HOW TO FIND LABOUR FOR THE LAND N ECESSITY has breathed
a new spirit into agriculture, and ways and means are being devised on every hand for greatly increasing our home production of food. The amount of food produced here has become the question of the moment, and is likely to remain in the very front of our difficulties during the remainder of the war. Our greatest _national industry—for agriculture is our greatest national industry, though this is often strangely forgotten through the habit into which we had fallen of scarcely thinking of agricul- ture as being an industry at all—involves an extraordinary number of problems. The Board of Agriculture has not a staff large enough to control and guide the prompt expansion of agriculture which is imperative. There will have to be fresh executive authority at the centre, and administrative powers will have to be freely delegated to local bodies. Agricultural machinery and implements will have to be imported or manu- factured quickly at home. Fertilizers, feeding-stuffs, seeds, and seed-potatoes will all have to be placed in large quantities at the disposal of farmers. Much grassland will have to be broken up in order to produce more wheat, potatoes, and roots. Neglected land, waste land, and indifferently cultivated allotments must be made to produce food to the limit of their capacity. We do not doubt that the materials and the agricultural machinery will be supplied, and that prices will ultimately be arranged which will give a sufficient inducement to farmers to put their souls into a more intensive kind of cultivation. Arable farming formerly involved too many financial risks for the ordinary farmer to engage in it as his mainstay. He reduced his risks by bringing land down to grass. He tended to become more a stock-raiser on grass than a producer of the essential food of the people, which is wheat. Patriotism and financial guarantees will almost certainly cause him to try to farm in accordance with the needs of the nation ; but when all this has been said, we are up against that formidable question, which grins at us from whatever side we look at the whole matter—where are the farmers to get the labour ?
The farms arc already half paralysed by the shortage of labour. The requirements of the Army, of course, had to be satisfied. It was useless to produce more food if we were running short of men to win our battles abroad. So the agricultural labourer had to join up. And yet there is the reverse side of the shield—if the people at home run short of food, they will not be able to go on working at the high pressure necessary to turn out the munitions, and the ships, and all the other things which are the essential elements of victory. The needs of the Army and the needs of the land are in conflict, and it is extremely difficult to reconcile them. At first sight it may seem to those who have not studied labour problems during the war that there is nothing whatever to be done but to strike a balance between the conflicting needs and leave it at that—hoping that the adjudication has been as wise as possible in the circumstances, and waiting on events for satisfaction or disillusionment. But this might end in disaster. The wisest balance conceivable by the wit of man might fail to meet the case. Is there really no way out of the impasse ? We believe that there is. Reconciliation of the conflicting interests seems to be possible, and in our opinion ought to be attempted at once. Every one has heard of the "Dockers' Battalions," and the example of labour applied as it is applied by those battalions points the way to a solution. Just as there are Dockers' Battalions, so there might be Agricultural Battalions, and for the matter of that Railway Battalions, and Road Battalions, and so forth.
As public knowledge about the nature of the Transport Workers' Battalions—that is the official title of the Dockers' Battalions—seems to be a little sketchy, it is desirable here to explain the principle which they embody. The men in these battalions are first and foremost soldiers. They have been thoroughly trained as soldiers, and are in readiness to take up the work of Home Defence at any moment. Even though they should be engaged in dock work when the call came, they could be at their military posts within a few hours. Of course they are necessarily all men who have been perman- ently assigned to Home Defence. It would not be practicable to turn on men destined for the front to civilian labour at home. But the Home Defence Army is comparatively large, and while the men are waiting for a military emergency they have a good deal of time to spare. They could therefore be employed at innumerable points where civilian labour is inadequate. Quasi-military industries would get the labour they needed, and the Huns if they ever attempted a raid would still find the Dockers' Battalions, or the Agricultural Bat- talions, ready for them on the beach. That is the solution of the shortage of labour at home, so far as it can be solved. The criticisms and warnings-of those who opposed compulsory service would be deprived of even a semblance of justification. We should have our soldiers, but we should not be deprived (at least to no disabling degree) of our labourers. The dilemma set forth in much rhetoric would no longer exist. Of course a good deal of rearranging of the Home Army would be neces- sary. Agricultural .labourers would have to be massed in special battalions, railway workers in others, miners in others, and so on, but the difficulties of doing this seem to be far from insurmountable.
The Dockers' Battalions were created to relieve congestion at the docks. It is notorious that the residue of ships, when all those required for military purposes are written off, is insufficient for the needs of the nation. But apart from the arithmetical deficit of ships, there is in effect a 'still further reduction owing to the delay in the operation of what is called " turning round " vessels in the docks—in the operation of unloading the cargo, reloading the vessel, and starting her off on a fresh voyage. The Dockers' Battalions have saved many a situation. When civilian labour failed they swooped down on the scene of delay, polished off the work in hand, and returned to their camp or else went on to some fresh point where their labour was required. It was not less than an inspiration, this bringing together of dock labourers in special battalions to serve a combined military and civil purpose. This is the plan which some of the best brains concerned in the development of agriculture would like to have applied to the land without delay. As in the case of the Dockers' Battalions, it would be necessary for a local Committee in a particular agricultural district to prove the failure of civilian labour before it could secure the services of an Agricultural Battalion. There must be no humbug. The soldier-labourers must not be called in to do what civilians could have done for them- selves. Their task is to supplement, not to supplant. But when once a genuine need for labour had been proved, an Agricultural Battalion would rush to the rescue. The Agri- cultural Executive would " teach the doubtful battle where to rage" ; it would despatch labour to the right spot, and, by means of its strategic reserve, organize victory in the struggle between Man and Nature. Local Agricultural Committees would have to be formed to watch the state of labour in their districts on the same principle on which local Committees at the ports have worked in conjunction with the Transport Workers' Battalions.
It may be objected that what we have described is only a form of industrial conscription. It may be said that though military labour at the docks has escaped special notice owing to its limited extent, and to the fact that dock labour is normally " casual," the workers of the country in general would never tolerate the collaboration of soldiers and the introduction of all sorts of difficulties as to rates of pay. Such objections were foreseen and provided against when the Dockers' Battalions were created. Other objections have been removed as a result of experience. There is no industrial conscription. No soldier who is ordered to join a Dockers' Battalion need work at the docks unless he desires to do so. He works as a volunteer. If he does volunteer, he receives wages at the current civilian rate. This scheme has worked excellently, and it would be prudent to repeat it in the formation of all similar battalions. While a soldier is doing civilian labour and being paid for it at civilian rates he is not subject to military punishment for misconduct. His punishment is that he loses his wages, and if he persists is returned to his military duties and reverts to a shilling a day instead of the " good money " he was earning at the docks. As may be supposed, practically every member of the Dockers' Battalions volunteers, and very few of them are so foolish as to forfeit their chances of earning something like 10s. a day. It is not to be supposed, of course, that the whole of the Home Army could become " harumphrodites—soldiers and labourers too." Some are not fit for sustained labour for the same reason that they have not been passed for foreign service. But if, say, a third of the Home Army could serve a double purpose, there would be a great easing of the labour situation. Cannot the plan be tried, and tried quickly, beginning with agriculture ?