Market gardens during wartime

The Cockburn district in 1939

At the outbreak of war, the Cockburn district was still distinctly and comfortably rural, with its usual share of agricultural shows, train line troubles, and complaints about the state of the roads. To most of suburban Perth, the names Spearwood, Coogee, Bibra Lake and Jandakot still meant ‘farming’. Indeed, both Bibra Lake and Jandakot were still campaigning to be connected to electricity lines, residents living with kerosene lamps and coal fires. 

The major crops of the district were onions - so prevalent that the variety ‘Spearwood Brown Globes’ were known internationally - and potatoes, but gardeners grew everything from cauliflowers to string beans to pumpkins, all kinds of fruit and grapes, and there was a thriving poultry industry for eggs and breeders. In 1938, the district produced over £100,000 of fruit, vegetables, eggs, and poultry for the domestic market.
Car with gas producing machine attached

Suppliers to the services: market gardens in wartime Cockburn

Being a food-production district meant that Cockburn’s importance grew as the organisation of military affairs began to expand. Suddenly there were dozens of units of militia in training all over the state who needed feeding, not to mention the regular military, now the 2nd Australian Imperial Force (AIF), whose ranks were quickly swelling. 

But the higher demand for vegetables was met with a lower workforce, as more men joined the military or moved to the cities to take higher-paying jobs in munitions factories and other wartime industries. 

Manpower and protected industries

Many Cockburn growers could claim exemption from military service as workers in a protected industry, and workers in factories like Watsonia would be assured their positions for the length of the war. But often the sons or male employees of market gardeners were not exempt from service, and the loss of staff to the armed forces seriously endangered many Cockburn producers. 

For many Cockburn men, the choice was stark: go into the army, or work your plot of land and feed the armed forces. Florrie Gherardi’s husband, Charles, was given such a choice at the outbreak of war. The young couple owned a 9-acre block of land in Gerald Road, Spearwood, though they did not grow vegetables before the war. For Italians in Cockburn, their work on market gardens often also exempted them from internment as 'enemy aliens' who were a threat to the Allied cause.

When the Manpower Directorate began to organise the nation’s workforces, Charles Gherardi was one of the millions who were ‘manpowered’. Given a choice between enlisting in the army and working his landholding to feed the nation, Charles chose market gardening. 

Though their block was 9 acres, they could only manage to work about 3 acres as they had no help, and as this did not bring enough money to support them Charles still had to work on his woodcutting business at the same time. 

They grew lettuce at first, as it was a quick crop with a high turnover, and as Florrie recalled, ‘the soldiers used a lot of lettuce’. Later their crops expanded to beans, pumpkins, carrots, and cucumbers.

Petrol rationing

Though the district’s work was essential, the introduction of necessities like rationing of petrol made it extremely difficult to remain competitive. At the beginning of the war Australia had only enough petrol to keep up normal motor supply for three months, and though the government tried to encourage the use of gas producers on their vehicles, the need for rationing became unavoidable, and it was announced in June 1940.

Many growers, particularly the smaller ones, were continually struggling to make ends meet when they could no longer even drive their produce to the Fremantle markets on the amount of petrol they were allowed each week, let alone run tractors or drive around their properties. 

Suggestions made to them, such as getting their produce taken to market by train or by cart, neglected to understand the precarious line walked by market gardeners in this dying era of the small metropolitan farmer. 

Trips to market were not only made to sell produce, which could only be handled and weighed accurately by the producers themselves, but also allowed for a return journey loaded up with necessities like fertiliser, manure, and equipment. How could the growers continue to supply civilians and soldiers with their food, Spearwood gardeners argued, when rationing of petrol was directly affecting the amount of food that could be produced?

Internment camps and market gardening

Spearwood gardeners were deeply concerned by a rumour put around in July 1941 that the internees at Harvey were clearing land and preparing to plant potatoes and onions, both major crops of the Spearwood district. Positioned as suppliers of vegetables to the Armed Forces, gardeners were terrified that their already-precarious income stream would dry up when the Italians at Harvey, many certainly gardeners themselves in their civilian lives, began to produce enough to supply themselves and other branches of the services.  

Questions were asked in Parliament about this situation, but the answers were not reassuring. The internees had cleared around 55 acres of land for planting, and if they produced more potatoes and onions than the camp itself required, the excess would be used in other military establishments. This was not what the struggling gardeners wanted to hear, but they had little control over the issue.  

By December 1941, the army record of the Harvey camp reported that ‘produce to a contract value of £137/7/5 has been supplied from the potato and market garden areas during the month, also a quantity of surplus has been transferred to Western Command.’ The internees had harvested 90 tons of potatoes, an average of 5 tons per acre, in their first year.

In the end, the internees did not produce enough vegetables to become a true threat to small-scale market gardeners, but there seemed to be a marked lack of concern around the subject from non-farming people. During war, the scarcity of food was a bigger issue than unfair work practices, and Spearwood gardeners would have to remain chagrined.

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9 Coleville Crescent,
Spearwood 6163

Po Box 1215, Bibra Lake DC,
Western Australia, 6965

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