Growing Vegetables in War Time England

10 April 1945 The Tumut and Adelong Times

(The following address was handed to this paper for publication by Mr. H. H. Crouch, of "Nimbo", Tumut).

Although England is perhaps the most beautiful and garden-like country in the world, populated by people who are great garden lovers and world leaders in many phases of horticulture, it was found necessary, prior to the war, to import very large quantities of their vegetable requirements from other countries. 

In 1940 I was invited to visit England to assist in war time food production.

It was not, however, until 1944 that I was able to go and see the immense progress that had been made in vegetable production in that country.

War brought almost complete isolation to England. The first war priority was food.

Australians have heard some stories of England food production under wartime conditions.

This morning I wish to tell you some of the details in vegetable production which have largely contributed to the feeding of the British public. 

In the first place, the agricultural programme in England was well planned. 

Nutritional experts worked out the actual food required to be produced in England in order to maintain public health.

This programme was examined by an Agricultural Committee, who decided just what could be produced in England and re-arranged the programme accordingly.

These people were able to accurately estimate what vegetables could be produced in England if given complete assistance.

The British Government gave every assistance including complete control over 'correct land use.' 

Financial assistance was offered, but seldom asked for by the majority of vegetable growers.

An excellent form of assistance was rendered to all farmers by the formation of machinery pools in all districts where production warranted their formation.

Machinery of all types was available to growers.

You may wonder how, with every available man in the British Army, it was possible to work these machinery pools. 

Well, in the first place, skilled agricultural workers were exempt from the Army.

These skilled workers, however, were not sufficient to meet all demands. 

Army personnel on leave assisted, city folks on holidays helped; but, as far as I could see, the greater part of the work was done by the very young and the very old.

I have never seen anywhere so many young girls working in the fields. Prisoners of war also assisted. 

Let us take tomatoes as one of the most interesting vegetable crops.

The majority of people now know that tomatoes are prized, owing to their ascorbic acid or vitamin 'C' value.

In countries like Australia we have citrus, which is comparable with tomatoes from a nutritive point of view.

Peace-time England grew the most magnificent tomatoes I have ever seen.

They were nearly all cultured under specially-heated glass houses and grown by the most skilled horticulturists.

I have personally seen crops of 80 tons per acre, which are not common, but the best growers expect to produce 50 tons per acre. 

Prior to the war only about one third of Great Britain's tomato needs was produced in England.

The English authorities, with their usual thoroughness, developed a plan of action to become self-contained in tomatoes.

This was done:- 

(1) By increasing the efficiency of the already established tomato green-houses.

(2) Many thousands of acres of green houses devoted to flowers culture were largely converted to tomato production. 

(3) A technique of growing outdoor tomatoes in season had to be developed in England. 

Practically the whole of the tomatoes produced in England prior to the war were raised under glass.

The Ministry assisted these growers by giving them ample supplies of coke for heating purposes, fertilizers, organic manures and chemicals for insect and disease control. 

The Ministry of Food even supplied large portable steam boilers for steam sterilizing old tomato soils.

It was found that steaming the soil increased yields of tomatoes by an average of 20 tons per acre. 

The conversion of the flower-growing industry to tomato production is one of the many epics of England's war efforts. 

Owners were persuaded to convert 90 per cent, of their glass area from flowers to tomatoes.

When it is realised that the majority of these flowers houses were planted out with permanent or exceptionally valuable crops, such as roses, orchids, flowering bulbs, etc., it will be seen that growers had to make considerable financial sacrifice in order to produce food. 

It is estimated that it will take at least ten years to rehabilitate the flower industry under glass in England.

A total acreage of glass house tomatoes grown in England in 1944 was almost 4,000 acres.

In regard to outdoor tomatoes, English experts selected parts of southern England with the most sunny southern slopes, and here produced 4,800 acres of tomatoes. 

Not only was the commercial out-door grower eminently successful with the growing of these outdoor crops, but the hundreds of thousands of allotment growers and other amateurs throughout Great Britain produced quite a large supply of high quality tomatoes. 

Early in the war, I saw a picture of a London shop-window displaying one onion, illustrating how rare onions were in England in 1940.

Actually, there were only 1,700 acres of onions grown in the whole of Great Britain in 1939.

These were mainly consumed as green onions, as onions will not mature and keep as well in England as in a hot dry country.

The undaunted British knew they could grow onions perfectly, but how to mature them and keep them under English climatic conditions was a major problem.

The great increased acreage devoted to this crop created other problems, not the least of which was weeding the crop which would take up enormous man-power.

Science came to our aid here in that the English farmer was provided with spraying machines which sprayed the crop with sulphuric acid.

The acid did not destroy the crop, as onions, being a slippery round leafed plant, could not be wetted by the spray.

The weeds however, were saturated with the acid spray and destroyed, thus relieving the farmer of the heavy burden of weeding the onion crop. 

The result is reflected in 1944 when 15,400 acres of beautiful onions were grown in England.

Many were used in the green form, but I saw tens of thousands of tons of bulbs being nicely matured after lifting in green-houses. 

