War had a big impact on the world’s food. Before the Second World War Britain imported approximately 55 million tonnes, or 3/4 of the country's food by ship each year. In England and Wales arable acreage was about 9 million; whereas 16 million acres were under grass and a further 5 ½ million was “rough grazing” (once reasonable pasture). One acre of permanent grass (for animal fodder) fed 1 or 2 people; one acre sown with wheat fed 20 people; and one acre sown with potatoes fed 40 people.
About one million directly employed in the production of food, and most of those part-time, seasonal workers. Increasingly, those men who worked on farms would need to be called up into the armed forces (50,000 skilled farm workers were absorbed by the armed forces in the first two years), so farmers were to be faced not only with enormous challenges in terms of increased food production targets but also a shortage of experienced labour. The Women’s Land Army were established at the beginning of the Second World War with numbers rising to 80000 by 1944.
War Agricultural Committees were formed immediately on the outbreak of war . They were leading farmers and nurserymen, with a good knowledge of local conditions, who had volunteered, unpaid, to help in the campaign to get full production from the land in their particular county. These Executive Committees, numbering eight to twelve members,Ministry of Agriculture propaganda poster predominantly farmers, were given delegated powers by the Minister under the wartime Defence Regulations. There was usually at least one landowner, one representative from the farm workers and one woman representing the Women’s Land Army. They formed Sub-Committees to cover different aspects of work, and District Committees to ensure that there was at least one Committee member in touch with every farmer, up to say 50 or 60, in his area of 5000 acres. Later, some District Committees embraced a representative from every parish. The role was to tell farmers what was required of them in the way of wheat, potatoes, sugar beet or other priority crops, and to help the farmers to get what they needed in the way of machinery, fertilisers and so on to achieve the targets which were set them. The Sub-Committees covered the following concerns: Cultivations, Labour, Machinery and Land Drainage, Technical Development, Feeding Stuffs, Insects and Pests, Horticulture, Financial and General Purposes, Goods and Services and War Damage. The Committees employed paid officers such as the Executive Officer and assistants in each county and District Officers to keep the show running smoothly in every locality. Technical Officers were also employed to advise farmers about such matters as the lime requirements of their soils, the making of silage, the treatments of soil pests, the care of machinery and the improvement of livestock. Farmers could get expert advice free, which contributed enormously to increase the output that farmers achieved.
The writer Laurie Lee, working for the Ministry of Information, summed this up in Land at War, the official story of British farming 1939 – 1944
“From Whitehall to every farm in the country the C.W.A.E.C.s formed a visible human chain which grew stronger with each year of the war. Here, roughly, is the way it worked. The Government might say to the Minister of Agriculture: ‘We need so much home-grown food next year’. The Minister assured himself that the labour, tractors, equipment, and so on, would be forthcoming, and said to the Chairman of a County Committee: ‘We’ve got to plough two million acres next year. The quota for your county is 40,000’.
The Chairman said to his District Committee Chairman: ‘You’ve been scheduled for 5,000 acres’.
The Committee-man said to his Parish Representative: ‘You’ve got to find 800 acres, then’.
And the Parish Representative, who knew every yard of the valley, went to the farmer at the end of the lane.
‘Bob,’ he said, ‘how about that 17.acre field – for wheat?’
And Farmer Bob said, ‘Aye’’.”
The idea of having County “War Ags” was to make the task of mediating central dictates from national government more palatable by using well-respected local farmers to convey the war needs to farmers who knew them. Even so, when particular farmers failed to co-operate with this more democratic system, Orders were served on them requiring them to plough up their grassland, or to grow given acreages of various crops, to clean out their ditches and drains, or apply adequate quantities of fertilisers. In the worst cases, recalcitrant or incompetent farmers – after first attempting to encourage and help them with advice and expertise – could be removed from their farms, by the dictate of the Minister of Agriculture, and their land farmed by someone else who would use the land to better advantage.
In addition to the supervision of work done by private farmers, the County Committees, known colloquially as “War Ags”, farmed areas of land themselves, particularly those farms and areas of derelict land which no individual was willing to tackle properly. The clearing of derelict land and the drainage of wet lands were two of those difficult jobs on which many land girls were employed, particularly from 1942 onwards, when conscription brought in increased numbers of young women members of the Women’s Land Army. Many of these were employed directly by the “War Ags” and housed, as mobile labour gangs, in hostels located around each county. In addition, summer work camps set up by the “War Ags” accommodated thousands of men and women, industrial and clerical workers from Britain’s towns and cities, who volunteered to do paid work during their summer holidays, to help bring in the harvest.
Nationally, some 6 ½ million new acres were ploughed up between 1939 and 1944. Harvests of wheat, barley and potatoes increased by over 100%; milking cows increased by 300,000; other cattle by 400,000. This was at the expense of fewer sheep, pigs and poultry but enabled the country to completely reverse its reliance on foreign food. In terms of calories, the net output had been quadrupled by 1943-44. By the end of the war, food imports had been reduced from 22 million to 11 million tons and Britain was producing well over 60% of its food. This was despite losing nearly 100,000 skilled male farm workers, who went off to fight, and thanks to the 117,000 women who replaced them. From 815,000 allotments in 1939 the number rose to 1,400,000 by 1943. allotments were estimated to contribute some 1.3 million tonnes of food produce.
Consumer goods of all kinds became scarce and shortages were inevitable. To ensure an equitable distribution of basic essentials, rationing was imposed through a ‘points’ system and prices were controlled. Ration books and clothing coupons were issued to all, with adjustments to meet special needs, like pregnant women, young children and vegetarians. By and large the public supported rationing as ensuring fair shares for all, and though a black market developed it never seriously threatened the system. It is generally accepted that food rationing improved the nation’s health through the imposition of a balanced diet with essential vitamins. Meat, butter and sugar were rationed from early 1940, other foodstuffs, including tea, were added later, and entitlement varied at different times during the war. Bread, potatoes, coffee, vegetables, fruit and fish were never rationed, though choice and availability of the last three were often limited. Clothing was rationed, and fuel was subject to restrictions from early in the war. Meals eaten away from home, whether in expensive West End restaurants were ‘off ration’. The conspicuous ability of the rich to enjoy almost pre-war levels of gastronomy at top hotels led to such resentment from Londoners at large that the government prevented restaurants charging more than 5/- a meal from 1942. This curbed the most ostentatious examples, though it did not completely solve the problem. British Restaurants supplied an almost universal experience of eating away from me. Here a three course meal cost only 9d. Standards varied, but the best were greatly appreciated and had a large regular clientele. British Restaurants were run by local authorities, who set them up in a variety of different premises such as schools and church halls. They evolved from the LCC’s Londoners’ Meals Service which originated in September 1940 as a temporary, emergency system for feeding those who had been bombed out. By mid-1941 the LCC was operating two hundred of these restaurants. British Restaurants were open to all, but mainly served office and industrial workers.