You Want to Grow What?!

Brussels sprouts, celery, and mustard. What do they have in common? They were just some of the crops that English farmers in 1918 had to get special permission to grow.

When the British Government began to conclude that they really couldn’t just hope that farmers would start planting more grain, War Agricultural Executive Committees across the country were formed. Their forerunners, the War Agricultural Committees, had been set up to try and ‘encourage’ farmers to grow more wheat, but lacked any coercive powers. All this was to change from early 1917, with the Corn Production Act. The government was now interested in exactly what farmers were growing, and, delegating the responsibility out to county committees, would remove farmers from their land if they weren’t growing sufficient corn, or if they weren’t farming their land well enough. It was a huge government intervention, and an excellent way for farmers to push grievances against one another if they so desired. There are one or two bits in the minutes of the Cambridgeshire War Agricultural Executive Committee (sadly only 1918 survives/can currently be found in Cambridgeshire Archives – the other volumes may yet be lurking somewhere) that suggest a few farmers were engaging in a bit of a feud. But, for the most part, all farmers were trying far too hard to make their own land work, what with the shortage of labour, to really want to take anyone else’s land on too.

English farmers were meant to grow wheat, corn and other grains. So, if a farmer wanted to grow, for instance, Brussels Sprouts, he would need to get special permission from his local committee to do so. On 27 May 1918, a Mr W Brockett of Guilden Morden was granted just such permission.

As you can imagine, not everyone was too impressed with these new laws about what you could and couldn’t grow, and several farmers complained at being made to grow wheat on land that simply wasn’t suited to it. Matters were made even more difficult by a massive shortage of labour, especially skilled labour. One particularly irate farm owner (most actual farmers were tenant-farmers, while huge tracts of land were owned by others who didn’t actually work the land), wrote a pamphlet ‘The New Agriculture and the Coming Chaos’. I had no idea Conservatives got so angry about the First World War! He basically claimed a massive socialist plot was going on, and that while the land owners and the farmers were being good and patriotic, the farm labourers were busy seeking out a minimum wage that they’d get paid regardless of whether their work was any good or not, and that this was only one small step along the line to total chaos and the destruction of Britain. (It is a hilariously angry tract. If you can find a copy of it, you’ll find yourself sat silently giggling in whatever rarefied room you’re allowed to read it in.)

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