[from AGRICULTURE the Journal of the Ministry of Agriculture, May, 1945 - Vol. LII - No. 2 pp. 49-53.]


G. W. Howie, B.Sc.
Board of Agriculture for the Isle of Man

The pre-war agricultural area of the Isle of Man was roughly 117,250 acres, of which slightly more than one-third consisted of rough grazing and approximately 76,500 acres arable and grass. The Island entered the war with the advantage that nearly 70 per cent. of its arable land was under white and green crops and rotation grass. On the other hand, there was an acute shortage of skilled labour, both permanent and casual; for, as elsewhere in the British Isles, skilled farm workers had forsaken the land for urban occupations. The drafting of some of the younger farm hands into the Forces still further decreased the amount of regular labour available.

A second, and at first sight, a more serious handicap arose from the fact that normally the Island's agricultural output is primarily arranged to meet the requirements of a greatly augmented population during the short period which comprises the Island's summer holiday season. Before the war, for example, practically one-half of the production of fat lambs was absorbed during the two months July and August; between the beginning of May and the end of August the proportion was as much as two-thirds. Milk production, in particular, was organized to meet the large demand of summer visitors, likewise tomato-growing. Both these branches of the industry found themselves faced with the almost total loss of their accustomed market.

Before the war the Island produced oats and store lambs in excess of local requirements; it was self-supporting in milk and potatoes, but during the height of the summer, beef, lamb, pig products, butter, cheese, vegetables and eggs had to be imported. Very little wheat was grown: the pre-war acreage would scarcely have been sufficient to provide the resident population with flour for more than five days. In the ten years prior to 1939, 5,000 acres of tillage land had been lost ; rather less than one-half had gone down to permanent pasture, and the rest had reverted to rough grazing. With the exception of horses, all classes of live stock had increased in number, particularly sheep; and evidence was not lacking that the grassland was rapidly becoming sheep-sick and ought to be ploughed.

The problem, as seen by the Board of Agriculture at the outbreak of war, was (1) to tell Manx farmers which crops were most urgently required from the standpoint of reducing the Island's dependence on imports and so save shipping space, and to produce a surplus to swell the national food supply; (2) to provide the means (implements, labour, etc.) with which to produce the goods.

Early in October, 1939, a leaflet was sent to every farmer on the Island explaining the need for increased tillage and emphasizing that efforts should be concentrated upon growing more cereals, potatoes and vegetables. The need for extra wheat was stressed, but, as the Manx soil and climate do not generally lend themselves to successful wheat-growing, it was made abundantly clear that the national interest would be better served by growing full crops of oats rather than indifferent crops of wheat-and the Isle of Man can grow oats !

Labour Difficulties

As a first step towards coping with the labour problem, tractor-owning farmers were approached, and a list compiled of those willing to undertake contract work. Their names, together with a circular setting out appropriate charges for tractor cultivations, were sent to every farmer. The results in 1940 were not unsatisfactory; for example, the acreage under cereals showed an increase of nearly 20 per cent. on the 1939 figure, and the potato acreage rose by 11 per cent.

But complications were not slow to reveal themselves. The tractor-owning farmers proved unable to deal with all the extra tillage which had to be carried out ; in most cases they had to deal with increased cultivations on their own farms, and it became evident that however willing they could not handle more than a fraction of the work ordered. The Board of Agriculture decided, therefore, to undertake tractor contract work itself. Beginning in the summer of 1940 with two tractor-work outfits, the number was increased to three before the end of the year, to five in 1941, and to twelve in 1942. In the first seven months the Board's tractor gangs ploughed 700 acres, a figure which was nearly trebled in their second season and reached 2,560 acres in 1942-43. During the 1943 harvest the tractor gangs cut approximately 2,000 acres of corn. Other field operations were in similar proportions.

A parallel scheme took the form of providing loans to enable farmers to buy tractors and implements, many of which were subsequently used by the purchasers to carry out field operations at contract-work rates.

