Agriculture

Administrative / Biographical History

The original parent organisation of the National Federation of Women's Institutes (NFWI), the Agricultural Organisation Society (AOS), was established to help individuals to work co-operatively to improve farming conditions. Therefore, their subsequent involvement in the creation of the WI movement in Britain was partly due to their aim of encouraging women to take part in this form of activity. This was a major influence on the formation of the Agricultural subcommittee in Apr 1920 (originally the Agricultural and Horticultural subcommittee) with its initial aim of gathering information co-operative farming work amongst local WI branches in addition to the preparation of schedules for the agricultural sections of exhibitions. It soon began to publish regular articles on its work in Home and Country and also became responsible for the organisation of the NFWI's annual exhibit at the Royal Show. Subcommittees consisting of members of the Crafts and Agriculture committees would be set up each year to deal with these events from 1923.

This issue of food production was important in the wartime period in which the WI movement was established and became increasingly important after the responsibility for WIs passed from AOS to the Food Production of the Department of the Board of Agriculture. The Department was keen to develop co-operative markets and in letters of 1918 from its Horticultural Section it was stated that 'it is hoped that the WIs will be of great assistance in developing the marketing organisations in the counties' and 'a trading Society be registered under the Industrial and Provident Society Act'. Consequently, the NFWI Agriculture committee officially took an interest in the work of local WI produce markets from 1921. The first local WI market had already taken place in the summer of 1916 in Criccieth, with significant numbers following soon. However, despite these facts, NFWI did not become actively involved in promoting markets at this time due to concerns about effects of trading activities on the organisation's charitable status, which gave it exemption from Income Tax.

Nonetheless, once the Agricultural Marketing Act was passed in 1932, and at the behest of the Board of Agriculture, NFWI held a conference at Caxton Hall to 'investigate possible methods for marketing foodstuffs which are now wasted when members' gardens are glutted with produce for which no means of marketing exists'. 183 representatives from 47 Federations attended the Conference, who either took part or were interested in marketing activities. It was revealed that there were 20 markets in existence and great interest in forming more. At the Annual General Meeting of NFWI in May 1932 the East Sussex Federation proposed a resolution on the production and marketing of homegrown foodstuffs 'to improve the quality and quantity of foodstuffs raised'. This was passed and NFWI applied to the Carnegie UK Trust for financial assistance to promote this work. This enabled them to appoint Vera Cox to the staff as a Marketing Organiser reporting to the Agriculture Sub-committee, advising on setting up markets, running them and their registration as provident societies. Additionally, model rules were drawn up and the first marketing handbook was published by NFWI with suggestions for the formation and the working of market stalls. By the end of 1932 registered societies had been formed to cover markets in nine counties. Individual markets were registered under the Industrial and Provident Societies Act, but were linked together in County Marketing Societies.

In Dec 1925, an inter-departmental subcommittee was established by the Board of Education and the Ministry of Agriculture to report on the general question of the practical education of women for rural life and Lady Denman appointed to its chair. Its work ended in 1928 with the publication of the Denman Report. Its findings were wide-ranging covering the practical education of girls in rural schools, to the need for adult female education. Some of its main findings were on the need to relate the education of women in domestic science to their training in food production. These recommendations were reflected in resolutions at the Annual General Meeting of the following year. However, this had already been foreshadowed by the Executive Committee's ruling in 1926 that the work of the Education, Literature and Publicity subcommittee and the Agricultural and Horticultural Subcommittee were both largely educational in nature. It was therefore decided to replace both with a General Education Subcommittee responsible for dealing with questions affecting both the education of Institute members in agriculture, horticulture, health and other branches of education not dealt with by other subcommittees and a Printing subcommittee responsible for the technical side of NFWI publicity and the management of the literature department.

However, in late 1929, because of the scale of the work facing the subcommittee, it was decided that a separate subcommittee to deal with agricultural and horticultural issues should be re-established as well as with the arrangements for Royal Shows. In 1932, the work of the subcommittee was further divided up and a separate committee formed to deal with Marketing. However, the influence of the Denman Report continued and following year the subcommittee was reorganised as the Agriculture and Rural Domestic Economy Subcommittee to enable it to deal with all aspects of food including preservation as well as production.

In the years before the Second World War, the dual emphasis on the two sides of the subcommittee's work were highlighted once again in the Growing and Cooking rural domestic economy conference in 1937, while in 1939 the Produce Guild was established on the same lines as the Guild of Learners of Homecrafts emphasising tests and judging in order to raise standards of production. The changes brought by the onset of war, however, saw the subcommittee fused with the Marketing subcommittee. During the Second World War it was active in working with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries as well as the Ministry of Food, mainly through its Fruit Preservation Centres. It also sought, through local lectures, to induce members to take part in the more intensive cultivation of their gardens for food production. Members were encouraged to sell excess produce through WI markets, which rose in number from 70 to 320 by 1944.

After the war it continued and expanded its work both in food production, with the lunch of Operation Produce in 1947 and the Home Produce Exhibition the following year, and in the area of rural domestic economy, with new emphasis on cookery, design of the home and clean food. Schools were run, but began to struggle to find students in the 1950s. In 1961 the Agriculture and Produce Guild committees formally merged for reasons of economy to become the Agriculture and Produce Guild Subcommittee. The Royal Show Ad Hoc Committee was also disbanded that year, while the Country Feasts and Festivals Competition subcommittee was set up.

In 1995 the area of Markets become separate from NFWI and self-financing as WI Country Markets. In 2002 there were over 500 in England, Wales and the Channel Islands.