Agriculture and the Commission of Government
Newfoundland and Labrador was in deep financial trouble when the Commission of Government assumed power in 1934. Steadily declining cod prices made it impossible for fishers to make a decent living and layoffs were widespread in the forestry and mining industries. Thousands of newly unemployed workers were in desperate need of public assistance, yet a mounting national debt and shrinking income left the government with little money to spend on relief.
The Commission hoped agricultural development would provide an alternative source of employment and reduce the public’s dependence on the dole. It offered cash bonuses for land clearing and cultivation, established a Demonstration Farm and Agricultural School to train future farmers, distributed livestock to promote animal husbandry, and created several new farming communities under its land settlement and small-holding schemes.
Land Settlement Scheme
The land settlement scheme was the most complex and costly of all the Commission’s plans to stimulate agriculture. Under this program, the government helped families establish farms, raise animals, and build communities in previously uninhabited parts of the country. It was the government’s hope that all families would become self-sufficient in a year or two and eventually pay back their state loans. Similar programs existed in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom during the Great Depression.
The Commission of Government first considered the idea after receiving a proposal from ex-serviceman William Lidstone in the winter of 1934. Lidstone asked government officials to provide him and his nine colleagues with a loan and land grant to cultivate a patch of uninhabited property on the Avalon Peninsula. Public Utilities Commissioner Thomas Lodge approved the idea, but wanted a board of trustees to control spending and supervise the endeavour; these became landscape engineer Rudolph Cochius, medical doctor John Grieve, and businessmen Chesley A. Pippy and Sir Marmaduke Winter.
Under the plan, the Commission loaned each of the 10 families two years’ worth of relief money to start the project. It also secured a 39-square mile territory of land on the Avalon Peninsula along the Whitbourne to Colinet road. Lodge selected the area for a variety of reasons: it was close enough to St. John’s to allow regular visits from the trustees, yet far enough away to deter the settlers from leaving; was located along an existing road; and was also near a railway.
On 30 April 1934, the first 10 settlers left St. John’s for their new home at Markland – the first and largest of the land settlement communities. When the men arrived, they found an uninhabited wilderness of mostly forest and bog lands. They pitched their tents and began to clear the land. The work was difficult, but progressed steadily; by August 1935, an additional 119 families had joined the original 10 at Markland.
All families wishing to move to Markland had to apply to the Commission for permission. Approval was based on order of application, but because the government intended the program to provide work for the unemployed, it only accepted applications from families on able-bodied relief who had at least one adult male capable of performing physical labour. Once the government approved an application, it assigned family members a piece of land and provided them with a cottage, furniture, supplies, and clothing if needed. Settlers with four or more children lived in three-bedroom cottages, while all others inhabited two-bedroom cottages.
Residents were expected to cultivate land and work on community projects. They did not earn cash, and instead received credit at government-run shops in the community. Although each family had its own private farm, they also cultivated a large patch of communal land from which they were expected to share the profits. Lodge viewed the land settlement program as a social experiment that he hoped would make participants more self-sufficient and less dependent on government support. The government continued to view the land settlement schemes as much as a form of social experimentation as a type of agricultural policy. Reforming the character of rural Newfoundlanders by dissolving their old community and denominational ties were major aims of the schemes. The government provided less practical advice to farmers and more public education about settlers’ moral duty to stay off public relief and away from political dissent.
Children at the land settlement communities also attended experimental folk schools that differed sharply from those in the rest of the country. The schools were non-denominational in nature and taught carpentry, farming, natural history, civics, and a variety of other subjects. Students cultivated a school garden, worked in a dairy, and prepared their own lunches. The government hoped the skills students acquired would encourage an independent, self-sustaining lifestyle once they reached adulthood.
As the land settlement scheme grew in popularity, the government established similar communities at Haricot, Brown's Arm, Midland, Lourdes, and elsewhere. In all, the Commission relocated about 365 families, although more than 2,500 applied.
Despite a promising start, the land settlement scheme was plagued with difficulties for much of its existence. Tensions soon developed between the settlers, trustees, and government officials. Many settlers felt the government had too much control over their lives and managed the communities too closely. Some claimed they even had to ask for permission to invite friends and relatives into their communities for a visit.
Others grew uneasy because they did not own the land on which they lived and farmed. They worried the government would order them to leave if it became dissatisfied with their work or behaviour. Tensions continued to grow after 1936, when the government evicted a couple from Markland for refusing to send their children to the local school. Seven men objected to the decision, but the government forced them to leave as well.
Friction also developed between the settlers, especially while working on communal farms. Some people felt they were doing more work than their neighbours, who still received an equal share of the profits. A few older settlers were irritated that new arrivals immediately benefited from work that had taken them months to accomplish. Also, because the government did not try to keep families of similar backgrounds and denominations close to one another, many settlers felt socially isolated from their neighbours.
Alongside social tensions were financial difficulties. By the end of 1939, the government had spent $1.37 million on the land settlement scheme, which was more than it anticipated investing. Officials also recognized the settlers would never be able to entirely provide for themselves, let alone pay back the government’s loan.
The Commission decided to scale back its involvement with the project and by the end of 1942 had withdrawn all financial aid. By then, wartime prosperity had greatly reduced unemployment in Newfoundland and Labrador, and many of the settlers had already left the communities to find work on military bases at Argentia, St. John’s, and elsewhere.
The Commission of Government also established small-holding settlements to encourage fishers and loggers to supplement their incomes with part-time farming. In 1939, it started communities at Winterland, on the Burin Peninsula; at Sandringham, in Bonavista Bay; and at Point au Mal, just north of Stephenville. It also began a land-clearing project at Creston, near Marystown.
All families wishing to participate in the small-holding program had to apply for government permission; they also had to demonstrate a difficulty making ends meet, but did not have to be on able-bodied relief. The Commission of Government established all small-holding settlements within a three-year schedule and without exceeding its budget. By 1942, 38 families lived at Point au Mal, 25 at Sandringham, and 23 at Winterland.
Aside from establishing farming communities, the Commission of Government developed a number of other plans to stimulate agriculture in Newfoundland and Labrador. It provided financial assistance for individuals wishing to attend Canadian agricultural colleges (these students later returned home to become agriculturalists); opened an Agricultural School and Demonstration Farm near St. John’s to encourage professional farming; appointed agricultural field men to advise and assist farmers; and promoted the formation of agricultural societies.
Despite these efforts, the country’s rough terrain, acidic soil, unsuitable climate, and scarcity of local markets undermined any attempt from the government to promote agricultural development. Farming in Newfoundland and Labrador persisted on a largely subsistence level and contributed little to the overall economy.