Farming was a reserved occupation which exempted farmers from conscription during World War II.
Many country men enlisted anyway leaving a shortage of labour on farms which in those days had little mechanisation.
Young women were enlisted to fill jobs vacated by men in the services, some of them became Land Girls, one of those was Sadie Lietze (nee Stuart):
. . . Lietze was interviewed and she chose the Womens Land Service. A week later tickets arrive in the post. She was being sent to Omarama to work at the high country station, Tara Hills.
“Omarama was a place I had never heard of, never been. I had to look in the map to know where Omarama was. It was quite an experience for me. I was just 19. I had never travelled much or been away from Dunedin.”
The 94-year-old recalls the trip to the high country station, where she would remain for two years, vividly:
“I left in the morning by the Mail Bus … My new boss met me in Omarama. As we travelled the three miles to Tara Hills Station in a jogger, a two wheeled cart pulled by a horse, similar to a trotting sulky. Little did I know I would stay two years as a cowman, a gardner, assistant rabbiter and horse breaker, a musterer, a wool classer and a general rouse about.
“I milked cows morning, night – every day of the year and never had a break. You would get Saturday afternoon off to do your washing. I just did everything that was asked. I did it. People say to me, ‘why did you do it?’ I say, “well, you did it because it was a war effort’.”
Growing up on a dairy farm, Lietze was using to milking cows. But the back-aching task of rabbiting was hard, she says.
Rabbits were real problem. Trapping rabbits was a fulltime job in winter. Rabbits were trapped, gutted and hung in twos on a fence at the road gate. These were picked up an hung on the rabbit truck and taken to Pukeuri Freezing Works near Oamaru to be later sent to England for food.
“After trapping we poisoned the rabbits. A furrow was scratched along the foothills, carrots were packed into saddle bags and I would walk along dropping sliced carrots into the furrows.
“Two days later I would do it again. I had to dig a huge hole big enough to bury a horse in.
“Then the next day I would drop carrots which had been laced with strychnine. The following day we would pick up hundreds of frozen rabbits, take them in the saddle bags to the big hole. Here we would skin them.
“It was a back-aching chore. In the evening we would stretch the skins on wires and hang them on a line to dry. When we had almost forgotten the pain we would start again on another block.”
The biggest hardships were the conditions and the cold, she says.
“There was no electricity. A Delco engine charged batteries for light and the wireless, which we listened to for the War News at nine o’clock. Then I would go to be and be up again at 6am. I just slept in an old hut. You take the sack off the floor and put it on you – it was freezing. Omarama is cold and you put the sack on top of your bedding to keep you warm. I wasn’t the only one.” . . .
Some Land Girls had been brought up in the country and relished the opportunity to work on farms, often those of their families. But when the war was over and their fathers and brothers returned they weren’t given the choice of keeping their jobs.
Some women who farmed during the war were farmers’ wives who had no choice but to step into their husbands’ boots to keep the farms going.
It wasn’t easy work and it often wasn’t easy for either partner when the war was over.
One returned service man told me when he came home both he and his wife had changed and his children didn’t know who he was.
They called us the heroes, but it was the women who stayed behind who were the heroes.
My wife took over the farm and ran it while looking after the children and managed it all by herself.
She’d been doing it all for all those years then I came home, thinking I knew it all and took over.
These days, one of us would have walked out, but then you got on and made the best of it.