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War Economy

Falling Farm Labour Requirements

Falling Farm Labour Requirements

The process of mechanisation of farming, with improved methods, was well under way before war broke out. Though it is probable that wartime shortages of labour hastened it, it was by no means a wartime phenomenon. In fact, the underlying situation seems to have been that, both in times of unemployment and in times of labour shortage, mechanisation (and the accompanying improvements in methods) was having a profound effect on farm labour requirements. The situation was reached, probably somewhere around 1940, when the general upward movement in farm output was accompanied by a small but progressive reduction in farm labour needs. That is to say, the amount of labour required to produce each unit of output was falling, and the stage was reached where this fall in labour requirements per unit was fast enough to cancel out the extra labour needs for increasing production, so starting a slow but progressive fall in the overall amount of labour needed on farms.

page 189

In contrast, wartime thinking was in terms of steadily increasing farm labour requirements. Early complaints of labour shortage on farms reinforced this view, and there was no statistical information to show the true position. Between the 1926 and 1936 population censuses, the numbers engaged in farm work had increased by nearly a quarter. Employment conditions generally in 1936 differed from those in 1926, but there seems to have been an increase of over 2000 a year in farm labour requirements between these two censuses. The question on farm labour in the annual statistical return from farmers had ceased in 1930, and no other information on farm labour was available. What, then, more natural than to assume that farm labour requirements would go on increasing by about 2000 a year after the 1936 census?

This assumption was to be proved faulty, but the proof came too late to prevent frustrating and costly misjudgments in time of war, when they could least be afforded.

The population census due in 1941 was not taken, and, without it, there is no accurate measure of farm employment in the late thirties or early forties. The 1936 census had shown 148,000 males in farming; the 1945 census showed only 115,000.1 The 1945 census was taken when there were still 45,000 men, from all industries, in the armed forces. Nevertheless, this inter-censal drop indicated the need for careful re-examination of ideas about farm labour requirements. It no longer appeared reasonable to assume that there had been an increase in requirements, which had been frustrated by armed forces recruitments. The fall in numbers engaged was much greater than the loss to the armed forces.

If the circumstances of the 1945 census left doubts about the matter, the 1951 census, taken at a time when recovery from the war had been reasonably complete, was to remove them, by showing only 117,000 males in farming.

Thus, on a comparable basis, the number of males in farming decreased from 148,000 in 1936 to 117,000 in 1951. At some time, probably after the 1936 census, farm labour requirements must have reached a peak and started to fall. Judging by the unfortunate experience in 1944,2 when the number of men withdrawn from armed service for farm work proved to be substantially more than was required, the peak and down-turn in labour requirements must have

1 Census procedures have been changed several times since 1936. Officially published figures are, as a result, not comparable over time. Here, and in the figures used on p. 191, the 1936, 1945, 1951 and 1956 censuses have been made comparable as to exclusion of unemployed, inclusion of Maoris, inclusion (by pro-rating) of those who did not state their industries, and adoption of identical industrial classifications. To achieve this, some arbitrary adjustments have had to be made, but the figures are believed now to give a good indication of changes. See also Chapter 18, where more detailed figures are given.

2 See p. 194.

page 190 occurred pre-war or very early in the war. Be that as it may, misapprehensions about farm employment seem to have distorted wartime estimates of labour distribution, with the result that these estimates cannot be reconciled with pre-war and post-war census results.

The rapid mechanisation of farming has already been illustrated.1 Methods generally were being improved and more farm work was being done on a contract basis. Contract work made for a more efficient use of labour and gave a better opportunity for further mechanisation. It considerably reduced the number of men directly employed by farmers.

The reduction in farm labour needs seems to have been fairly general. The most rapid fall was in dairying, but a post-war report on sheep farming includes the following paragraph:2

‘It is also interesting to note that the number of sheep and breeding ewes to one unit of labour has increased greatly in the last thirty years.

Number of Sheep to One Labour Unit Number of Ewes to One Labour Unit
1916 666 344
1921 719 375
1926 716 401
1936 875 543
1945 1000* 633*

‘The doubling of the number of breeding ewes to one labour unit may be ascribed to the fact that dry-sheep numbers have fallen in this thirty year period, being replaced by breeding ewes on the better pastures.’

1 Chart 4, p. 15, and p. 188.

2 Parliamentary Paper H-46a, 1949, Royal Commission to inquire into and Report upon the Sheep Farming Industry in New Zealand.

* Estimate only