"To the Rescue of the Crops", The Women's Land Army During World War II, "Food is a Weapon — Don't Waste It"
By Judy Barrett Litoff and David C. Smith
We're working for Victory, too; growing food for ourselves and our countrymen. While other women work at machines and in factories—we're soldiers in overalls. . . . We're running the place while Dad's away.
— Toni Taylor, "Women on the Home Front,"
McCall's, May 1942.
I noticed on the farms, mostly the little ones with just a shack for a house, there seems to be no one but the women left to do the work. You see them taking care of cattle, etc. It makes me proud to see how the women have picked up where the men left off and are keeping the home fires burning.
— Mabel Opal Miller to Pvt. Ivan Johnson
Letter of September 6, 1944
One of the least known aspects of World War II in the United States is the crucial role played by the many women who plowed the ground, planted the seeds, cultivated the plants, and harvested much of the nation's crops from 1942 through 1945. Without their contributions, food would have been even scarcer, both at home and on the fighting fronts. The physical well-being of the combat forces would have been less. America's allies would have suffered greater privations than they did. Rationing, price controls, and dietary changes designed to meet food shortages would have been harder to bear. That this did not happen is a remarkable tribute to the women of the United States who, in response to great need, created a grassroots movement that came "to the rescue of the crops." Whether the forces consisted of farm wives driving tractors, college women milking cows, housewives picking apples, or secretaries spending summer vacations harvesting vegetables, these workers responded with energy and ingenuity to the wartime need for farm labor.
On Farm Mobilization Day, January 12, 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a nationwide address in which he underscored the important role to be played by American agriculture in the winning of the war. He told his audience that "food is the life line of the forces that fight for freedom. Free people everywhere can be grateful to the farm families that are making victory possible." Using the motto, "Food Fights for Freedom," the Office of War Information (OWI) in conjunction with the War Food Administration produced posters, pamphlets, and short films emphasizing that "raising food is a real war job" and "bread is ammunition as vital as bullets." One widely distributed government poster proclaimed, "food is a weapon — don't waste it," while a 1945 OWI film, Wartime Nutrition, declared that the United States was both "the bread basket and the arsenal of democracy."
Throughout the wartime years, the need for workers in agriculture, as well as in manufacturing and the military, was unprecedented. Balancing rival claims for labor presented an almost impossible challenge to a nation that had been plagued by the problem of high unemployment for over a decade. During the depression years of the 1930s, farm labor had posed a difficulty only in its surplus of workers. At the end of the decade, few observers of the agricultural scene envisioned that labor shortages would be a significant problem — even if war were to come.
When the Second World War broke out in Europe in 1939, Henry A. Wallace, the secretary of agriculture, had served in that post since 1933. After he received the Democratic nomination for Vice President in the summer of 1940, he was replaced by Claude R. Wickard, an Indiana farmer who had come to the Department of Agriculture early in the New Deal.
During his tenure as secretary of agriculture, Wallace had developed a tightly run organization that allowed him to spend his time on more philosophical matters. As a result, Wickard was unable to obtain a strong hold on his position in the Department and in Roosevelt's cabinet until late in 1942. Departmental infighting and political disagreements over wartime agricultural policies also limited his authority. These problems were not specific to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), however, as battles for power within the federal government occurred throughout wartime Washington.
Wickard had spent much of his public life dealing with crop surpluses and low farm prices while also working to establish the "ever-normal granary." As secretary of agriculture, he was initially dependent on support and advice from persons affiliated with the American Farm Bureau Federation and the Washington-based leadership of the Extension Service of the USDA. These organizations focused their attention on issues such as high rates of parity, crop limitations, and possible export markets, which concerned large farmers. By contrast, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and, to a considerable degree, its ally, the National Farmer's Union, were concerned with small farmers, alleviating the poor conditions of sharecroppers and migrant laborers, and the introduction of newer crops, such as soybeans and peanuts. The differing approaches to solving the nation's agricultural problems precipitated considerable political divisiveness within the Department of Agriculture. These clashes resulted in a major departmental reorganization and the dismantling of the Farm Security Administration in 1943.