Farmers’ concerns during First World War sound familiar today

W hen we hear the term Victory Gardens, we think of homeowners who contributed in a modest but worthwhile way during the Second World War by growing their own produce.

Well, we had their equivalent on the Home Front during the First World War, too; the City of Duncan even offered the free use of vacant lots for this purpose. In part this was because, as the war went on and more and more young men enlisted, farmers became pinched between a shortage of labour and the increasing costs for what labour was available, and feeds and such.

But there were other considerations, too. Perhaps first and foremost, was patriotism – God, King and Country. Britain was under siege by German U-boats and her agricultural resources were being challenged. The solution, both locally and for England, in the opinion of the Cowichan Leader, was for Canadian men and women – all those fit Canadians not in uniform – to fill the void:

"It is our duty to see that Britain shall not, as far as is preventable, suffer from a lack of foodstuffs or of such other useful material as this country can produce. In other words, both men and women are called upon to put forth their best efforts so that when the time arrives any deficiency can be readily met."

How could Cowichan citizens do their part?

"Everybody can do a little; Every man should do what he can; Every woman should do what she can; Improved production means increased production; Canada’s future depends upon our actions of today; In serving the Empire we are serving ourselves; Markets are not created, held and won in a day; Now is the time to prove ourselves the Granary of the Empire.

"We have the soil, we have the resources, we must have the energy to use them to the greatest advantage."

Boys and girls of Cadets, Scouts and Guides age weren’t exempt – they could help farmers by picking berries or whatever. Why, if they each produced even the equivalent of one hour of an adult’s output per day, just think what their collective effort would be.

In the spring of 1915 a large crowd turned out for a Patriotism and Production Conference in the Agricultural Hall to hear speakers discuss ways and means of increasing the production of foodstuffs. It might disappoint readers to know that the motivation for increasing production wasn’t purely patriotic, farmers being reminded that through greater production they would realize greater profits and higher prices. (This at a time when manufacturers and the armaments industry were being accused of profiteering.)

William Blakemore pointed out that B.C. imported half as much as it grew. Absolutely essential, he believed, were cooperatives in place of the existing free-forall, and financial assistance (he didn’t use the word subsidy) for farmers. He urged Cowichan farmers to "make the strongest possible representations to the provincial government for such recommendations as you approve of. The more interest you take, the more likely you are to get something definite and practical from the Government."

MPP William Hayward reminded the audience that "the Empire wants foodstuffs". In a sentiment that’s in keeping with today’s green movement, he said that he expected more support from local consumers: "If you and I, as farmers, are to be patriotic and grow more, then it is an absolute necessity that every consumer in the province be patriotic also, and ask for B.C. stuff."

He pooh-poohed the suggestion of cooperatives – they were subject to petty jealousies – but he (a Conservative no less) agreed to the need for credit. Again echoing arguments of a century later, he said, "We have got to have a system of loans. Our banking system is inapplicable to the ordinary farmer. All states that are forging ahead have long term loans…" and he cited several nations with lines of credit of from 30-90 years.

"Everything done for the farmer helps the state. The credit system helps all. It provides a banking system for the farmer. The merchant already has his bank. The merchant does not produce. The farmer produces all the time. His creation of assets – as for instance his dyking (sic) and irrigation – are for the state at large, providing the state with the wherewithal to draw taxes and to feed its population…"

Such were the issues of the day in the Cowichan Valley of a century ago. Yes, things were different then, we were at war. To illustrate that fact, for the final weeks of the school term in the spring of 1916, the provincial education department permitted male and female high school students to skip classes if they were gainfully employed on farms.

But it’s intriguing to hear the arguments being made for farming cooperatives, lines of credit and government subsidies in the heyday of cash-and-carry.