During World War II, U.S. government propagandists leaned heavily on Hollywood motion pictures to convey messages they wanted the populace to hear. In 1944, the U.S. Department of Agriculture pulled off a notable coup by creating a frothy musical titled Song of the Open Road, which glorified farm work and wrapped it in the flag of wartime patriotism.
With sons drafted and hired hands lured by high-paying jobs in defense factories, American farmers were having trouble getting their crops planted, cultivated, harvested, and transported to market. According to the Bureau of Agricultural Economics, between April 1940 and July 1942 more than 2 million men left farm work; by war’s end that number had risen to 6 million. The impact of their exit was so dramatic that in 1942 some crops withered in fields with no one to pick them—this just as the nation’s food needs were peaking, with demands to feed not only America’s fighting men but also help European allies devastated by war.
The U.S. government tapped every resource it could to help. It allowed in workers from Mexico, Jamaica, Barbados, and the Bahamas, offered German and Italian POWs a chance to earn spending money, and furloughed Japanese Americans from internment camps—all to labor on farms. It also gave leave to some soldiers from farms so they could return home at planting and harvest times.
But the most important answer to the farm labor shortage was the creation of USDA’s Crop Corps—an undertaking that enlisted city-dwelling women and teenagers to help out in the fields, painting it as a patriotic duty to do so.
Song of the Open Road begins with a Hollywood studio screening for its young cast the final cut of a short film intended to recruit youngsters to help out on farms. The movie-within-a-movie depicts a flock of happy teens singing as they ride their bikes to “Pyramid Date Gardens” to pick the crop; it ends with a title card importuning viewers to “Make a Date with Uncle Sam/Join the Crop Corps.”
As the story unfolds, one of the studio’s top stars does just that, signing on for what is portrayed as a joyous experience in camaraderie. The film was a vehicle for 14-year-old coloratura Suzanne Burce, who was under contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer but had been lent to United Artists for what would be her debut movie. She played a character named Jane Powell; studio brass liked the name so much they decided henceforward that was the way Suzanne Burce would be billed.
Adorned with a mop of corkscrew curls, the film’s Jane Powell is a young movie star who runs away from studio life and a dominating mother. She finds new meaning by joining other kids at a camp from which they fan out each day to help neighboring farmers. In between singing and dancing, they pick lima beans and tomatoes. When a windstorm threatens to damage 1,000 acres of oranges, our heroine calls on friends from the studio—W.C. Fields, Edgar Bergen, Sammy Kaye and his orchestra—to come entertain. The chance to see a star-studded show attracts hundreds from nearby towns who are inveigled into picking the vulnerable crop.
Allowing for Hollywood gloss, the happy camp site where the young actress ends up resembles those scattered around the country under the aegis of Victory Farm Volunteers—a component of the Crop Corps made up of kids ages 11 to 17. Measured by manpower, VFV was the larger wing of the Crop Corps, tapping a total of 2.5 million urban teens for farm work throughout the war years.
Almost 80 percent of teen farm workers lived at home and rode a bus or truck each day to work. For the rest of the volunteers it was total immersion: moving in with a farmer’s family or to a camp nearby.
Government employees supervised the camps. Regulations called for youths to get “the same wages as those paid to other workers in the community doing the same kind and amount of work.” Those picking strawberries in Connecticut were paid $8.50 a week; those picking tomatoes in New Mexico got $17.50 a week. But VFV members who lived at camps had to fork over part of that pay for food and other living expenses. They were not issued uniforms, but received a VFV patch to wear on their school sweaters in the fall.
The camp where runaway movie star Jane Powell made new friends bore a passing resemblance to the real VFV camp at Superior Fruit Ranch, a 360-acre San Joaquin Valley peach orchard not far from Modesto, California. Superior had long used Japanese American workers to harvest crops and had housed them in fairly shabby two-story, on-site dormitories. Condemning those workers to internment camps left the dormitories and cookhouse vacant. Under pressure from student representatives at high schools in Burlingame and Redwood City, Superior agreed to upgrade the dorms—painting, repairing, adding screens, and bringing shower and toilet facilities up to state health norms. In return, students at the two high schools signed onto VFV. Midday on July 19, 1943, buses carrying 120 of them rolled into the ranch. Over the next week, the teens picked 1,000 tons of peaches. They also had a busy social schedule, with swimming in the ranch’s canal four nights a week, dances every Friday evening, and picnics Sunday afternoon.
