Living in the heart of Niagara’ fruit belt, one can easily imagine the stress to farms and food production caused by the mass exodus of farmers and farm workers as they enlisted in the armed forces during the First and Second World Wars. This labour shortage was doubly taxing, as it came at the same time as a sharp increase in need for food to supply the country’s war effort. In both cases, it was the young women of Canada who came to the rescue, signing up in great numbers to serve their country on the farm – as seasonal farm workers, or “farmerettes”.
Since Niagara is an area of major fruit and vegetable farming, our region played host to a large group of Farmerettes during both the First and Second World Wars. These young women, typically 16 years of age and older, spent their summers off from school working on farms planting, tending and harvesting the crops. The Farmerettes in WWII were paid an average of $0.25/hour and paid for their housing out of their small salaries. The girls were housed together in camps, which accommodated, on average, between 60-100 Farmerettes in facilities ranging anywhere from schools to converted barns.
Initially, the Farmerettes faced skepticism – few thought these “City girls” who landed on the farm would be of much help, but the girls proved their mettle season after season and made a major contribution to the war effort at home.
In addition to the Farmerettes, the government relied on the Farm Cadet Brigade (young men, aged 15 to military age), the Women’s Land Brigade (women not attending school, often housewives) and the Children’s Brigade (children under the age of 16, working on their own or nearby farms) to meet wartime food production needs. Participation in these programs speaks to the patriotic mood in our country, Ontario boasted 10,000 Farmerettes and 10,000 Farm Cadets in the summer of 1942 alone.
To learn more about the Farmerettes and other pioneering women of St. Catharines, visit our Leading the Way exhibit, on display at the Museum through December, 2016.
Meredith Leonard is the Visitor Services Coordinator at the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre.