A look back at the wartime woes of Cowichan farmers [online exclusive]

Waste in wartime, chided the Leader, was nothing less than rank treason!

Waste in wartime, chided the Leader, was nothing less than rank treason!

March 1918. After almost four years of unprecedented bloodshed, the First World War continued to rage with no end in sight. Would it never end?

That being the case, wouldn’t you think that this was what Valley residents were mostly thinking and worrying about?

Yes, of course, but they also had more immediate daily needs and priorities to deal with: such as earning a living, supporting a family, paying bills. And farming.

It was agriculture that drove the Cowichan economy a century ago, a fact many of us seem to have forgotten over the decades of the logging industry and since.

Obviously, there’s ample war news in the pages of the 1918 Cowichan Leaders. But there are as many pages, even more, devoted to agriculture. Aside from the war, farming in all its aspects was the main topic of the day.

A typical issue of the newspaper is that of March 7 in which the editorials take up three-quarters of a page, and more than half of them deal with egg legislation, “farmers’ plans,” a mill feed shortage and a provincial movement to “bar outside hogs”. Even the quarter-page ad for Cowichan Merchants, Ltd., while appealing to patriotism — “greater production is the demand of the country” — is devoted entirely to farming products such as seeds, a cream separator, tree and fruit sprays, chemical fertilizers, a milk scale (to record a cow’s lactic production), Cooper’s Milk Oil (a disinfectant), and chick feed.

The mill feed shortage affecting all Island farmers was a direct result of the war, falling as it did under the jurisdiction of the Food Control Board which also dictated railway freight rates outside Vancouver. Simply put, Island farmers had to pay as much as $40 more to have their feed delivered, placing many of them in a make-or-break situation.

As for ‘outside hogs,’ Chilliwack MLA E.D. Barrow had this to say at a meeting of B.C. Stockbreeders: “You can talk patriotism and production until your jaws ache, but you cannot make the farmer raise more than he knows there is a reasonable market for. There are some theorists who proclaim loudly that the farmer should go ahead patriotically and produce hogs and other stock even if he knows it will be at a loss. These people are simply discouraging practical men who try to aid their country in two ways, by increasing the food supply and maintaining contentment among farmers.

“The farmer must know he will be protected when it comes to marketing time. He must be protected from the whims and caprices of four or five large packing houses operating in Canada. Marketing is just as important as producing.”

The editor chimed in that it was well known that Island farmers could substantially increase their hog production — ”but what is needed is the guarantee of a market and the assurance of reasonable supplies of feed”. The answer, he and Barrow agreed, was to prohibit the importation of pork products, thus assuring B.C. farmers of a market at a price set by supply and demand. Thanks to wartime, the Food Control Board could achieve this “by a stroke of the pen,” they said. They had a second suggestion: That farmers be allowed access to dormant Crown lands to grow barley as feed thus eliminating the need to bring it in at considerable expense by rail.

The Leader then turned its attention to proposed federal legislation of egg marketing which the newspaper thought to be “void of any usefulness” and wholly unworkable. The villains in this piece were eggs imported from California, China and Japan but marketed as local and “new laid” because of the lack of packaging identification: “Under present legislation nobody can tell what they are. An egg is an egg. Its quality is a mystery unless it bears on its shell testimony as to what manner of egg it may be.” (Sound familiar?)

For years, local egg producers had lobbied for legislation “compelling the importer to stamp the individual egg, not the case”. Not just its place of origin but the date it was laid!

But they were up against a corporate wall: “Unless the Dominion government can screw up enough courage to take him by the throat and to do the right thing irrespective of his influence, they will do far better to leave the egg regulations severely alone.”

The final issue, for this day at least, was the need for the provincial government to encourage private industry to establish a plant at Cowichan Bay to process fish offal into animal (particularly poultry) feeds and fertilizers. Waste in wartime, chided the Leader, was nothing less than rank treason!

(It’s interesting to note that one of the prime arguments for the increased use of fertilizers was the lack of manpower because so many of Cowichan’s men, farmers and farmhands in peacetime, were serving in uniform overseas.)

But the editor wasn’t holding his breath waiting for the government to move: “Unfortunately, theories and plans are all too common nowadays and the men with brains, time and capital to turn them into beneficial realities are either missing or too busy on other schemes.”

So it was in the Cowichan Valley in March 1918. A time of raging world war and, on the home front, farmers’ frustrations. For the latter, marketing boards have since made their business lives more orderly, more predictable if not easier over the past century.