The overriding theme of stays at VFV camps, however, was work. While the youth camp in Song of the Open Road physically resembled reality, the daily chores of merry harvesters in the film did not. Campers joyously sang of “fun in the sun,” and it seemed that at least half the kids were providing music while the other half did chores. That was not the experience of hardworking VFV kids.
Marietta Decker was 14 years old when she and two friends joined the VFV and were assigned to a camp at Anne Arundel, Maryland. “Despite wearing long-sleeved men’s work shirts, our arms and backs were burned to a crisp when we arrived back at the camp in the evenings, and our muscles ached from the day’s work in the fields,” she recalled decades later. “We did not know which ointment we needed most, Ben-Gay for our aching muscles or Noxzema for our sun-parched bodies. So we ended up using both.”
Similarly, 15-year-old Baltimore high school student Elaine Langerman was one of the workers housed at Mil-Bur VFV camp near Pasadena, Maryland. “It wasn’t easy getting up at 5:15,” she said. “It took a long time to get used to the hot sun beating down on us the whole day. Our backs felt as if they would never be the same after that first day in the bean field.” But she proudly noted that on their best week the girls at Mil-Bur picked 35,700 pounds of beans.
In some towns, school schedules were changed to accommodate farmers’ needs. In Portales, New Mexico, summer vacation ended August 1; school then ran for two months and shut down in October so the kids could help harvest crops. In 1942, the Kansas Board of Education sent all state public schools a request to temporarily excuse students for farm work; schools in Doniphan County immediately responded by freeing kids to pick apples in danger of rotting.
For many of the urban youths—especially those living with farm families—the work detail took a fair bit of cultural adjustment. A list of “suggestions to town boys who will work on the farm” from the Kansas State Board of Vocational Education warned “your personal habits may have to be adjusted to circumstances as they exist on the farm,” where, for instance, hot showers might be an unavailable luxury. Moreover, they were advised, “don’t tell the farmer’s wife how your mother does things” and “don’t remind the farmer or his wife of it if your home in the city is nicer than that of the farmer.”
The main attraction for subjecting young bodies to such strain was patriotism. Sixteen-year-old Lucille Hawley Dent was one of the teens picking cherries in Antrim County, Michigan. “We had the feeling that we really were in the army now, helping to win the war,” she said years later.
And that was just the message the government wanted to convey. In an article for the New York Times, USDA official Meredith C. Wilson wrote that “manpower for agriculture is of equal importance with manpower to produce combat weapons for our fighting men.” Farm worker recruitment materials from the Office of War Information insisted that “bread is ammunition as vital as bullets.”
And just in case the audience did not get that message, Song of the Open Road’s script made it explicit. In the film’s climax, W. C. Fields, exhorting reluctant city dwellers to roll up their sleeves and pitch in on the harvest, says: “I wish to remind you all that this is a country at war. This crop of oranges is threatened with destruction by a vicious wind storm, which is expected hourly. Our army, our navy, your boys overseas, need these oranges and must have them!”
The VFV was just one part of the Crop Corps; the program also enlisted adult city females in its more publicized arm, the Women’s Land Army. It was all part of the revolution during World War II that led to married women outnumbering single women in the workforce for the first time in American history.
Factories and shipyards recruited Rosie the Riveters, arguing that in wartime women had to step into nontraditional roles. To recruit farm workers, however, the pitch was a bit different: joining was promoted not as shedding tradition but as continuing in an honored feminine role. As a 1943 WLA recruitment brochure from the Kansas Farm Labor Program put it: “Feeding the men of their families—their husbands, sons, and brothers—has always been a natural and happy function of American women. Now many of their men are facing death in Europe and the Solomons. But women can still serve heroically in the greatest arsenal of food the world has ever known—American agriculture.”
The United States had mounted a Women’s Land Army in World War I (when participants were called “farmerettes”), as did Britain; by the time the United States entered World War II, WLAs were at work in Britain and Australia. The program had maximum support and political clout: weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Eleanor Roosevelt, then assistant director of the Office of Civilian Defense, told the agency to begin recruiting women to work the fields in the summer of 1942. Most WLA members had no agricultural skills before signing up. Some were put through crash courses in farming, but those were sparse; only nine states offered such training in 1943. The bulk of volunteers simply learned on the job.
