It seems like you can’t blink these days without someone extolling the virtues of urban farming. “It’s so great! Grow your own garden wherever you are!” But what these new fans of small farms are forgetting is that urban farms are not a new thing. What we think of as urban farming today has its roots very firmly planted in World War I and World War II.
Food Will Win the War
In 1914, nearly all of Europe was engaged in one of the deadliest conflicts in history. It was a war that President Woodrow Wilson worked very hard to stay out of, while attempting to keep the American people calm and decidedly neutral. Outside of providing financial support to Great Britain and France, President Wilson kept the country as far away from the conflict as possible.
Even so, the war had a profound effect on everyone at home reading the news and listening to the radio reports. Blockades dropped the prices of goods dramatically. Cotton prices dropped from 11 cents per pound to 4 cents. Problems with foreign banks disrupted actions on Wall Street, riling up the big money bankers and industrialists. As time passed, Americans grew more concerned about their safety and their security. Even though America maintained its neutrality, the effects of the war were hitting hard at home. Supplies were growing thin, and there was a worldwide food shortage. In addition to being ravaged by the war, entire nations were put on rations and millions of people were starving to death.
The allies put out a call for help. As a response to the need, American billionaire Charles Lathrop Pack organized the National War Garden Commission to motivate Americans to “do their part” by increasing the food supply without adding more pressure to the farming industry. The National War Garden Commission’s objective was to encourage the use of both public and private land for gardening and farming.
In 1917, when President Wilson asked congress to “make the world safe for Democracy” and declare war on Germany, many Americans were ready to do whatever it took to help support their country. The president was supportive of this push for personal gardens and farms. He created the United States Food Administration, appointing future president Herbert Hoover its director. Their slogan, “Food Will Win the War,” was the battle cry of the American public.
In support of this effort, the government developed the U.S. School Garden Army through the Bureau of Education, funded by the War Department. Its sole aim was educating and encouraging school-age kids to plant gardens at home. And by all accounts, these efforts were hugely successful.
But the Americans’ efforts weren’t entirely altruistic. The War Garden Commission and the U.S. Food Administration were working very hard to push their ideals on the public, even going so far as to create tons of literature and propaganda pieces to prey on public fear and guilt.
When the U.S. entered the war, most people realized they were never going to be able to take part in protecting America from the dreaded Bolsheviks, Germans and their anarchist/communist ways. War gardens and farms were the perfect solution to this problem. It was something anyone could do, regardless of age, sex or ability. Old men, young women, children – anyone could “do their part” and plant a garden.
War gardens made it possible to save on wheat, meat and other farmed foods that the U.S. shipped to service members fighting overseas, as well as its starving allies. The War Garden Commission and the U.S. Food Administration made it seem as if every piece of food grown at home would bring the U.S. one step closer to victory; without the American people’s help in planting gardens, the anarchists and the Bolsheviks were certain to overthrow our country. So of course the public rallied behind this cause.
At the same time, there was an urgent demand for conservation across the board. The U.S. needed to conserve all of its resources to better fund the war effort for which we were greatly unprepared. The war garden was not only a great way to save food, but it helped conserve other resources as well. Instead of requiring a large amount of labor for farming food, the government put people to work in factories building shells, rifles, uniforms and other things needed for the war. It also lessened the amount of resources needed to ship food. Railroads, trucks, wholesalers, retailers, deliverymen – all of those resources were no longer needed if you grew your own food. This freed hundreds of thousands of freight cars to ship munitions and war supplies alone.
To fully secure the support of the public, the War Garden Commission began a strong education campaign. They knew that most of the people they were asking to become “city farmers” were people who had never gotten their hands dirty. To answer for that, the Commission worked closely with newspapers and magazines across the country to post articles, advertisements and stories to make farming and gardening popular. More and more people requested further information about community gardening movements. Daily gardening lessons were prepared for the press – radio and paper. Radio shows were sponsored by popular fertilizers. Free books were printed and sent to anyone who requested them through the War Garden Commission. Copies were given to libraries, women’s clubs, banks and so on. Pretty soon, “city farming” became the thing to do.
By the end of the war in 1918, the campaign for war gardens from both the National War Garden Commission and the U.S. Food Administration had resulted in more than 5 million private gardens in the U.S., with food production exceeding $525 million. An estimated 1.45 billion quarts of those fruits and vegetables were canned and stored.
