By Keith Roulston
While the emphasis on November 11, Remembrance Day is quite naturally on the soldiers who gave their lives, or at least a big part of their youth, to fighting in two World Wars, the immense efforts of the farming community should also be remembered.
Not only did Canadian farm families provide 345,000 of the volunteers who manned the army, navy and air force during World War II, but the shrunken population left at home on the farm was charged with the burden of increasing food production to feed a Britain crowded with Commonwealth armed forces.
More than 20,000 young women, in addition to family members left behind to pick up the work, helped doing farm work, as the book Onion Skins and Peach Fuzz, Memories of Ontario Farmerettes by Exeter author Bonnie Sitter points out.
The result was incredible. As well as feeding all those young farmers who were overseas in the Canadian armed forces, according to Canada’s Prime Minister of the time, William Lyon Mackenzie King quoted by author Terry Reardon in Winston Churchill and Mackenzie King, So similar, So different, “We are supplying about 200 pounds of food per annum for every man, woman and child in the United Kingdom.”
It wasn’t all the sort of food we’d choose for ourselves, of course. Millions of dozens of fresh eggs were turned into powdered eggs for transport and easy storage.
Meanwhile, in a land of plenty, Canadians had to learn to do with less – and this after years of sacrificing during the Great Depression. On July 1, 1942 every resident of Canada, young and old, was issued a ration book. They had to get used to such limitations as eight ounces of sugar, a half-pound of butter and two pounds of meat per person, per week.
Of course that seemed like a feast when the war ended and we began to hear stories of the hunger in The Netherlands, particularly during the dire winter of 1944-1945 when the Germans sent Dutch food to Germany. Even the formerly wealthy like the future movie star Audrey Hepburn, a dual British/Dutch citizen caught with her mother in Holland during the war, was reduced to eating tulip bulbs to survive that harsh winter. Liberation from the German occupation by the Canadian army in the spring of 1945 was made sweeter by in influx of Canadian food.
But for Canadian farmers, that’s the triumphant part of the story. Many years ago I remember attending a reunion of some of the officials who organized and hosted the Farm Radio Forum on CBC radio during the war and into the 1950s. After listening to much praise for the efforts of Canadian farmers, Huron County native Harry J. Boyle who was a vice-president of CBC Radio and responsible for Farm Radio Forum felt obliged to respond.
Boyle recalled that Canadian farmers did indeed play a huge role in winning the war but that effort was soon forgotten after peace came. Faced with a heavy debt, Britain soon cut out imports, while maintaining rationing into the 1950s. Canadian farmers, who had increased production 100 per cent during the war to feed Britain and our troops, suddenly couldn’t cut production fast enough. Prices for farm commodities collapsed.
I speak from experience of the consequences. My father, who had served in Italy and Holland, had come home from the war to put every cent he had into buying a farm north of Lucknow. With such poor prices he struggled to make ends meet and pay the mortgage and eventually had to take an off-farm job and, finally, to sell the farm.
So as Remembrance Day approaches, by all means remember the men and women who sacrificed their lives, but also remember the efforts of those farmers who stayed home, but gave much.◊