Representative was a group of women from New York City who, on an early summer morning in 1943, boarded a dayliner of the Hudson River Line headed for work on Columbia County, New York, farms. The youngest was 17, the oldest 33. In the bunch were a number of college students on summer break—an art major from Sarah Lawrence, a political science major from Swarthmore, a philosophy major from Vassar, a doctor-in-training from Long Island Medical College—as well as some older women, including one who had ditched her job behind the jewelry counter of a department store to do something more meaningful and another who was married to a Marine wounded on Guadalcanal and felt a need to match his contribution to victory in some way.
The women were housed in cabins at Lake Taghkanic State Park not far from the riverside town of Hudson; the mess hall was a mile walk away at a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp. The morning after their arrival, they were awakened at 4:45 a.m. and were groomed, dressed, and fed by the time a local farmer came by to pick them up at 7 a.m. He drove them to his 550-acre farm where he kept a herd of 86 dairy cows and raised crops to feed the cattle. In 1942, he had been so shorthanded the corn had gone unharvested; now the women’s first task was husking the 1943 crop.
Like the teens in the VFV, most of the women in the WLA had similar things to say about their experiences: it was the hardest they had ever worked, they were sorer than they had ever been, and they got a real rush of joy knowing they were making a visible and meaningful contribution to the war effort. In a wartime essay, Lottie Tresham of Hornick, Iowa, expressed her determination after hauling 10,000 bushels of corn from the picker on a farm to the closest grain elevator: “Tired? Of course I get tired,” she wrote, “but so does that boy in the foxhole.”
Almost needless to say, in a program as diverse and decentralized as the Crop Corps—one depending on greenhorns at that—not everything was rosy.
Not all farmers were delighted with the idea of city folks trying their inexperienced hand at farming. In the Midwest, it was an especially tough sell persuading farmers to turn to amateurs to stand in for their tried and true hired hands. Helen Nelson, a USDA extension agent in Nebraska, shared that skepticism; in a 1943 report to her superiors she wrote: “The program of enrolling town women and girls for farm work is not satisfactory, for the lights of the city and the higher wages obtainable have much more appeal than nature’s great out of doors.”
This reluctance had to do with more than lack of farming skills. Stephanie Ann Carpenter, head of the history department at Andrews University, wrote her doctoral dissertation on the World War II WLA. She discovered stereotypes were rampant, and: “in the Midwest, farmers and their families viewed [city] women as corrupt and immoral, thus not an appropriate influence or presence on their property.” (As the war wore on, farmers heard glowing reports from the few willing to try out these women and most began to welcome the WLA volunteers.)
Moreover, WLA camps frequently fell short of required standards, garnering numerous complaints from women in the program. As noted in Prologue, the National Archives’ magazine, Frances Valentine, an employee of the U.S. Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau, inspected WLA camps in eight Midwestern states in 1944 and reported that “few had adequate facilities for bathing or for washing clothes, and some had an inadequate number of toilets.”
The cost of room and board fees for Crop Corps members also proved to be a problem. Eighty high school girls housed at New Jersey’s Glassboro State Teacher’s College found that the four cents a pint they earned picking raspberries at Gloucester County farms would not cover the weekly $8 fee, and the whole project was abruptly cancelled.
More serious were racial tensions. As Carpenter tells it: “Southern WLA organizations encountered racial problems, and many states did not officially organize WLA programs due to racial discord. Other states excluded African American women, a main labor force in the region.” A 1943 annual report from the South Carolina WLA noted that “it was thought best to start the Women’s Land Army with white women only this year, as, if it becomes known first as a Negro program, it would have been impossible later on to interest white women in participating.” So strong was that regional antipathy that WLA recruits from the border state West Virginia were sent north to Ohio farms.
Despite these problems, the program was a success. Aproximately 1.5 million women came from cities to work on farms. And in many towns, men well past draft age signed up to toil on nearby farms on one of their weekend days off from their regular jobs, just like the Californians from all walks of life who pitched in to pick those oranges in Song of the Open Road.
During the war years, the United States produced record harvests of key crops. In 1944, the corn crop totaled 3.2 billion bushels and wheat harvest rose to 1.1 billion bushels, up some 800 million and 3 million bushels respectively from the prewar average. Records were also set for sorghum, potatoes, sugar cane, peaches, and pears—none of which would have been possible without the labor of the 4 million urban amateurs in the Crop Corps. ✯
This story was originally published in the March/April 2017 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.