Throughout my youth, I remember learning about the atrocities of World War II in elementary and secondary school, and Remembrance Day ceremonies where they’d show us slide-shows of black and white photographs of the fighting, the bombing, and the survivors of the Holocaust.
Of course, I also have the stories of my own grandfather John Moyles who signed himself up when he was only seventeen years old – just a farm boy from Saskatchewan – and eventually served as an air gunner in Britain, India and North Africa.
But today – in my late twenties – I wonder more about the women of World War II, and in particular, those who stayed behind, or were left behind to fill a role that the war couldn’t be fought without. Namely, farming and growing food. Indeed, women played a unique role in helping the ‘war effort’ in Europe, encouraged bygovernment propaganda to grow and preserve food (in both rural and urban areas) and transform waste.
The Farmerettes of World War II
After my grandfather, and his father and brother left the Moyles farm in Woseley, Saskatchewan by the early 1940s, my great-grandmother, Eleanor became a ‘farmerette’ – a name given to a woman who took up the role of farming. With ‘the boys’ gone, she had no other choice but to climb into the driver’s seat of the horse-drawn plough and take to the fields to prepare the land for planting corn, to milk the cows, feed the chickens and hogs, and do the gardening.
For such hard work, it’s ironic they called them ‘farmerettes’ – a word that suggests a dainty woman wouldn’t get dirt under her fingernails. On the contrary, I’m sure Eleanor’s hands were calloused from work and exhaustion.
Eleanor wasn’t alone in picking up the reigns on farm production. In fact, during WWII, more than 700,000 women – rural and urban – joined ‘The Farmerettes’ to labor on farms and orchards across the country.
School girls dedicated their summers to serving as low-paid agricultural labor on farms in British Columbia and Ontario – picking fruit on orchards, weeding vegetable fields, and harvesting. The Canadian and provincial governments encouraged the patriotic act of women serving on farms with the messaging that growing food was nourishing the boys in Britain and overseas where the fighting was taking place.
Urban Agriculture & Women of WWII
“Victory Gardens” were encouraged by the Canadian government as ways for women and children to increase household food security, and rely less on Canada’s farm produce which was needed to export to Britain where Canada’s troops were stationed. Gardens were also promoted as a response to food rationing, and an assurance Canadians were eating healthy and getting essential nutrients.
Women responded in the masses.
Initially, the Canadian government discouraged “city-folk” from planting gardens, assuming they were ‘inexperienced’ and would rely on chemical pesticides and tools that were made of materials that were needed by Canada’s war industries. But urban women ignored the government’s message, and planted anyways. They planted on front lawns, empty lots, and transformed spaces into productive sites.
“At its 1944 peak, it was estimated that upwards of 209,200 victory gardens were in operation nationwide producing a total of 57,000 tons of vegetables” (University of Guelph).
Propaganda for Food Preservation – Canning
There’s good reason to call grandparents when experimenting with canning and food preservation in modern days.
During WWII, the Canadian government and Ministry of Agriculture ran a series of educational workshops, and released brochures and public education materials on the importance of household canning, drying and preserving perishable food products for the ‘long winter’ and period of food rationing.
Additionally – Canada launched a ‘Fats and Bones’ campaign to encourage women to save these scraps and donate them to centers where they’d be used to make glue and ammunition.
“The Winnipeg Patriotic Salvage Corps, for its part, collected 690,554 pounds of bones and 323,001 pounds of fat over its five years of wartime operations” (University of Guelph).
Hats Off to the Women Farmers of WWII
Women played a unique role in helping to increase food production – for export and for household food security – during WWII. While government propaganda likely had a lot to do with local food security efforts, including the fats and bones saving campaigns, some of the solutions like gardening were a natural response to a potential national food crisis.
And for women like my great-grandmother Eleanor, who were left behind on the Canadian prairies – there was no other choice, no alternative. The farm was there, the fields ready to be worked, the animals crying to be fed – the work was waiting and women proved they were willing and capable to do what men had done and more.
Women farmers helped Canada increase food production for export to Europe, and also for local consumption and nourishment of those who stayed behind.
Today let’s remember our great-grandmothers, great-aunts, and all those women and girls who didn’t fear getting dirt under their nails – and grew food for the good for their communities, and their country. Let’s follow in their example today – for a more peaceful, sustainable and just planet.