Two other methods of solving the labour difficulty were devised. Internment camps provided a useful reservoir of labour in the initial stages. Much of it was unskilled, but it had a leavening of workers with varying degrees of experience. The numbers obtained from this source reached their peak in 1941, and thereafter, because of transfers, releases, and other causes, declined. The gap was filled to a large extent by the Manx Women's Land Army, practically all of whom are volunteers. Since the principal demand was, and is, for casual labour to deal with the various seasonal operations, the proportion of land girls placed permanently on individual farms has been comparatively small; the policy has been rather to concentrate upon the formation of mobile squads, ready to go anywhere in the Island and do whatever is required. Very few of these girls had had previous experience of farm work, and for the most part, they quickly acquired the requisite skill, and have earned considerable commendation for their workmanship from even the most sceptical employers.

Increased Acreage of Cereals and Fodder Crops

With the entry of Japan into the war, and the intensified German attack on shipping, British ports, warehouses and milling plant, and the diversion to more urgent work of many of the available vessels which usually plied between the Island and the mainland, the early months of 1942 produced a new and very serious problem. It became urgently necessary to increase the acreage of wheat grown and to make the Island substantially more independent of imported protein-rich animal feedingstuffs. Agreement between the Board of Agriculture and the Manx Government on a programme to attain these objects was very quickly reached. It was decided to pay a subsidy of 4 per acre for land sown with wheat, and a subsidy of 1 per acre for mixed crops of cereals and beans, peas and vetches. Also, an Order was made under the Defence Regulations requiring farmers to sow one-quarter of their cereal acreage with wheat.

The wheat-growing scheme was announced in the first week of March and the Board of Agriculture undertook to have seed available for intending growers. It was very much a rush job, but before the sowing season ended seed was obtained to cover all orders, and 1942 saw the Island growing 3,057 acres of wheat, compared with 511 acres in 1941. In 1943, the "crisis year" as it has been called, the acreage was further increased to 4,823, a figure more than five times greater than the highest recorded in 1914-18.

Despite the loss of very considerable sections of its arable land, in some cases the most valuable arable land, to meet the paramount requirements of national defence [fpc: Ronaldsway] , the Island had, by 1943, increased its area under crops by practically 11,000 acres ; over 84 per cent. of its arable land was under cultivation and only 15 per cent. under permanent pasture.

Mention has been made earlier of the Island's somewhat unusual seasonal output of certain products. The war-time situation brought forcibly into prominence a marketing problem concerning at least two of them-lamb and tomatoes. Without the customary increase in summer population, the Island was faced with a surplus of both crops.

Problem of Surplus Fat Lambs and Tomatoes

The lamb problem was tackled first, since the means for dealing with it were ready to hand. Under the provisions of an Agricultural Marketing Act passed in 1934, an Agricultural Marketing Society, composed of elected representatives of all landholders on the Island, had been formed in 1935. As soon as a Marketing Association was constituted to deal with a particular product, the management of its affairs was vested in an Executive Committee of the parent Society. At the outbreak of war Marketing Associations existed to deal with fat stock, milk and potatoes.

To the Fat Stock Marketing Association, therefore, fell the task of dealing with surplus lambs. Very early in the war the Isle of Man followed Great Britain in fixing prices for the different classes of fat stock. Previous experience had given some indication of the cost of exporting live stock. Part of the problem was, therefore, to ensure that if surplus fat stock had to be exported farmers would share the burden of export charges equally. The. solution evolved was a special levy payable by producers on every fat lamb sold each season and credited to a separate Export Account. The levy was deducted by the livestock auctioneers and passed to the Fat Stock Marketing Association. As a result, every farmer received the fixed price for his fat lambs, and the burden of export costs was borne by every producer, irrespective of whether he sold on a short or a glutted market. In 1940, the first exportation year, 5,806 fat lambs were shipped to England between August 8 and October 25. The total number marketed during the months May to October, 1940, inclusive, was 18,990. In 1942-43 the consignments exported were down to 4,308.

