Monday, 23 February 2015

#WW2 Farming in Britain During the Second World War

Women's Land Army, Essex, found at

The farming industry in Britain during the Second World War underwent a complete upheaval. It was necessary for the government to control what farmers grew or what livestock they kept to ensure maximum productivity from the land. I have included part of my Special Study for my dissertation from my B.A in history from 2008 for this.
Under the Defence of The Realm Act which was passed just before the outbreak of hostilities[1], the Ministry of Agriculture had the power to

Preserve and maintain agricultural land solely for the production of food, to control by order, the cultivation, management and use of land in order to secure maximum production of food from the farms; to terminate any tenancy of agricultural land where it is considered that the land is being neglected or badly cultivated; to introduce special measures for the determination of birds, rabbits, deer, vermin and pests.[2]

[1] A. Wilt, Food for War, Agriculture and Rearmament in Britain before the Second World War,  p.186.
[2] J.Martin, The Development of Modern Agriculture, British Farming Since 1931,p.38.

The Ministry now had much more power to meet the demands of a hungry populace that would soon have to rely on food that was largely home produced, as was forecast, quite accurately that importation of food would decline. Many of the farmers who had to produce this food had to change their methods of farming. They had to produce in greater quantities food that was rich in carbohydrates such as potatoes, or foodstuffs that were too bulky or fragile that would not take up valuable shipping space, so as not  to rely too heavily on importation. [1]

With reference to the title of this Special Study, like the Great War the Second World War was a time of affluence for many farmers, particularly in the arable districts of England.  For example, prices of wheat in 1939 per cwt for England and Wales were 5 shillings, by 1945 this had risen to 14s 5d. Barley in the same period rose from 8s 10d to 24s 5d, and oats rose from 6s 11d to 16s 5d[2].  farmers were heavily subsidised by the Ministry of Food, who bought goods from farmers at higher rates, whilst selling them to the public at lower rates, the shortfall being made up by the Treasury. Crops such as wheat however, were acquired by the government cheaper than in times of peace[3].This system was , on  26th November 1940 confirmed to stay in place whilst hostilities were taking place and for one year after they ended[4].

Government policy was critical in ensuring an increase in productivity. Like the First World War, War Agricultural Executive Committees There were eventually sixty-one committees established in England and Wales[5],which came to be known as ‘War Ags’. The members of the War Ags included local farmers, members of the Women’s Institute and had the power to take farms away from farmers who were considered to be farming inefficiently. They also had to ensure the government policy of ploughing up more land was implemented. The War Ags had the power to tell people which fields were cultivated and had a pool of labour and machinery to work the land themselves. They  also encouraged more modernisation, which resulted in more efficiency and greater production.


The inportation of feedstuffs  was less due to the problems in shipping. This  did not prevent the encouragement of higher yields in dairy cows. More small scale farmers began to produce milk, premium payments were given to the first 1514 litres of milk produced per month[6]. Other small scale production of  livestock was encouraged with the introduction of Pig and Poultry Clubs[7] Domestic poultry keepers did not have restrictions placed upon them like large scale producers regarding rationing controls. The Small Pig Keepers Council, an organisation founded by the Ministry of Agriculture encouraged anyone with space to keep a pig and feed it on household waste. There is little evidence to suggest that these smallholders and people in towns were ever an economic threat to full-time farmers, but whilst the war was taking place, helped to supplement a diet that was rationed.

Hill farmers were dealt with separately for the first time. In 1940 subsidies were paid at the equivalent of 12.5p per head per hill ewe, by 1942 this had risen to 40p[8]. A committee was formed in 1941-1942 for England and Wales to review the long term future of hill faming, a minimum of four hundred ewes was required for full-time status.

