When Winston Churchill delivered his stirring “We shall never surrender” speech of defiance in June 1940 he spoke of fighting “in the fields… and in the hills”. His words were, of course, a drumbeat of unyielding resistance – yet they could equally have described the battle waged by farmers to prevent the nation being starved into surrender.
“Before the outbreak of war, 70 per cent of the nation’s food was being imported,” says archaeologist and historian Alex Langlands. “There was a realistic scenario that German U-boats would blockade Britain and force us into surrender.”
The rural landscape underwent a radical transformation. Farmers were paid to slaughter their livestock and in the first year alone two million acres of grazing land were turned over to crop production. Tractors were rushed off the assembly line and pressed into action. Windsor Great Park became the largest wheat field in the country. Hyde Park was given over to raising crops.
But not everyone was happy. Some farmers objected to the changes imposed on them by the newly empowered Ministry of Agriculture. And in one little-known case, that simmering resentment exploded with ultimately tragic consequences.
Tenant farmer Ray Walden was proud of his 62 acres of prime Hampshire pasture. The land produced fine livestock but wouldn’t, in his view, deliver good yields of crops. So he ignored the overtures of civil servants to plough up half of it. They sought to take possession of the farm, but still he resisted. When police moved in to evict him, he barricaded himself in and then, in an act of crazed desperation, opened fire on officers with a double-barrelled shotgun, seriously injuring one.
An 18-hour siege followed, but the standoff could have only one ending; eventually the police stormed the farmhouse and shot Walden dead.
“It’s a tragedy,” says Langlands, who co-presents Wartime Farm on BBC2 this week with Peter Ginn and Ruth Goodman. “Pressures from government and the Ministry of Agriculture all collide in one story. Until the war, farming and food production were almost entirely independent of the state. But once war was declared it got its tentacles into every part of farming and that set the precedent for what happened after the war and what continues today.”
The case of Walden aside, the Second World War was the farming industry’s finest hour. Though food remained in short supply, the system of rationing ensured equality of delivery. “It was a victory not only because we didn’t starve, but because across the country the standard of health went up,” says Langlands. “People just had a fairer share of everything, so very many working-class people were actually getting better food during the war than before.”
But as well as feeding the nation, the state-sponsored organisation of food production also accelerated the industrialisation of farming, and it’s this that Langlands has mixed feelings about. “On the one hand we had to produce more food or we would have starved. But on the other hand we were ploughing up wonderful areas of biodiversity, levelling marshlands and introducing chemical fertilisers with abandon. Once they had adopted these methods it was very difficult to go back to less intensive methods. So for me it’s a difficult legacy to deal with. I do wonder if we don’t do those heroes of wartime farming a slight injustice in using the same methods they employed to feed a nation simply in pursuit of cheaper food.”