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War Economy

A Special Wartime Undertaking – Linen Flax

A Special Wartime Undertaking – Linen Flax

When Eastern Europe was invaded, an important source of linen flax for the United Kingdom was cut off, and the British Ministry of Supply, searching for alternative sources, asked New Zealand to grow some 15,000 acres.

Investigations into the possibility of growing linen flax in New Zealand had been made by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research at Lincoln in 1936. Field trials had followed and a small experimental factory had been erected. However, up till 1940 no fibre had been produced commercially. To grow 15,000 acres was a formidable task.

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The growing and processing of this linen flax was essentially a Government undertaking. Private farmers who co-operated were initially guaranteed a basic payment per acre sown, as a protection against loss. The Government built seventeen factories to process the crop. All the necessary machinery was manufactured and installed by the New Zealand Railways Department.

In 1940–41, 12,000 acres were grown, and, in the following season, 22,000 acres. In earlier years about 30 per cent of the acreage grown proved to be too short for fibre and was harvested for seed only.1 In the next two seasons the need for fibre was less urgent, and the area planted fell to about 10,000 acres.

The industry was plagued by cumbersome management arrangements, which impaired its efficiency and raised its costs. Ross writes:2

‘Control of the industry was vested in an interdepartmental committee on which were represented a surprisingly large number of State Departments. But while the controlling powers of this Committee appeared adequate, they were not so in fact; all recommendations had to be approved by a Cabinet Minister who was greatly overburdened with far too many administrative details. On many occasions urgent repairs or alterations were found necessary in the factories and the reorganisation of buying and processing methods proved imperative. Yet these changes could not be put in hand until the managers of the factories concerned and the director of the whole industry had received the sympathetic approval of the “controlling” committee and the final approval of the overburdened Minister, who was often absent from the country on matters of national importance. Even the purchase of trucks to carry the flax from farms to factories which needed a flow of it to maintain steady production had to be approved on the ministerial level and this took several months. One factory manager, who hired trucks in order to avoid partially closing his factory, was severely reprimanded for such action.’

In spite of these difficulties, the industry filled an urgent wartime need. It was planned, when the United Kingdom requirements ended, to grow some 8000 acres of linen flax each year, which would be sufficient to provide fibre and tow to meet New Zealand's domestic requirements. However, in 1945–46, and subsequent years, the area planted was to fall below 5000 acres.

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New Zealand's main difficulty was the high cost of processing the flax to obtain fibre. While the United Kingdom Government was prepared to pay a high price for fibre all was well, but, after the war, New Zealand was to have difficulty in competing on a free market.

1 Parliamentary Paper, H-44, Report of the Department of Industries and Commerce, 1941, p. 20.

2 Ross, Wartime Agriculture in Australia and New Zealand, p. 275.