Since ancient times, farmers have taken up the call to war, often fighting with the very tools they use to work the land. In World War I and especially World War II, young American men answered the call of duty in great numbers, along with healthy young men in every industry. The massive worldwide mobilization for war led to a food production crisis in the US and Europe.
Those left on the US home front were feeling squeezed on both sides. The most productive agricultural workers (young men) were heading off to war and needed to be fed thousands of miles away, while hungry civilians worked unprecedented hours to produce war materials. This led to fears of price spikes for agricultural goods that would make it more expensive for Uncle Sam to keep servicemen fed. This fear, combined with a general sense of the importance of thrift and self-reliance that supported the war effort, the Victory Garden took off in popularity.
Put simply, a Victory Garden was a way for civilians to help the war effort by producing their own vegetables to lessen the burden on the formal agricultural system and help it stay focused on feeding the troops. Americans were encouraged to plant vegetables in their gardens and yards, on abandoned lots, in parks, and even at the White House. Victory Gardens became a key focus of the home front propaganda machine, and were a challenge readily taken on by the American people. By some accounts, 40% of America’s vegetables were produced in Victory Gardens by 1944. This success was supported by the US Department of Agriculture, who produced volumes of educational materials on planting, growing, and canning food from the garden.
What does all of this have to do with today? Once again, we are seeing sharp rises in global food prices, and many of us are feeling uneasy about exactly where our food comes from. This has led to an explosion in the popularity of backyard vegetable gardens, and even in raising small animals like chickens. The “victory” in today’s Victory Garden may be a more personal one, but the underlying concept is the same: thrift, self-reliance, and productive use of the land.
Planting a Victory Garden is fun and can be as simple or complex as you like. An apartment dweller can grow hearty vegetables like tomatoes and peppers in a container on a patio. A small garden can also feature other popular vegetables like squash and beans. There’s nothing stopping someone with even a modest garden plot from undertaking a full traditional agricultural calendar, with multiple plantings and harvests, starting with leafy greens in the spring and ending with a fall harvest of pumpkins and root vegetables. You are only limited by your imagination and willingness to get your hands dirty.