Onion Skins & Peach Fuzz: The Farmerettes

A Slice of Canadian History, Served with
Onions and Peaches

Reviewed by Mary Alderson

The 4th Line Theatre has two good things going for it. First, it’s outdoor location – lots of free parking, albeit in a rather rough field, and tents with tables set up so you can bring your own picnic supper or buy from their various food trucks and booths on special occasions. They sell drinks, both soft and hard, creating a relaxing atmosphere. The show begins promptly at 6:00 p.m. to take advantage of the sunshine and you sit in bleachers, some seats under a roof offering shade, others where you are encouraged to bring your hat. It’s a delightful outing.

Secondly, they follow their mandate to present Canadian history. Some stories are better known, but other historical events are made into interesting plays, fascinating because most of us didn’t know about these events in the past.

I must confess that I was well aware of the farmerettes, and that was the reason I wanted to see this production: Onion Skins & Peach Fuzz: The Farmerettes, now playing in the barnyard until July 20.

I’m not that old – I was born a few years after the last of the Farmerettes. The Ontario Farm Service Force ran during World War II, from 1941 to 1944. It was such a success that they continued it until 1953. Young women were recruited to go and do the work on farms that would normally be done by young men, who were now off fighting in the war. Even as the war ended, there was a shortage of men, due to some staying on in the armed forces, others having injuries that sidelined them, and still others who died serving Canada. Adding to the popularity of the Farmerette program was the bonus of not having to write your final departmental exams – you could leave school early and head to the farms.

Which brings me to my interest in this story – I was born in the village of Thedford and heard lots about the Farmerettes from my parents. My father was the manager of the Farmers’ Co-operative and sold and shipped fruits and vegetables across the province, if not around the world. Having crops planted, weeded, and picked on time was essential to the local economy, and the war effort. (I heard about how Thedford shipped apples to the soldiers fighting in Europe.)

So imagine my disappointment when I looked at the program and read that Act II was set in Thorald, not Thedford!  Thedford was mentioned in the play, so I assume this was just a nasty error that snuck into the program.

I have read the book upon which this play is based. It’s a fascinating collection of memories provided by Farmerettes; actually a factual history book. The play has four fictional farmerettes, who deal with the farmer, the bunk house cook, and the head farmerette, first in Grimsby where they planted asparagus and harvested peaches, and then Thedford where they skinned onions.

What struck me immediately was that these were 2024 teenagers and young adults talking. No effort was made to use 1940s era slang, the language that young people would have been using at the time. For example, the young women were saying “Yaay!” as an interjection throughout the play, but in the 1940s they would have used “Hurrah!” or even “Yippee!”. “Yaay!” is a relatively new word in our vernacular. There are many places where the slang of the times would have been more appropriate.

Although the outdoor barnyard location is a beautiful spot, it does present problems with sound. Sometimes the action moved over to a field just beyond the farmyard, and it was difficult to hear the performers.

There are so many stories in the original book, and I wish more of them could have been used in the play. At times, the action slowed down and it seemed repetitive, so the need for more material was obvious.

A side plot about Japanese Canadians who had been held in internment camps and then forced to work on farms was included in the second act. It didn’t seem to fit the narrative. The horrors of the Japanese-Canadians being sent to internment camps deserves its own play, especially at the 4th Line Theatre where history, both good and bad, is remembered.

In some ways, I was reminded of the 1992 movie A League of Their Own about female baseball players filling the gap when the American ball players were fighting the war. Unfortunately, we just didn’t get to know our girls as well as we did in that movie.

The evening was made special by having three Farmerettes in the audience. Thank you, ladies, for your hard work in “lending a hand” to the war effort – even though many of you reported that those summers were the most fun you ever had! And that was despite the itchy skin from peach fuzz and the crying eyes from onion skins.

Onion Skins & Peach Fuzz: The Farmerettes continues until July 20, 2024, at the 4th Line Theatre near Millbrook. Visit https://www.4thlinetheatre.on.ca/2024-summer-season for more information.

Photo: Thinning out peaches using a 3-legged ladder. Photo by Wayne Eardley, Brookside Studio.

Onion Skins & Peach Fuzz: The Farmerettes
By Alison Lawrence
Based on the book by Shirleyan English and Bonnie Sitter
Directed by Autumn Smith
Performed by Rebecca Birrell, Aimée Gordon, Reena Goze, Megan Murphy, Carina Salajan, Alicia Salvador.
4th Line Theatre, The Winslow Farm, 779 Zion Line, Millbrook, ON
July 1 to 20, 2024
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

Note: In general, Entertain This Thought does not review amateur or community theatre productions. The actors are doing it for pleasure and not getting paid, so what right do we have to critique them? However, professional theatres with paid actors and creative teams are fair game for reviews. I made an exception in this case, due to my interest in this play.


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4 thoughts on “Onion Skins & Peach Fuzz: The Farmerettes”

  1. Russell Sitter

    You’ve made an interesting point about the slang of the 1940’s. BTW Allison Lawrence, the playwright has confirmed in an email to me that the second act is set in Thedford. There is definitely a typo in the program saying it’s Thorold, which is near Niagara on the Lake. Thorold would be the wrong end of the province for those farmerettes who caught a ride to Detroit and got a record for their record player.

  2. The stage play adaptation was co-commissioned and developed by the Blyth Festival and 4th Line Theatre. Blyth is presenting it Aug. 14-31 on the Harvest Stage and Sept. 3-7 in Memorial Hall as part of its 50th Anniversary Season. It’s being directed by Severn Thompson.

  3. Bonnie Sitter

    The Farmerette program was began in 1941 and ended after the harvest in 1952.

  4. Thanks, Bonnie. I said that in the 4th paragraph. An article you wrote for Readers’ Digest said it ended in 1953. https://www.readersdigest.ca/travel/canada/farmerettes-forgotten-heroes/#:~:text=The%20Ontario%20Farm%20Service%20Force,growers%20subscribed%20to%20the%20plan.

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