Engand again has onions - all home grown and produced with less labor than those previously imported from Spain and other sunny countries. 

The nutritional experts emphasised that the population must be fed on green vegetables all the year round in order to maintain the health of the people.

In the winter time England is largely fed on Brussels sprouts which, even prior to the war, occupied almost 40,000 acres of the countryside. 

This acreage has been steadily maintained throughout the war period but however, the people must have other vegetables and so the agricultural authorities decided to concentrate on cabbages, savoys (winter cabbage), kale and sprouting broccoli.

Mechanisation plus skilled agriculture was brought into bearing in order to grow the increased acreage.

Tractors and modern machinery was used for soil preparation, fertiliser distribution, manure spreading and transplanting seedlings.

A special English transplanting machine was specially adapted to handle war-time, crops and have transplanted up to 70,000 seedlings per day. 

Cabbages are set out in rows one foot apart, with the seedlings spaced 6in. apart in the rows.

When the cabbages are about 6' to 8' in height every third row is harvested and the greens despatched to the market as Spring greens.

This operation spaced the plants so that the remaining cabbages develop very rapidly.

When the crop is about half grown another cutting is made, removing every second row of cabbages.

The single remaining row, which is now spaced 3  feet, is then allowed to run full size before harvesting.

By this procedure, the English grower has produced three crops of greens on the one piece of ground and provided a high-class nutritive vegetable over a much longer period of time than would be the case if he grew one straight crop of cabbage. 

This was one of the means adopted to spread the harvest over a period in order to make greens available all the year round. 

Another vegetable which came for special attention was the carrot. Carrots are of a high vitamin 'A' value. 

It was necessary to increase the prewar acreage of carrots 120 per cent, or bring the total to 36,000 acres if the British population was to be adequately fed on this vegetable.

This was all made possible by highly specialised mechanisation.

I have visited carrot farms in England of over 1,000 acres extent. 

Practically all the operations were carried out mechanically in the production of carrots.

The land was prepared by tractor farming.

The seed was sown by a machine sowing six rows of seed at one time.

The crops were sprayed at an early stage of growth with power kerosene which destroyed the weeds but not the carrots.

Inter- row cultivation was carried out with a multiple inter-row cultivating machine which cultivated six tows at once. 

Spraying for Aphis and other insect pests was carried out with machines fitted with wide booms which could spray 16 acres of carrots per hour. 

All the machines were pulled by tractors with a minimum manpower. 

It was from England that some of the most magnificent varieties of peas have found their way into the gardens of the world.

Garden peas are of a high nutritive value and therefore must take a prominent place in the nation's diet.

By mechanisation of pea growing England was able to greatly increase not only peas for the fresh market, dry peas; but also for the canneries. 

Pea viners and other equipment rolls in England in the late summer months to produce the highest quality peas in the world.

By the aid of skilled horticultural planning, good farming methods and mechanisation, England was able to increase her total pea acreage 330 per cent - a total of 106,000 acres. 

To give you some idea as to where this story ends I would like to point out that in 1944 England had devoted 450,000 acres to the production of vegetables, apart from small vegetable producing allotments and the great potato acreages. 

And finally, I would like to mention potatoes, which with cereals, must take the greatest honors for feeding Great Britain through the worst of the war period.

A total acreage of almost one million acres of potatoes were grown in 1944. 

The seed potato industry of Scotland and Ireland was greatly increased and brought up to date without losing any of the quality, of this highly prized seed. 

The early maturing of the early potato crop is most important.

In England this was realised and, in order to hasten maturity, many potato crops were sprayed with acid to destroy the top growth and thus hasten the early maturity of the tubers.

The potato crop was rigidly controlled. Growers were instructed as to varieties to plant and when to dig the crop.

Other growers were instructed to pit or store their tubers, in order to carry over the potatoes as far through the winter as possible.

Naturally, heavy losses were experienced in such a vast scheme, but the English have potatoes - plenty of them all the time and of the best quality. 

The people of England have been well fed on vegetables, although they have not had a wide range to choose from.

But there were plenty of potato and cabbage, a few tomatoes and, of course, there were the allotment gardens which were truly victory gardens in every sense of the word.   

Hearing this story of the stepping up of vegetable production in Britain you may be wondering if there were ever any gluts.

Well, cabbages will not grow according to plan under any circumstances.

In other words, good seasons and poor seasons will come, but in England, excellent seasons have been the experience in most vegetable growing districts and the result has been that there have been gluts of potatoes and cabbages particularly.

And speaking of apparent wastage, I saw several crops of luscious tomatoes in full bearing that the authorities decided not to utilise for food. The vines were laden with ripe red fruit - and the explanation!

The green houses in which the crops were growing had been bombed with the result that glass fragments had pierced the majority of fruits, some of which were in the green, immature stage.

The small wounds in the fruits healed over, leaving no clue of the damage.

Dr Bewley, of Cheshunt Research Station examined fruits from damaged houses and ascertained that 70 per cent of tomatoes contained glass fragments and were not fit for human food. 

But these are just incidentals in the most magnificent agricultural picture it has ever been my pleasure to investigate. 

By John Douglass