Digging for victory

Andrea Gaynor
Thursday, 31 January 2008

Australia's suburban backyards have been home to an assortment of agricultural enterprises over the years: poultry coops, vegetable patches, lemon trees reaching over eaves, passionfruit draping over side fences. Australians have grown their own food for a variety of reasons, including thrift, leisure, enjoyment and food quality. In a time of war, the production of food in suburbs from North Perth to South Melbourne became an activity of national importance.

The impact of war

During the early years of World War II, there was actually a surplus of commercially produced food in Australia due to reduced shipping spaces and export markets. However, after Japan entered the war and American food supplies were diverted to Russia, Australia began to change its food production and consumption patterns in order to supply other countries (primarily the UK) and the increasing number of Allied personnel in the region. From 1942, the number of farm labourers decreased due to war enlistments. Meat rationing reduced the availability of an important component of Australian diets, and civilian food supplies were diverted to meet the needs of the influx of servicemen into Australia.

By 1942 Australia was facing significant shortfalls of milk (by 180 million gallons), meat (by 150,000 tonnes, with civilian rationing), eggs (by 29 million dozen), and canned fruit (by 1.22 million cases). The nation's larders were looking altogether too bare for comfort.

As commercial producers struggled with shortages, efforts to improve the health and efficiency of the population were stepped up. The demands of war required that citizens be fit not only to increase the rate of production but also to defend the nation, should it come to that. Drawing on the increasingly commonplace language of nutritional science, manufacturers placed advertisements declaring that 'Never in the history of this free land has a well-balanced diet been so vitally important to all of us', and urging people to ‘Eat foods that help make Australia strong.'

Grow Your Own campaign

Britain, facing serious food shortages, started using the ‘Dig for Victory' slogan in 1939. In Australia, sporadic and informal efforts at encouraging home food production began in 1941. By 1943, the situation was grave enough for the Commonwealth Department of Commerce and Agriculture (working with state departments of agriculture) to take more serious steps. The Grow Your Own campaign was launched in Canberra in August that year.

Although the government did not generally expect that civilians would make up the shortfall in milk or meat, it encouraged them to grow their own vegetables, keep poultry for eggs, and eat more of these foods than those in greater demand. Civilian production was also seen as insurance against a ‘change in the season, onset of pests, unexpected interruptions to transport, manpower difficulties and other interventions.' It was clear to the government that home food production could help conserve scarce resources and it was better to have too much food than not enough.

The Grow Your Own campaign was promoted as a patriotic duty and emphasised that both health and bank balances would benefit. A campaign film informed viewers about the far-reaching benefits of producing their own cabbages and carrots while Australia was at war:

The average citizen imagines that when he grows some vegetables in his back garden it is only a saving in manpower – but it is much more than that.

If a farmer has to produce more foodstuffs it means he has to have more petrol to carry the foodstuffs to the railhead or the city, and he is using valuable rubber so difficult to replace now the Dutch East Indies are in Japanese hands.

More coal has to be consumed in freight trains, more men engaged on servicing freight engines and trucks, more men to handle the distribution and selling of the produce, more man and womanpower to retail the produce to the public.

Radio broadcasts, public demonstrations, school and local government competitions, posters, newspaper advertisements, brochures, and even stickers on correspondence from gas and power companies were used to get the Grow Your Own message across to Australians.

Although the campaign motivated many, it also encountered resistance, particularly as it failed to take regional variations into account. Citing the difficulty Perth gardeners faced in growing vegetables during harsh summers as well as shortages of gardening necessities, Western Australian Minister for Agriculture, Frank Wise, asked his Commonwealth counterpart to delay the campaign in Perth until the following April. The Fremantle City Council refused to support the campaign on similar grounds.

Claude L Piesse of the Perth suburb of Bassendean wrote to the Ministry of Agriculture to point out that the sulphate of ammonia and derris dust recommended in the ads were unavailable. Furthermore, he added, as the advertisement 

tells us to use sandy loam in some cases while the metropolitan area … is sand – one wonders if the whole thing is a joke.

Piesse also observed that, in Perth, it was necessary to water artificially for about eight months of the year, and asked how it was going to be possible to replace his hose. Willing gardeners clearly faced some practical difficulties in taking up the government's call.

Gender roles in the vegie patch

In addition to its patriotic appeal, the Grow Your Own campaign reflected and reinforced the notion of 'manly independence'. Popular representations of backyard food production, including the wartime campaign, emphasised that it provided a way for men to be independent by producing food for their families and performing physical labour that demonstrated their manliness. The idea that food production should be carried out by the independent, breadwinning male was clearly conveyed in a billboard advertisement depicting a man offering up freshly harvested vegetables to his grateful wife while his son looks on, shovel in hand, awaiting his turn to be the provider.

This understanding was also reflected in non-government material produced at the time. In Murray Tonkin's novel Mr Dimblebury Digs for Victory – a practical guide to Victory Gardening and wartime romance rolled into one – the middle-aged, middle-class Mr Dimblebury decides to do his patriotic duty and plant a Victory Garden. His wife observes her husband 'digging … so manfully at his new project.' Apart from providing the household with fresh vegetables, the novel's hero gains the respect of his office colleagues as the Victory Garden expert.

The association of food production with manly independence was gradually challenged by the increasing involvement of women. Australian Women's Land Army campaigns recruited volunteers to carry out rural agricultural labour. In the suburbs, women were already actively involved in food production, and their ranks probably swelled during the war years as more went to work on the garden front. The Young Women's Christian Association established a Garden Army of women who worked community plots on land set aside by private householders. The Garden Army gave the vegetables it grew to military hospitals and services hostels, and sold them to civilians, donating profits to the Red Cross and Australian Comforts Fund.

In 1942, Women's Weekly readers were advised that ‘Every woman who owns a garden plot and can use a spade or wield a hoe should cultivate a vegetable patch for the sake of her family.' Similarly, in the ABC's Women Talking radio series, the women broadcasting a segment entitled ‘Make your garden do war work' continually linked vegetable gardening with their primary responsibility as mothers. One presenter, for example, explained that she grew vegetables because:

Prices are prohibitive, and yet I must have some fresh vegetables to give my young baby. He is just weaned and the clinic says he must have three kinds of vegetables every day.

During the war, vegetable gardening was acceptable work for women in a patriotic context when portrayed as either a national service, or an extension of the work of cooking and a commendable duty to family. The fruit tree, vegetable patch and chook run have had a place in many Australian backyards over the years. During World War II, with the government's encouragement, men and women did their bit to support the war effort by digging for victory.

This story was originally published in the National Archives magazine Memento, Issue 34, January 2008.