Farm WorkFarm Work
Alternative service took many different forms. Farming is one of those we know about least. Of the 262,634 Canadians who delayed their military service, 65% did so because they were needed on the farm. Among conscientious objectors, the percentage is similar. At the end of 1945, 6,655 out of 10,851 conscientious objectors were employed in agriculture. With this in mind, why do you think the other areas of alternate service receive so much more attention? Why is it that of all the types of alternative service, we have the hardest time finding pictures and stories about agricultural activities?
There are a number of reasons.
Men on farms did not have regular contact with other COs. Those men in forestry camps, on the other hand, were surrounded by other COs. They were also a long way from home, so they took more pictures and wrote more letters home. They were doing something they had never done before, and they were excited. Today, these records survive in archives. Many COs on farms served in their home community. Even though their work was vital to the Canadian economy, it did not seem very glamorous.
At the beginning of the war, many COs went to alternative service camps. Those COs who farmed usually had a special reason and had some of the men had to sign contracts.
Henry Poettcker was a young man in Alberta when he received his military call.
Because I was the son of a widow I received an agricultural postponement to remain on the home farm. [MHC, 1015-2]
John Dyck was in a similar situation.
My mother being a widow at the time I worked for her on the farm and she paid monthly to the Red Cross [on my behalf] [MHC, 1015-51]
Like both of these men, Henry A. Wiens probably could have avoided military service by claiming that he was essential to the family farm. Wiens, however, would not deny his beliefs in that way. He declared himself to be a CO to take a stand against war.
Since I was the oldest boy in the family, the others still in public school, I was allowed to remain as a farm worker on my father's farm. He had to pay a certain amount of money every month, for the duration. While I could have remained a farm laborer without declaring myself a CO, I was glad to witness to this.[MHC, 1015-15]
Arthur Pankratz refused to go back to the camp because he felt it was more important to help out on the farm. Read the letter he wrote. The government did not always allow them to stay on the farm. Frank Dyck also requested to remain on the farm and wrote about his circumstances in a letter. Read the letter.
At times officials were reluctant to let the COs work on the farms. At times church leaders advocated for the COs. Read Bishop David Toews' letter to R.S. Hinchey to try to help Ruben Siemens remain on his family's farm.
Later during the war the government instructed the officials to allow more COs to remain on the farm. (article 1 article 2) The CO newsletter, The Beacon also reported that more young men would be allowed to stay on the farm.
The theme of payments to the Red Cross is common in agricultural CO stories. In the spring of 1944, the forestry camps closed down and the COs were shifted to essential industries like farming.
During my fifteen months in BC camps, various fellows left, either to join the forces or were sent home to work on farms. In mid-November, 1943, I received a notice and ticket to report at a fruit farm in Vineland Station. I started there December 1, 1943. Part of my wages went to the Red Cross till the end of the war. My parents had moved to Jordan Harbour, Ontario, not far from where I was working now. I was on a CO contract there till at least the middle of 1945 when the war ended. [ASM, 55-58]
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Abram J. Thiessen also served in a forestry camp. Then, in 1943, he was assigned to farm duty.
It has been said, all things come to an end, and so also did my camp life. Some time in December 1943 we were given leave to go home for the Christmas holidays. As soon as I arrived home arrangements were made whereby I could find employment in Winnipeg, and work on the family farm during spring, summer, and fall. I started driving a truck delivering coal for the Capital Coal Co. in early January and came home again at the end of April. Out of my wages I was allowed to keep twenty-five dollars per month plus an allowance of thirty dollars towards my room and board. The rest of my earnings were deducted and were sent to the Red Cross. This amount usually exceeded the amount that I received. Also as soon as I went to work at home Dad had to pay twenty-five dollars per month to the Red Cross for me and the same amount for my brother Jack who had also reached recruitment age. We farmed a larger than average acreage in those years but fifty dollars per month was a considerable drain on the family income.” [ASM, 30-49]
The CO on farm duty produced food for Canadians and the CO paid a portion of his wages to the Red Cross.
