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The Victory Garden for the Modern Farmer

victory garden in an urban setting
The HydroPod on an unused bit of company land

“It is now highly feasible to take care of everybody on Earth at a higher standard of living than any have ever known. It no longer has to be you or me. Selfishness is unnecessary. War is obsolete. It is a matter of converting the high technology from weaponry to livingry.”

  • Bucky Fuller

Victory gardens were originally espoused by the great George Washington Carver.

In 1917, Charles Lathrop Pack, a man that no one has heard of now but was one of the five richest men in the America at the time, codified his wish "as every patriot wished, to do war work which was actually necessary, which was essentially practical, and which would most certainly aid in making the war successful" into the US National War Garden Commission.

war gardening victory edition 1919
The Table of Contents for "War Gardening"

He wrote the War Garden Victorious to document the founding of the commission. I found it a very good read and would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of war gardens as it is free through that link.

Pack discusses how these millions of men raised to fight in World War I armies primarily hailed from one-man farms. Pack then lays out the grim and inexorable advance of wartime famine across Europe and how it fell to America to feed the 120 million people of Europe.

The hurdles facing the farming industry had been accumulating long before and had been ignored (sound familiar?). How would a country increase production with on-going labor shortages? War time production jobs in the cities had drawn millions of farmers from the farm and after the war, higher paying industrial wages kept these former farmers in the urban cities.

Keen-eyed Americans saw the situation forming on the horizon and began installing formerly neglected, uprooted, or otherwise dilapidated or non-existent gardens but it needed to become a national pursuit and so Pack helped found the US National War Garden Commission. Pack wanted to see what he referred to as "fountains of foodstuffs...uniting to form great streams."

He advocated that every citizen mobilize, that every piece of vacant land be folded into the food system.

sow the seeds of victory war garden propaganda poster

The Commission promoted the effort through propaganda posters advocating that civilians “Sow the seeds of victory” by planting gardens everywhere. Yards, empty lots, city rooftops, parks, schools, even company grounds.

The war garden movement (before they became known as victory gardens) was spread by word of mouth. Women’s clubs, civic associations and chambers of commerce all encouraged participation in the campaign.

victory garden pamphlet page

Woodrow Wilson's Bureau of Education founded the U.S. School Garden Army (USSGA) to mobilize children to enlist as “soldiers of the soil.” You know, learning American history will raise your eyebrows quite a few times… Wilson also grazed sheep on the south lawn during World War I but colloquially he did this to avoid mowing the lawn. A historical review of the USSGA is available here.

Amateur urban farmers were provided with pamphlets on how, when and where to sow, were offered suggestions as to the best crops to plant, along with tips on preventing disease and insect infestations. The endeavor was so well received that the government turned its attention to distributing canning and drying manuals to help people preserve their surplus crops.

war garden pamphlet page on canning

This is the reason our grandparents knew how to can, by the way. It wasn't like some arcane knowledge passed down by lineage (well...not often...). It was the government mailing out pamphlets that taught how to grow locally, how to farm a plot rurally, how to grow organically, and how to can all of it when you were done.

Neighbors pooled into ad hoc well-organized urban farms and community gardens that coordinated plantings. These efforts saw 3 million new garden plots raised by 1917. By 1918, over 5 millions urban and rural local gardens had been cultivated across America. As World War I dwindled down, the term war gardens was coopted into "victory gardens" and the campaign promoting them dwindled to a halt. Yet, millions of Americans continued to maintain their victory gardens following the war.

There is something profound contained within that nuance, that change from war garden to victory garden. Amy Bentley's Eating for Victory commented: "While Victory Gardens were portrayed as a patriotic duty, 54% of Americans polled said they grew gardens for economic reasons while only 20% mentioned patriotism." This was primarily an act of mutual aid, the original American philosophy.

Upon entering World War II, the federal government rationed basically everything. Rationed foods included not only refined products like cheese, coffee, butter, and canned goods but also staples like milk and eggs.

As before, most farming men of fighting age were abroad or working in industrial production. Things like cars were earmarked solely for the war effort. This labor shortage alone meant harvesting fruits and vegetables on an agricultural scale would be impossible. Compounding this further with the lack of transportation to move farmed produce to markets meant the federal government had to once again turn to its citizens to fill the gap.

victory garden propaganda poster from world war ii

The effort was again framed, this time by the US Department of Agriculture, as patriotic duty. The USDA encouraged the planting of urban gardens and emphasized on the home front that the produce from victory gardens would help lower the price of vegetables needed by the War Department to feed the troops. The money that could be spent elsewhere on the war effort: "Our food is fighting", one US poster read. By May 1943, there were 18 million victory gardens in the United States – 12 million in urban gardens and 6 million in rural settings. These produced roughly 8 million tons of food, the equivalent of more than 40 percent of all the fresh fruit and vegetables consumed in the United States, all grown locally.

Lessons abound here. The myriad of applicable organic agriculture solutions excite the author. With the craze of vertical farming, hydroponic systems, and led lights and the like taking over modern farming discussions, the power of a simple backyard plot cannot be overlooked.

If this makes you want to “grow local”, then get in your yard and get that vegetable garden going! And if you want to supercharge your victory garden, this is where we plug the HydroPod™ and you can click here to learn more about it.


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