Monday, May 13, 2019

Land Girls and Farmerettes

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

When Mrs. Louise T. Roberts of the New York State Food Commission proposed it in the spring of 1918, people were skeptical. College girls working on local farms? That’s crazy talk. There was no way they could work as well as men. Luckily for area farms, the skeptics were wrong.

Following America’s entry into World War I in April 1917, there were massive labor shortages in all fields. The civilian group, the Woman’s Land Army of America (WLAA) proposed to replace the missing men with college girls, school teachers, and other women with seasonal jobs or ones which allowed for summer vacations. The idea was modeled after the British Woman’s Land Army. The state branches of the WLAA worked closely with local colleges to recruit and train young women who would be assigned to work certain farms. The women were known as farmerettes. 

Elmira College Farmerettes at a farm on Canton Avenue

In the spring and summer of 1918, Elmira College sponsored a series of farmerette work camps throughout the Southern Tier. Each camp consisted of between 10 and 30 girls, plus a full-time cook/housekeeper. The first two work units were established in Horseheads and Southport in late May before the end of the semester and the girls who signed up were exempted from having to take exams as long as they agreed to work the land for at least six weeks. Over the course of the summer, Elmira College students established additional work camps in Hector and near Binghamton. Each camp was self-governing and at least one ended up producing their own book of work songs. 

Elmira College students Misses Wallace, Farnham, Reed, & McNamara start their work in Birmingham, June 1918

Elmira College farmerettes learned to plow and drive tractors. They planted and harvested tobacco, oats, potatoes, onions, and other vegetables. Girls stationed near Germantown, New York, harvested cherries while the ones in Hector picked grapes. They were paid $3 a week, a wage comparable to most male farm hands. 

Farm owners were surprised to find themselves pleased with the quality of the girls’ work. Several area farmers wrote to Mrs. Roberts with their thoughts on the program.

“Your letter at hand and would state in reply, asking about our opinion in regard to girl labor, that it worked finely. We have mostly employed man labor before this year and always with some dissatisfaction, drink habit being the worst. The girls all seemed eager to work and they certainly picked the fruit well and cleaned up every tree in good shape, a thing the men never did. It is our first experience with girls and we were well pleased and look to having them another year.
                                                                            --Henry Sheffer, North Germantown, N.Y.

“Your letter of July 19th at hand. In regard to girl labor, we care convinced that they have been the greatest assistance to us in harvesting the cherry crop. They did a great deal better than we expected as this is our first experience. They picked their fruit in better condition than the average foreigners, that is they did not pull off the stems or fill their baskets with leaves. The girls picked about 2,000 baskets of the crop. We hope to have a larger and better camp next season if you of the Food Commission are able to provide help
                                                                                                                              –Peter Fingar

Despite the end of the war, the Woman’s Land Army of New York did place college girls on farms in the summer of 1919. By April 1919, over 400 girls had already been recruited. 

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