There was, however, no scheme or association under the Agricultural Marketing Act for dealipg with tomatoes. The powers conferred by the Defence Regulations, however, enabled His Excellency the Lieutenant-Governor to appoint a Committee to prepare a marketing scheme for his approval and ultimately administer it. The Committee consisted of representatives of producers, consumers and distributors. In its constitution and working it was, in many respects and in the circumstances prevailing, a model of the ideal marketing organization. Its conclusions and findings were always 'subject to His Excellency's approval, but otherwise for two years it controlled the marketing of the Manx-grown crop-i.e., it decided when exportation was advisable, fixed prices, and defined the margins to be allowed to both wholesalers and retailers.

The maxim that the unexpected always happens cannot fairly be applied to Manx war-time agriculture, but at least it can be said that the developments which occurred as the war lengthened frequently had about them something of the character of unexpectedness. The transference of certain Service establishments to the Island, the arrival of refugees from blitzed areas, and other causes, altered food-production problems completely, and these naturally had their effect upon Manx agriculture. There arose a hitherto unprecedented demand for milk during the winter months, and a market not only capable of absorbing all the surplus lambs and tomatoes of the earlier years, but requiring extra supplies of almost all agricultural products.

More Milk

Farmers were urged to produce more milk, especially during the winter months, and prices were adjusted to encourage this. But it did not stop there: the Board of Agriculture arranged, from time to time, for in-calf heifers and cows to be imported, to augment the Island's dairy herd, while the Government Veterinary Inspector, under a Board of Agriculture scheme, used inoculation to stimulate services which would result in autumn and winter calvings. In pre-war days, breeding for beef was a prominent feature of the Island's livestock production, but with the war came a pronounced swing towards milk. To meet the new situation, the Board of Agriculture in 1942 imported a dairy Shorthorn bull of exceptional breeding, and established an Artificial Insemination Centre under the control of the Government Veterinary Inspector, Mr. D. W. Kerruish, M.R.C.V.S. This new scheme grew rapidly in favour; in 1943 a second dairy Shorthorn bull was imported, and the work has increased to such an extent as to warrant the appointment of a full-time lay inseminator.

The returns collected by the Board and the Milk Marketing Association show that while the total of breeding cattle (cows-in-milk, cows-in-calf, and heifers-in-calf with their first calf) showed on June 30, 1944, an increase of 16 per cent. over the number on June 30, 1939, the number of cows-inmilk and cows-in-calf used solely for milk production showed an increase of almost 18 per cent. in the same period-increases which compare favourably with those attained in Great Britain. It is at least noteworthy that despite restricted supplies during the winter months, it has not been necessary to resort to milk rationing.

More Potatoes

Among crops of importance in war time, potatoes have been accorded a high place from the beginning, and the recently published figures show that in England and Wales the acreage has more than doubled since 1939. The Manx acreage showed a steady increase each year after 1939, and by 1943 the pre-war acreage had been increased by half as much again. But the quantities required to meet the altered local demand necessitated efforts to increase the acreage still further. It was estimated that to make the Island, with its now considerably increased resident population, self-supporting, an extra area of 500 acres would have to be planted in 1944. The effect of this would be practically to double the 1939 figure. The extra acreage was allocated to the different parishes of the Island in proportion to the acreage each had returned in 1943, and Parish War Agricultural Production Committees with their local knowledge distributed the allocation among individual growers in the most equitable manner possible. Their recommended allocations were then sent to growers in the form of Cultivation Orders under the Defence Regulations. The returns show that the additional acreage was not only obtained but actually exceeded.

Parish War Agricultural Production Committees were set up in 1939. Their primary duty was to assist the Board of Agriculture to adapt and apply Cultivation Orders to local conditions equitably and without friction. In this they performed valuable service, and they undertook also the inspections necessary in checking claims for crop subsidies. Their task has not always been easy and has frequently called for the exercise of considerable tact, but they have played a useful part in furthering the national war effort to increase food production.

 see B22

Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2011