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War Economy

Labour Losses on Farms

Labour Losses on Farms

The impact of recruitment on farming labour was well summed up by the National Service Department.2 The Department's statement was completely frank about the reasons behind the exclusion of farming from the early lists of reserved occupations. It said:

‘In the early months of the war no special importance attached to the farming industry. World food sources had not been disturbed, and the effects of submarine warfare seemed likely to throw strong emphasis on conservation of shipping by shortening of supply lines. Under such circumstances the farming industry neither expected nor received any special protection. Consequently considerable numbers of farm workers entered the Armed Forces. The loss of Denmark and the Low Countries in May, 1940, greatly (and unexpectedly) altered the picture. The loss of these sources of food and the certainty of a long and difficult struggle raised food-producing throughout the Empire to a priority level, although there was still some uncertainty as to whether shipping difficulties would enable supplies to be cleared from such distant sources as New Zealand. During the 1940–41 season, therefore, farming remained on the priority borderline, with the brake being increasingly applied to the recruitment of farm workers.

page 94

‘Before the opening of the 1941–42 season the position of the New Zealand farming industry had crystalised to a clear first priority. For that season the United Kingdom asked for a diversion of a portion of the country's dairying industry from butter making to cheese making, and, with the assistance of the Government, nearly four thousand milk suppliers were changed over and New Zealand increased her cheese-production in one year by 29·7 per cent. In the following year Britain's needs required a change back to butter production, and the switch over was made accordingly. These changes inevitably involved considerable manpower adjustments both within the industry and in ancillary industries supplying containers and plant. The Japanese attack in December 1941, followed by the swift progress of Japanese forces in the southward thrust towards Australia and New Zealand, necessitated the speedy mobilization of considerable forces for home defence in the early months of 1942. The protection of the Dominion's own shores had to come first, and the farming industry, in common with all others, had to make a further contribution of manpower to the Armed Forces. As in all other industries, 1942 was the farming industry's most difficult year ….’

It is regrettable that, though various estimates have been made, there is no reliable measure of the numbers of men lost by farming to the armed services. Nor is there any reliable count of numbers engaged in farming at any point between the 1936 and the 1945 population censuses. According to the National Service Department,1 some 20,000 men were lost to farming by December 1941, but this must be regarded as a very rough estimate.

In the early stages of war, an attempt was made to record losses by various industries to the armed forces. Copies of all enlistment forms were sent to the head office of the Social Security Department, where the intention was to sort and classify them. The purpose of this arrangement was to find replacements for men withdrawn from their occupations. Apparently the Department was soon bewildered by the flood of forms and nothing was achieved. Except for industries such as manufacturing, where annual statistics of numbers engaged continued to be collected throughout the war, there was no accurate indication of the effect of wartime recruitment on employment in various industries. Manpower policy to this extent was carried out without adequate knowledge. Farming particularly was affected by this lack of knowledge and at least one glaring mistake resulted.2

2 Parliamentary Paper H-11a, Report of the National Service Department, 1946, p. 35. See also p. 83.

1 Parliamentary Paper H-11a, Report of the National Service Department, 1946, p. 134.

2 See p. 493.