For Herman Sawatzky, half of his monthly salary went to the Red Cross. Sawatzky worked for the reeve of the Franklin Municipality in southern Manitoba .
He had 240 acres of land, about 60 head of cattle. My first job after chores were done was to go to the bush on his farm and cut down dead trees for a winter supply of firewood. After that there was dried manure to be hauled around the house…. Then the judge talked with me and Tom Collins [the reeve], we made arrangements of how much I was going to pay off on my wages to the Red Cross. In winter I got $40 a month, I had to pay $20 of it to the Red Cross, and in summer I got $45 a month, of which I had to pay Red Cross $25. My wages stayed the same till 1946 in the fall. [ASM, 166]
All COs on farms contributed to the Red Cross. Although this was a financial hardship, it was nothing compared to the many sacrifices soldiers and their families made. The Red Cross payments were a way for COs to support peace and ease suffering. Even so, people sometimes resented them.
Farm WorkFarm Work
Abe J. Sawatzky was another CO who could have asked for a delay in military service for agricultural reasons. He was newly married with a newborn son. Without him, the farm would not be able to produce crops. Instead, he became a CO.
“Through much prayer and complete obedience to the Holy Spirit, I had complete peace of mind, but I did experience some misunderstanding in the neighborhood. I found out later that 2 men had phoned Regina and complained about me being a CO, but I knew nothing of this at the time.” [MHC, 1015-18]
Peter J. Janzen could understand how others might feel towards him. For this reason, he made an effort to reach out to others.
“I not only helped out on my father's farm during this time, but also helped in doing chores for neighbors whose son was in the armed service.” [MHC, 1015-49]
COs usually did farm work by themselves or with a few other COs. It was nothing like the large CO gatherings in the forestry camps of BC. Being alone and without support was perhaps more lonely, but farm work had its advantages. One CO appreciated that he was able to use his agricultural skills instead of being isolated in the woods.
“The fellowship in camp was a very good experience but our work in the bush we felt was not of very much value if we could of worked in the hospital or some other form of work we would of felt much better. In the bush we felt we were just hidden from the eyes of the public. On the farm later our work was of good value because the farm owners were happy with us because were experienced farm men and worked conscientiously.” [MHC, 1015-60]
John Friesen was assigned to work on a farm in Manitoba.
“My employer (a dairy farmer from Germany ) was a Roman Catholic. He seemed to be satisfied with my work. My employer had another CO with whom he was not so happy. I helped remodel my employer's house and was also sent to help build a RC Church. At this project I met other RC farmers and their workers as this was a do-it-yourself church building job for the German RCs of the district. I cannot recall that I did any spectacular witnessing regarding my CO stand. It seems that no one ever asked me about it. I was never jeered for my CO status (as others seem to have been). Today I feel that I should have witnessed more.”
While Friesen may not feel that he should have been more outspoken, his quiet example seems to have been enough.
“My employer came to realize that even Mennonite COs were not all the same. My employer felt that his other CO was lazy. I feel that I convinced him that there were also eager workers. My employer's wife must have been favorably impressed with my religious life, because she at times would remind her husband that he did not always say grace before meals but that I never forgot to do so.” [MHC, 1015-38]
David R. Schellenberg also made a good impression on his boss. Schellenberg had initially done CO service for the Arctic Ice Company in Winnipeg before moving to a farm.
“I was about 2 years on a farm at Hazelridge. The boss had 3 brothers in uniform. They all came back while I was there. They all thought I had a right to my ideas and we were good friends. I was treated as if I was a member of the family. I got $25 a month and $25 went to the Red Cross. For Christmas the boss gave me a Fifty Dollar Victory Bond. I was there for 2 Christmases.”
“When I left the farm I had to report back to the CO office which was in the Paris Bldg. The judge said that my boss had sent in a very good report from me, which he didn't have to do.” [MHC, 1015-13]