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Wartime farm women fought from home

When World War II broke out in 1939, farmers abandoned their plows in droves to join the military or to work in more financially lucrative wartime industries. 

The Bureau of Agricultural Economics reported that more than 2 million men left farm jobs between April 1940 and July 1942. By the time the war ended, that number had climbed to 6 million, and U.S. food production had grown by 32% over prewar levels, according to the USDA.

The government brought in foreign labor and assigned prisoners of war and furloughed military personnel to farm, and 2.5 million young people volunteered for the Victory Farm movement. Much of the work, however, was done by millions of women.

Working women

Wives and daughters instantly stepped up to do what was needed on their home farms. The USDA Extension Service says 1.5 million non-farm women were placed in agricultural jobs between 1943 and 1945, and at least that many were hired directly by farmers. 

Many of the women who did wartime farmwork were members of the Women’s Land Army of America (WLA), an arm of the United States Crop Corps. The WLA was formally established for World War II on April 10, 1943, although training had been in the works for years. It had previously been enacted during World War I. 

The women serving in the WLA received training, wore uniforms (see photo above), and were known as land girls or farmerettes. 

Women's Land Army poster
National Archives

As seen in Successful Farming

The May 1943 issue of Successful Farming magazine featured Mary Grigs, a British farm magazine editor who came to America to talk about the WLA in her country. Grigs spoke to a women’s group in Warren County, Iowa, encouraging them to support the idea of an American WLA.

She said many British farmers didn’t think women could handle threshing, milking, driving tractors, and running excavators, but it wasn’t long before the doubters were asking for more WLA workers. She proudly said, “They surprised the farmers.”

SF May 1934: Mary Grigs speaks about Women's Land Army

Later that year, Darline Graf, 17, was featured on the cover in September 1943 issue of Successful Farming

The cover story by C.E. Hughes told how Graf and her mother stepped up to work on their family’s 460-acre Nebraska farm when the hired man left for a defense job. They helped plant and harvest corn, wheat, barley, oats, and alfalfa, in addition to homemaking, school, and 4-H.

“It’s a quiet sort of battle these folks are fighting in the Nebraska grain fields,” Hughes wrote. “No badges, no trumpets, no fancy titles. Like their neighbors and millions of other farm people over the country, they’re carrying on.”


Editor's note: For more insight into this fascinating piece of history, check out the PBS series Land Girls, about the British WLA in World War II. It's available on various streaming services.

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