prices, and always at a lower level than was obtained by the farmer in the open market. The ignoring of prevailing prices was stopped, but commandeering at something below market scale, even though it necessarily selects certain farms and passes others by, is an attendant of war. What sympathy might have been given by the public was killed by the orgy of profiteering that struck the farmers in the cases of potatoes and milk—although precisely the same principle is considered good business in all other branches of business.
Lament as he may, the English farmer’s position has not been an unenviable one. What makes his trials more poignant to him is the inability to utilize to their fullest extent the opportunities that lie at his hand. For every idle acre now is lost money. He may not be netting the tremendous profits of the ship-owner, but neither is he taking the risk. And he escapes both income and excess profits taxes. Indeed, he alone of the profiteers of the war is exempt from any enforced return to the country. Compared with his brothers in France he is extremely favoured. Across the channel the farmer is not exempt from military service, the work on the land being performed by women and children. The English farmer is forced to accept substitutes who do not substitute, but every bushel he produces nets him twice what it did before, and the Government has protected him against the risks of future years. No other industry has suffered so little, but no other industry was on such an unwarrantedly low level.
His new standing in England will affect more than himself. The Dominions will not profit so freely from his migration, for his opportunities will be greater and there will be millions more cultivated acres in England to justify his remaining at home. His standard of living will be raised, and his position in society will add a new dignity and self-confidence. It seems certain that the rights of landlords to idle acres will be drastically limited, and the farmer will be enabled to rise from the semi-serfdom of the renter to the independence of the owner of land on which his every effort will count to his own profit.
It can be said that the new English farmer of the future is the direct result of Mr. Asquith’s procrastination in taking steps necessary to ensure reasonable production within the shores of England. Had protective measures been taken earlier the public would never have learned how dependent it was upon that which had been so long considered an unessential of English supremacy—the farmer and the farm.
Next month Mr. Amy will write about the working man and the war.
- The Amphibious Suburb of St. John’s
- Literary History of Nova Scotia
- A British Eskimo
- The Bombers and Snipers
- The Life Savers
- Hell at Hooge
- Dumb Talkies
- Introduction to The Fourth Dagger
- Salvage—A Canadian Idea
- The Women of The Magdalens
- The Credit System in the West
- The Perfect Ending
- Education and the War
- The Timber Wolf at Home
- Treating That Chilly Feeling
- Earmarks of Genius
- The Farmer and the War
- Labour and the War
- The Non-Combatants
- Woman and the War
- After Three Years
- My New Gardening Gloves
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.