In the summer of 1943 the United States was in the midst of World War II. With so many men going off to war, people wondered who was going to harvest Nebraska’s crops come fall. Nationwide, the rural labor shortage was becoming a serious problem with potentially disastrous consequences. The US government brought in harvest workers from Mexico (the Bracero Program) and other countries, plus thousands of German prisoners of war, who were housed in camps around the state and hired out as laborers.
But the US also asked for volunteers. In a special edition titled “Nebraska at War,” the July 4 Sunday World-Herald Magazine appealed to town and city dwellers to join the “Crop Corps”:
“Harvest brings the big opportunity for Nebraska’s town and city people to lend a helping hand. Farmers and their families and what steady hired help they have usually manage to get the crops planted and tended and keep up reasonably well the chores of caring for cattle, horses, sheep, hogs and chickens, repairing machinery and making gardens. But when it comes to the harvest, they must have outside help.
“Elaborate machinery has been set up this year to organize a ‘Crop Corps,’ the ranks of which will include all nonfarm men who can give some time to work on the farm, nonfarm boys and girls 14 to 18 who will work under the banner of the ‘Victory Farm Volunteers’ and nonfarm women who will serve in a ‘Women’s Land Army.’
“In every town some person serves as the volunteer representative of the agricultural extension service and United States employment service, sponsoring agencies, in registering the names of town people who will help and farmers who need help. County agricultural agents have the responsibility for farm labor in their counties, and when their local supply won’t meet the demand they appeal to state headquarters, which will then dispatch workers from some other area, if available.”
The programs were a huge success. Writing for the National Archives’ Prologue Magazine (Winter 1993), Judy Barrett Litoff and David C. Smith break down the numbers. Nationwide, some 2.5 million teenagers worked as Victory Farm Volunteers. Adult women made an even larger contribution: an estimated 3 million women were working on farms by June 1943, providing about 27 percent of the nation’s farm labor force. Most of these workers were non-farm residents from towns and cities.
Farm labor remained scarce throughout the war, but the United States and its armed forces were well fed. “By the end of the war, the farm population had declined by six million persons, yet wartime food production had increased by an astounding 32 percent over the years 1935–1939,” Litoff and Smith write. And in the war’s aftermath, US agriculture helped feed hungry people in war-ravaged countries.