Farm Workers

The government had the foresight to ensure that farmworkers were not as scarce as they had been in the First World War. This was achieved by farming being declared a reserved occupation, if any male farm worker wanted to join the forces or have an alternative occupation, i.e. construction, a replacement had to be found before he was allowed to leave his job on the farm.  This came under the Restrictions of Engagements order in June 1940[9]. Martin claims that anyone who wanted to leave agriculture for the forces or another occupation would have done so[10], as the war was nine months old when this order became effective. Howkins states that an estimated fifty thousand farm workers were lost to the armed forces prior to the Restrictions of Engagements Order. The total number of farm workers in 1939 (seasonal, part and full-time) were six hundred and seven thousand in England and Wales, for 1940 the number had risen to six hundred and eight thousand[11].By 1945 the number had increased to seven hundred and seventy thousand[12]. This was due to the recruitment campaign by the government to organisations such as the Women’s Land Army. This had varied success, in England some encountered sexism, and many were appalled at the conditions they were expected to work and live in. Sackville West, cited in The Peoples War states that women nearly equalled the abilities of their male counterpart in tasks such as milking, turning hay and lifting peas, but other more demanding tasks it required three women to take the place of two men[13].

The unemployed  from the towns and cities were also put to work on farms, as were conscientious objectors[14]. Prisoners of War also took part, by 1945 there were 57,763 working on farms in England and Wales[15], the obvious advantage being that they did not need paying, the incentive to them being a healthier and more stimulating environment than being stuck behind the barbed wire for the duration of the war.

Wages, always an issue with farmworkers, were increased as the value of farm work was recognised by the government as being essential to the war effort, a good wage being an incentive to stay on farms.. Estimated wages in 1940/1941 for the basic wage of an adult male were 48sh 5d per week in England and Wales, by 1944/1945 this had increased to over 67 shillings[16]. Due to the security felt by farmworkers because of the shortage of skilled manpower, union membership of the National Union of Farmworkers rose to 100,000, three times what it had been prior to the war[17].


More tractors and modern implements were as essential to the increased productivity of the land as the farmworkers mentioned above. The horse began to fall out of favour as there was more land cultivation to be undertaken, but the decline was not rapid, there being over six hundred thousand in the whole of Great Britian in 1938[18].In 1946 this had fallen to just over five hundred thousand. The tractor, faster than the horse and becoming more reliable was still outnumbered by the horse, there being around one hundred thousand in England and Wales in 1940[19]. This was  a considerable increase considering there were only around fifty six thousand in Great Britain in 1939[20]. Many farmers were saved the cost of buying a tractor because of the help offered by the War Agricultural Executive Committees mentioned previously. Farmers had priority in the allocation of machinery, this would not have happened if it had not been for the war, the provision of machinery was a great help in modernising farming in England.

To conclude, the Second World War was a turning point in English agriculture. Through government intervention of the way farmers cultivated their land and subsidised pricing, agriculture became more productive. The agricultural industry was also fortunate to receive a priority in machinery allocation, a godsend for farmers wishing to modernise. This was essential due to the threat of merchant shipping during the Battle of the Atlantic, shipping space also being in short supply. Farmworkers benefited enormously, their efforts being recognised as valuable to the well being of the country. Government policy worked with notable success, the Women’s Land Army making a significant contribution, as did Prisoners-of War. Without the preparations for increased production, the country would have been, without doubt, short of food. Also like the First World War, farmers were able to make a comfortable living in most cases, and although rationing was in place for most of the war, farmers were able to access food much easier than people living in urban England.

[1] J. Martin, p.38.
[2] M.A.F.F, A Century of Agricultural Statistics, Great Britain 1866-1966, p.82.
[3] J.Martin, p.38.
[4] 367 H.C Debe,  26th November 1940, Col.92, cited in J.Martin, p.39.
[5] Wilt, p.69.
[6] J. Martin, p.40..
[7] K.A.H Murray, Agriculture, London, (1955), cited in ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] J.Martin, p.p 41, 42.
[10] Ibid, p.42.
[11] M.A.F.F, A Century of Agricultural Statistics, p.62.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Sackville West, The Women’s Land Army, p.97 , cited in A.Calder, The People’s War, p.430.
[14]  A.Howkins, p.120.
[15] M.A.F.F, A Century of Agricultural Statistics, p.62.
[16] Ibid, p.65.
[17] J. Martin, p.42.
[18] M.A.F.F, A Century of Agricultural Statistics, p.61.
[19] Ibid, p.70.
[20] Wilt, p.192.

I hope the sources above prove useful, the BBC made an excellent TV series recreating life in wartime Britain on a farm, you can find a link to their webpage Wartime Farm BBC Wartime Farm
and the TV series is on Youtube