By Jessica Nickels, columnist
Enid News & Eagle
In 1943, the nation was in the midst of World War II. Many farmers had been called to war, which left a farm labor shortage in food production. To solve the problem, government officials began planning a Farm Labor Program. Many were reluctant to use nontraditional labor and considered women not physically capable of relieving the farm labor shortage. However, at that time, farmers clearly demonstrated the ability to increase production and bring in the harvests with nontraditional labor. The idea of city women standing in as farm laborers gained a great deal of support from local government agencies, in agricultural publications, and in popular magazines such as McCall’s, Time, Saturday Evening Post and Country Gentleman. On January 12, 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt declared it to be Farm Mobilization Day. In a statement that day, he called food a “weapon in total war.” Along with this declaration, the Farm Labor Program was established by the U.S. Government. This program encouraged Americans to plant victory gardens like they did during World War I. Americans began planting, and soon, small garden plots were everywhere — backyards, vacant lots, public parks, and even in front of city halls, schools and prisons. In 1943, 20 million victory gardens yielded eight million tons of produce. The victory gardens produced more than one-third of all vegetables grown in the United States and provided 70 percent of the vegetables consumed by Americans on the home front.
The USDA placed the Farm Labor Program under the jurisdiction of the agricultural extension service, an agency that provided educational services covering all aspects of farming. The national extension service cooperated with state and county extension services, so women and high school students across the nation could be utilized to relieve the farm labor crisis. The women’s group was called the Women’s Land Army (WLA), and the youth program was known as the Victory Farm Volunteers (VFV). The Woman’s Bureau of the USDA reported that, by 1945, 22.4 percent of all agricultural workers were women. That figure was up from 8 percent in 1940. Between mid-1943 and the end of 1945, 3 million women worked with WLA or found work on farms on their own. Although often overlooked in historical accounts of working women in World War II, these women enabled U.S. farmers to meet wartime production goals set by the federal government. They were the largest group of wartime farm laborers under the Farm Labor Program.
From the Farm Labor Program, states created their own programs to help the cause, and in Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Victory Food Production Program was created. Garfield County residents helped with this program in full force. Sixteen hundred families enrolled in the program, and the goal of each was to produce a sufficient amount of food for their families in order to be able to have enough food for home use and to release food that they did not need. Extension Agents provided a series of dairy and poultry meetings to help increase production, demonstrations on machinery and gasoline rationing, and talks on weed and pest management for the garden.
In 1943, families were milking 6400 cows, yielding 2,915,200 gallons of milk. They had a total of 174,400 laying hens and 13,150,400 eggs produced. They also produced and consumed 6,100 hogs, 1,300 head of beef and 600 lambs. The farm families produced 1,600 acres of garden raising a total of 16,700 bushels of potatoes, 6,400 bushels of tomatoes, 24,000 bushels of leafy greens, 6,400 bushels of other vegetables, 800 bushels of dried peas and beans and 800 bushels of fruits!
Food conservation was another important part of this program. Home Demonstration Agents conducted demonstrations teaching the proper ways to preserve food. Both urban and rural farm families preserved 668,320 quarts of vegetables, butters, jams, fruits and 180,000 pounds of meat. Families learned to use everything so that very little went to waste. The Home Demonstration Agent also had a weekly radio program addressing the victory gardens and preservation questions from the community. Many community buildings held days where people could come and preserve their food together. This was a great help, because some did not have the equipment to preserve the food at home and one was able to trade vegetables for others they had not grown.
Although the reasoning is not the same as in 1943, community gardens are becoming popular again. Family budgets are tighter and gardening is a way families can save money. Neighbors are gardening together to share space and divide the time it takes to tend to the garden. f you are interested in starting a garden, please call or come by for information at the Garfield County OSU Extension Office; 316 E Oxford St; Enid or (580) 237-1228.
Nickels, MS, RD/LD, is Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service Family and Consumer Sciences educator for Garfield County.