Friday, August 17, 2018

Food Will Win the War: Women, Boys, and Tractors Wanted!

On April 14, 1917, New York State Governor Charles Whitman issued a proclamation stating that the following Tuesday, April 21, would be Agricultural Mobilization Day. Whitman called upon the state’s farmers to “assemble in their respective communities, through their organizations, to hear reports on the present situation and to make definite plans for meeting, locally, the greatest food production problems that they have ever been called upon to solve.” While all New Yorkers would play a role in the production and conservation of food, it all began with farmers. As Whitman said, “The man who tills the soil and produces the food for the soldier in the field and his family at home is rendering a patriotic service, as truly as is the man who bears the brunt of battle.”

Men, boys, and women were all called upon
to do their patriotic duty 
One of the first problems that the Production Bureau of the Food Commission aimed to assist the farmer with was the shortage of agricultural labor. The young men who were enlisting or being drafted into the armed forces were, in many cases, the same men who ordinarily would have been working on the farms of New York. Other men had left the country in favor of higher-paying jobs in war-related industries. The commission set up a central employment bureau to connect farmers seeking help with experienced farmhands looking for work, but it was also evident that new groups of workers would need to be recruited.

Teenage boys were the obvious first target. The Department of Education approved the release of boys age 14 and up from school attendance if they were performing farm labor (girls were also eligible, though it appears that many fewer of them took advantage of the program), and they were encouraged to register as members of the Boys’ Working Reserve (also known as the Farm Cadet Program). The State Bureau of Employment coordinated the placement of boys on farms, working with farm bureau agents and local school districts. The state agricultural schools provided basic training to the boys before they were sent out to work. The boys were supervised by school authorities, who also inspected the job sites and ensured that the workers had suitable living quarters. By September 1918, over 12,000 boys had been placed on farms throughout the state.

New York State also took the rather bold step of creating a program to enlist women farm workers. The Food Commission hired eight women farm labor specialists, whose job was not only to recruit women workers, but to convince farmers that they should hire women. Many farmers were skeptical about women’s abilities to handle agricultural labor, but the fact that they could pay them less than men undoubtedly won some of them over. Women workers had to be at least 18 years old and pass a physical examination, and they were not permitted to work more than 54 hours per week. Like the boys of the Working Reserve, they were carefully supervised, and their workplaces and living quarters were inspected.

“Girls of Cornell Farm Unit Women’s Working Reserve
at Work in Hay Field”
The Food Commission’s aim was to find students and women with seasonal employment who were available during the summer, and indeed, “a large proportion of the women registered were college girls, teachers, stenographers, clerical workers, saleswomen, and a few industrial workers.” Women sent out to work sites in groups, and they lived together in communal housing and pooled their resources to hire a cook and a supervisor. Official reports and media stories about “farmerettes” made clear that the women worked hard but also produced the impression that the experience was something like attending a particularly vigorous summer camp, with plenty of exercise, fresh air, and wholesome food. As for employers, according to the commission, even those who were skeptical at first “have become warm advocates...and have found what a woman may lack in strength is often made up in her interest and intelligence.”

A Tractor School at the New York State College of Agriculture
If human workers could not be found, farmers might turn to technological solutions to the labor problem. In 1917, most farmers in New York State still depended upon man- and horsepower, but it was becoming evident that tractors had the potential to revolutionize agriculture. One tractor could do the work of three men, each with a team of horses. The Food Commission acquired a fleet of 70 tractors, which it then rented out at reasonable rates to farmers who could not afford to purchase their own. The commission also ran tractor schools throughout the state to educate potential owners or renters on their use and maintenance. A tractor school for Clinton, St. Lawrence, and Franklin counties was held in Malone in March 1918, and there was sufficient interest in Clinton County for another one in Plattsburgh in December. By then the war was over, but it was clear that tractors were a permanent part of the agricultural landscape. The announcement for the tractor school also noted that it was open to both men and women, as “women have proven in so many ways that they can handle highly technical work.”

In addition to addressing farm labor shortages, the Bureau of Production also provided resources for battling pests and crop diseases, supplied seeds and inspected seed corn and potatoes, and started programs to increase the production of essential commodities, particularly wheat and pork. While most of their work was directed at those who farmed for a living, they also encouraged anyone who could possibly do so to start their own gardens. Since much of this wartime garden activity overlapped with the work of the Bureau of Conservation, we’ll discuss it in more detail in our next post.


“School Cadets Harvesting: State Defense Council Takes Steps to Provide Farmers with Help,” Plattsburgh Daily Republican, September 6, 1917.

“Tractor Use Instruction: School to Be Held in This City December 16-20,” Plattsburgh Daily Press, November 21, 1918

Report of the New York State Food Commission for Period October 18, 1917, to July 1, 1918

Pam Brown, “Farming for the War,” New York Archives v. 11, no. 1 (Summer 2011)

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