With the end of the war, the name “war garden” soon changed to “victory garden,” and the intense propaganda soon slowed. As a result, many of the urban and city farmers stopped working in their gardens. Things were starting to return to status quo. Men came home from the war and went back to work, and the need for conservation lessened.
Gardening and World War II
However, a new war was just on the horizon, and with it came more fears and anxieties about the loss of liberty and freedom at the hands of socialists. Even though it was 20 years after the fact, people were still raw from the effects of World War I. The amount of casualties was staggering. The loss of resources, money and general morale was crippling. Not only that, the country had experienced a drought, a devastating stock market crash, Prohibition and the Great Depression. Times were tough, and people were anxious. It was widely believed that going to war was a huge mistake, and one we did not want to repeat.
In the years after World War I, people’s opinion of war soured. The American public and legislators worked hard to prevent getting involved in a large-scale war again. These “peace societies” called for large-scale disarmament and international treaties. In 1922, many countries signed a major agreement to reduce their numbers of battleships. In 1928, most nations then signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, pledging never again go to war.
In 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated, his speech addressed this with a now-iconic phrase: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” President Roosevelt spent the next 6 years trying to bring a sense of normalcy back to the American people. However, in 1939, war broke out again in Europe and sent the American people into a panic. Like President Wilson before him, President Roosevelt worked very hard to keep neutral. But unlike World War I, it was very clear that Germany was the aggressor, and President Roosevelt felt it was important to provide assistance to America’s allies, Great Britain and France. This waged a great debate between “internationalists” (people who supported the aid to countries fighting against Germany) and “isolationists” (people who did not want to get involved), which was still going on when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. At that point, the U.S. pulled together in support of entering the war. However, as a result of the efforts of the “peace societies,” the U.S. was yet again at a disadvantage upon entering the war.
The U.S. needed to train, raise and outfit a military force large enough to fight not one but three adversaries – Italy, Japan and Germany – on two very different fronts, Europe and the Pacific. At the same time, the country needed to once again find a way to provide aid and supplies to the allies in Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union.
Once again the government called upon the American people to do everything they could to help build up the “Arsenal of Democracy.” One of the ways they could do this was through conservation efforts. Remembering the highly successful campaign of the war gardens of World War I, the U.S. government began a more sophisticated and concentrated effort to push victory gardens.
The Food for Victory campaign was launched to encourage Americans to conserve and produce more food. President Roosevelt’s positive outlook through his weekly fireside chat radio broadcasts helped encourage and motivate the American people to take up planting and urban farming again. Even first lady Eleanor Roosevelt planted a victory garden on the White House grounds.
The government pushed the belief that the more food that was grown in victory gardens, the closer America was to winning the war. They released cookbooks and gardening books, provided tips, special tools, customized seeds and unique fertilizer packets, all in the vested interest of encouraging more people to grow their own food. The government also encouraged people to become garden leaders, providing booklets and educational materials on how to be the most effective and motivational victory garden leader in their community.
The government knew that with the right amount of PR and advertising, a victory garden could be extremely beneficial to not only the war effort but to the morale of the American people.
By 1942, food rationing was introduced to the U.S., and now Americans had even more reason to grow their own fruits and vegetables wherever they could. People in the cities planted their own victory gardens in window boxes or on the roof of their apartment building. Even public land was put to use. In fact, the victory garden program in San Francisco was one of the most successful in the country. There were more than 800 gardens in Golden Gate Park alone.
People from all walks of life found themselves falling back in love with gardening. This time, it not only became popular because of the war effort, but because of the mental and physical health benefits.
Victory gardens made people feel useful and productive. They improved morale by providing an outlet for the fear and anxiety of the war. By 1943, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that there were more than 20 million gardens producing 8–10 million tons of food, which accounted for nearly 44% of the fresh vegetables in the U.S. In fact, people ate better during the war than before the war because of these victory gardens.
Unfortunately, as with World War I, the interest in urban gardening and farming began to wane after the end of World War II. It wasn’t until recently that the popularity in personal farms and urban farming started to return. First lady Michelle Obama has worked very hard to persuade the American people to improve their dietary habits. She’s followed in the steps of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, planting a “kitchen garden” on the grounds of the White House to encourage more people to plant their own.
If it weren’t for the extremely successful war gardens of World War I and the victory gardens of World War II, it’s hard to say if the U.S. would be as likely to take up urban gardening now. Whether you think gardens are a hipster fad or a cultural necessity, it’s hard to deny that urban gardens, during peace time or war time, can provide our country with a substantial bounty of fruits and vegetables when we all learn to work together toward a common goal.
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