When Kelsey Lonie discovered that her grandmother’s accounts of the war effort coincided with an article she read in a magazine, it kindled a passion for a largely forgotten piece of Canadian history.
“I grew up listening to my grandmother’s stories about her experiences on the Canadian wartime home front,” said Kelsey, a master’s student in southern Saskatchewan. “I came across an article in the October 1942 edition of Chatelaine magazine with a black and white photograph of a young girl smiling at me, holding a basket of vegetables and wearing a Farm Service Corps badge.”
Lonie didn’t realize she was looking at a photo of a ‘Farmerette’, one of thousands of young women and girls who met a wartime call to keep Canadian farms operating while men were on duty overseas. A Google search brought Kelsey to an Ontario group committed to bringing the experience of the Farmerettes to a new generation.
“I realized my grandmother had done this very thing in British Columbia’s interior. My passion to support the cause was born,” said Kelsey.
Farmerettes provided wartime labour to keep Canadian farms running
In Ontario, Farmerettes were part of a farm labour program during both world wars. They served alongside a government initiative known as ‘Soldiers of the Soil’ which encouraged adolescent boys to volunteer for farm service for three months or more.
A poster in June 1944 called on Ontario citizens to “For Peace Sake – Pitch In” at a time when Canada’s stockpile of grains, dairy products and vegetables were almost exhausted and the province was experiencing the best yields of grain, hay, vegetables and fruit in years.
“But they must be harvested and saved...and this in spite of the most acute shortage of farm workers in our history,” stated the poster.
Farmerettes had to have good marks so they could skip writing exams in order to work in early summer. They worked alongside Indigenous people, conscientious objectors and men rejected from the armed forces.
Western Farmerettes joined the effort during WW II
At the start of WW II, the BC government launched their own program--which is where Lonie's grandmother soon joined the story.
“It was 1950, and she and her sister were on their way to Penticton, BC to pick fruit. It was the adventure of a lifetime for two girls from Parkside, Saskatchewan,” said Lonie of her then 16-year-old grandmother, adding work was hard, but camps offered farmerettes adventure and a chance to meet people from all over western Canada.
“Terribly afraid of heights, her sister always begged to be the one that held the ladder steady and pick low-hanging fruit while my grandmother climbed into the fruit trees,” smiled Kelsey. “She wondered if that was her sister’s way to excuse herself from the hard work.”
Lonie says her grandmother fondly remembered her time outside--the camaraderie and sense of adventure--and of never knowing what the next day would bring.
“Most eligible young men were away at war, doing their part, and young women were itching to do their part too,” she said of the successful program, which ran until 1952. “Many would say it was the best summer of their lives, and they often went back again and again.”
The Farmerettes Forever Committee in Ontario, started by Bonnie Sitter and Shirleyan English, resulted in a book by the pair called Onion Skins and Peach Fuzz: Memories of Ontario Farmerettes. A member of that committee, Lonie is now reaching out across Western Canada to help her complete her thesis on B.C. farmerettes, with plans to publish a book (with Sitter) on the western program.
"This is an interesting part of Canadian history that many people don’t know about," she said. "Much is being done to remedy that in Ontario, but the women who worked in British Columbia deserve recognition too.”
For those who know of a person or story about the B.C. farmerettes, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.