Life as a Farmerette

By Caroline Sealey in People, Places, Events, & History

With men and women serving overseas in World War 2, farm labourers were in short supply in Ontario. An appeal came from the Ontario government for individuals to join Ontario’s Farm Service Force.

A letter from A. MacLaren, Director, Ontario Farm Service Force stated,

“Canada has a large part to play in the furnishing of food, not only for our own people but for the people in the British Isles, for war prisoners and war slaves, who are being released by the millions and finding very little to eat. There is no doubt that food will be the most powerful weapon that we can use in fashioning a Peace that we all hope will last for the next 100 years at least. Ontario farmers cannot do their share of this work unless they have a greatly increased supply of labour. Here is your chance as a patriotic Canadian citizen and as one interested in the humanitarian task of feeding the liberated countries of Europe to play a worthwhile part in the matter of food production.”

Ontario residents responded to the call. In 1942, the Ontario Farm Service Force included 3,088 young girls and women who volunteered to be part of the work team named the Farmerettes. These woman, aged 16 years and older, interested in patriotic service took the following oath, “I hereby pledge allegiance to my King, Canada and the British Commonwealth of nations. My purpose as a member of the Ontario Farm Service Force is to support our Navy, Army, and Air Force by assisting in the production of food. I promise to keep myself physically fit and mentally alert and at all times conduct myself in such a manner as to build up and maintain the prestige and honour of the Ontario Farm Service Force”

Besides joining the Farmerettes as a patriotic duty, some women joined for the adventure, others to  earn a wage. For many of the young women aged 16 or 17, this commitment drew them away from home for the first time, providing an opportunity to achieve personal independence.  One young Farmerette wrote, “I was accepted! I had farm service badges to sew on the front of my  overall’s bib and my jacket. I gathered up my working shoes, socks, rubber boots, some of my father’s  old shirts, a straw hat and a bandana. I was ready to ‘Lend a Hand.'”

Living accommodations, called “the camp,” during the work term for the Farmerettes were varied. Some resided in old houses converted to suit a number of girls. Others lived in a flax mill, dating back to the last century, with the old mill grinding wheels still in view. Some were fortunate to be housed in a building that contained offices for the Camp Mother and Labour Secretary, a lounge area with ping pong tables, and a library on the main floor. An eating area comprised of painted picnic tables, a kitchen, toilets, showers. A large wash area with steel tubs suited for washing clothes and bathing also occupied the main floor. Sleeping accommodations comprising of rows of army bunks occupied the upper portion of the building.

Ration books were given to the Camp Mother upon arrival. Settling into camp took organizational skills as space was limited. The work shirts, overalls, socks, pajamas, shorts, blouses and a Sunday dress made up the women’s wardrobe.

The Farmerettes worked with numerous fruit and vegetable crops throughout Ontario. Locally the Farmerettes played an important role in the flax harvest. With large flax acreages  planted in the Drayton area, help was needed to harvest the crop. A regiment of Native Canadians were brought down from the Southampton reserve along with 300 Farmerettes from the Toronto area to help with the harvest. Accommodation in the form of tents were set up at Richards Grove for the women.

During their stay in the area, the Farmerettes presented two programs in the Town Hall.

Organizer, Miss Haggas, a Farmerette, assisted by  Messrs. Davidson, Clark and Hambly  presented a number of concerts in neighbouring towns with proceeds designated to  patriotic causes.

In the Thedford area, the workday began at the crack of dawn. Beds were made and breakfast served while the boss waited at the door with a vehicle to transport the women to work. The rich, flat, fertile growing area around Thedford produced onions and celery. Each worker was assigned three rows of the little green onions to weed. Straddling the center row allowed the worker to weed all three rows at one time.

Plum, peach and tomato picking in the Aylmer area also began early in the morning with a wagon ride to the field for a ten-hour day of picking. Arms were covered during the tomato harvest as dust from the plants irritated the skin. A bath with ripe tomatoes at the end of the day became a soothing remedy.

During peach picking season, incidents were reported of workers expected to pick, sort, pack and unload peach-filled baskets, single handedly. On one occasion, a group of workers stranded at a placement,  hitchhiked back to camp.

Strawberry picking began at 7:30 am.  The women were encouraged to consume salt pills to recover salt lost due to perspiration during hot weather. On special occasions the workers were treated by the farmer to an ice cream cone at a local village shop.

Other work hazards included skin rashes from parsnips, sunstroke, sunburns, insect bites and overcoming a fear of heights while using ladders in orchards.

Wages varied. A  full six-quart basket brought 25 cents.  When not performing piece work, the wage was 25 cents per hour. Board, including laundry, was $4.50, paid to the camp director each Friday night. With seasonal work and work controlled by the weather, many Farmerettes accepted employment at canneries when work was not available in the fields or orchards.

After a hard day’s work the women would place their lunch bags in the hall, shower and dress in clean clothes. Pajamas rolled above the knees and halter tops were the fashion. Letter writing was popular when there were no scheduled evening plans.

The social life of a Farmerette included weiner roasts and campfires with camps in the same area.  Camp baseball teams competed with other camp teams in the area. Trips to the beach, shows in Toronto, dances, sing alongs, hiking and trips to Niagara Falls were also part of a Farmerettes’ social life.

Special gasoline ration coupons allowed farmers to drive the women to events. With limited coupons available, the women were often invited to the farmer’s home for a meal.

At the end of their work term, each of the young women returned to their homes having contributed to the war effort gaining valuable work experience, wages, new friendships and adventures.

Information on the Farmerettes was obtained from Wellington County and Drayton Historical books.