'The best summer of our lives:' new book captures the stories of Ontario Farmerettes

Co-authors Bonnie Sitter and Shirleyan English gathered stories of fifty Farmerettes, who worked on farms across Southern Ontario during the WWII labour shortage.

Young women worked on farms in Southern Ontario during WWII labour shortage.

"It was the best summer of my life," said Londoner Shirleyan English. She worked on a farm in Thedford, Ont. in 1952.

During the Second World War when farms were short of labourers, a group of young women kept Ontario farms afloat. 

These women, known as Farmerettes, planted, hoed and hand-weeded fruit and vegetable crops for long hours. It was part of a provincial program to replace male labour in the agricultural sector.

'It was hard work, but we had an awful lot of fun," said Londoner Shirleyan English, a Farmerette who worked in a farm in Thedford, Ont. "I think all of us remember it as one of the best summers of our lives," she added. 

Now, English's experience and that of about 50 Farmerettes will be kept in time through a book she co-wrote titled Onion Skins and Peach Fuzz: Memories of Ontario Farmerettes.

Four farmerettes in front of a tier tent in 1941. Barbara (Wilson) Murray, now 95 and living in Fort Frances, Ont. is second from left.

But writing the book didn't happen overnight.

While English had spent two decades dreaming of writing a book capturing the Farmerette experience, it wasn't until last year when the idea became a reality, thanks to an author named Bonnie Sitter from Exeter, Ont. 

One day, Sitter was going through her late husband's photos when she stumbled across a tiny picture with three girls on the running board of a car. Sitter didn't recognize anyone in the picture, so she turned it over and saw, 'Farmerettes, about 1946' written on the back. 

"I don't know anything about Farmerettes," Sitter thought. "I should learn about them."

Exeter's Bonnie Sitter, co-author of "Onion Skins and Peach Fuzz: Memories of Ontario Farmerettes." (Submitted by Bonnie Sitter )

Last year, Sitter started doing research and decided to write an article for a rural paper on the topic. The article was published. Two months after it was published, the editor received a note. It was from her soon-to-be co-writer, Shirleyan English.

"The letter said she was touched from reading the story as it had been the 'best summer of her life' when she had been a Farmerette on my in-laws farm near Thedford, Ontario," Sitter recalled. 

Back in 1995, English had put out an advertisement asking for former Farmerettes to get in touch with her. 

More than 300 women reached out to tell her their story, but English wasn't able to write the book at the time. 

When Sitter found out English had kept the letters, she jumped on board and decided to help her write the book. 

Farmerettes on their way to work in the fields. (Submitted by June Hitchcox)

English and Sitter say many Farmerettes who have reached out during the last few years are eager to read the book.

"They're in their 80's and 90's, but they are thrilled about this because no one has ever recognized the work they did," English said. "They helped save the harvest, particularly during the war years."

The adventure during the war years

The Farmerette program was part of Ontario's Farm Service Corps. It became so popular, it lasted for several years after the war ended.

As a young woman from North Bay, Ont. who had never seen a large agricultural field, English says becoming a Farmerette was very appealing. 

"At 16 years old you're sort of looking for adventure," she said. " In those days there weren't many jobs for girls who were 16 years old. There was babysitting and not much else," she said. 

Farmerettes on their way to work in Vineland, Ont. Only three people have been identified: Paul Rempel (third from left), then Joan Fines and Audrey Middleton beside him, in pigtails and hats. (Submitted by Audrey Middleton)

The Sitter farm in Thedford grew onions, peppermint and celery. Besides a bit of back pain and sore knees, English said the job came with some perks.

"The best thing was that if you had certain marks, you could get out of school early and not have to write the final examinations, but you had to promise to work 13 weeks on the farm," she recalled. 

While three months working the land may not be the adventure most people seek nowadays, English said her time on the farm came with sweet memories of singing in the fields and getting to know other young women.

"It was that camaraderie we had with all the girls and the fun we had that made it the best summers," she said.