National Geographic Magazine/Volume 31/Number 3/War, Patriotism, and the Food Supply

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War, Patriotism, and the Food Supply[edit]

By Frederick V. Coville, of the United States Department of Agriculture


A hundred million Americans are searching heart and mind to determine in what way each can contribute most to the success of his country in the war. We are remote from the battle line, and few of us, relatively, can take part in the actual fighting. It is everywhere recognized that our financial and industrial coöperation with the Allies will have a far greater effect in hastening the conclusion of the war than would the equipment and sending of a great American army to Europe.

In the industries fundamental to the manufacture of munitions we are in a position to wield an immense influence. So widely is this appreciated that the proposal to exempt from direct military service the skilled workmen of the munition industries meets with general approval.

The people of the United States, however, have not yet come to appreciate fully that our most important duty in this war lies in still another direction, indicated also by our economic and geographic position. I refer to the maintenance of an adequate food supply for the British and the French.

The armies of France and the British Empire must be well nourished. The British and French industrial workers who supply those armies with munitions must be well nourished also. Within the last few weeks Argentina has declared an embargo on the export of wheat. More than ever before, therefore, is it incumbent on us to maintain a wide and constant stream of food supplies to France, Great Britain, and to Italy also. If we fail to do so—

But we shall not fail. Our duty is clear. The task is large. Understanding and organization will enabIe us to accomplish it. Understanding and organization are at work upon it. The United States Department of Agriculture, State agencies and county agencies, all are carrying the message to every farmer in the country.

Our demands for food are increasing much more rapidly than our production[edit]

There are limitations, however, to the amount of food that can be grown on American farms, and none of these limitations is more potent than the scarcity of farm labor. Even in normal times the supply of efficient agricultural labor is, in general, inadequate. More land is available than can be farmed effectively. The town outbids the farmer for his labor by higher wages, or shorter hours, or fancied superiority of recreation, or by all these combined.

In war times the attraction of agricultural labor away from the farm becomes greater than ever. Military service, munitions manufacture, and the other industries of war all tend to take their quota from the farm. The establishment of an ammunition factory near the city of Washington has combed the labor from the farms, either directly or by progressive replacement in other pursuits, for miles around. The suburbs of many other cities where munition plants exist are having similar experiences.

As long ago as 1898 it was contended by Sir William Crookes, and the contention was sustained by one of our foremost agricultural statisticians, that by the year 1931 the increasing population of America was likely to consume all the wheat we raised.

We are already more than half way on the road to that destination. Increased acreage and improved agricultural methods have, it is true, intervened to increase our crops; but our consumption of food has also increased enormously, and the difference between what we raise and what we eat is shrinking year by year.

Produce some food if you possible can[edit]

One does not question that the American farmer will do his duty, or that the wide-spread movement for city gardening will contribute somewhat to the extension of our food surplus; but there remains a large class of our population favorably situated for food production and well able to take part in it, whose contribution is only a small fraction of what it might be made. I refer to the man whose business ordinarily is in town, but whose residence in the country gives him access to an area of ground varying in size from a small garden to all ample farm, used, however, only in small part or not at all for gardening or farming purposes.

Usually such country dwellers have the equipment for gardening or for farming, but make only such limited use of it as suits their convenience or their demands for recreation.

The time is now at hand when every non-farmer who has unemployed farming or gardening land, and every summer resident in the country, can contribute patriotically to the welfare of his country and the progress of liberty by producing all the fruit and all the vegetables he consumes, and in some cases also the eggs and poultry that he needs. And I mean not merely the fruits and vegetables that he uses in summer, but those he will require in the following winter.

Our grandmothers knew how to preserve fruit for winter use by drying it and by canning it, but they did not know how to can vegetables. Modern science has found out how to do this, and now the girls in the department of domestic science in every agricultural college and every agricultural high school in the country are taught how to take vegetables at the time when their flavor is most delicious and their texture the most tender and put them up in glass jars for winter use.

Such preserved vegetables are far superior to those we ordinarily buy in tin cans, for they receive a care in selection and preparation that commercial canneries seldom give.

Every pound of food grown and used in this way is a contribution of just that amount to the great stream of supplies that we are passing on to the British and the French soldier at the front, for whatever each of us consumes he must take from that stream unless he produces it himself.

The work is not so difficult as of old[edit]

In modern gardening the backache-breeding hoe and weeder of a generation ago have been replaced by those wonderful little implements set on wheels and pushed in front of one by two handles like a plow. The heavy plowing and planting of spring is still a man's task; but these little hand cultivators make the later care of a garden a happy outdoor task for women and half-grown children. It brings the bronzed cheek of summer and the elastic step and clear mind of the winter that follows.

The congestion of freight traffic during the last year was due primarily to the scarcity of ships for the oversea trade, the consequent filling up of warehouses at the seaboard, and the delay of loaded freight cars waiting their turn to deliver their freight. The congestion was greatly increased, however, through an agricultural practice that has been growing up in the United States for many years: the raising of a special crop in that particular part of the country in which it can be grown most economically or in the greatest perfection and its shipment very long distances by rail to the consumer.

In times like the present every ton of food that can be grown where it is consumed, or not far from its place of consumption, will relieve our railroads of just that much space needed for the urgent transportation demands of war.

It will help the Belgians[edit]

Because I suggest to the country dweller that in growing his own supplies he will be practising sounder economy and will have better food, better health, and the gladness of heart that comes from a patriotic act, let no one lose sight of the fact that the suggestion is made not primarily for those reasons, but for the sake of that gallant soldier who fights under the banner of “liberty, equality, fraternity,” and that other soldier who carries grimly in his heart the message written in stone in Trafalgar Square: “No price can be too high when honor and freedom are at stake.”

And the Belgians. What of them? When in schoolboy days we used to read the words, “Horum omnium fortissimi sunt Belgae,” we did not fully grasp their meaning; but after Liège and Namur, when Belgium stood broken and bleeding, but still fighting and unafraid, the spirit of the phrase burst upon us. “The bravest of all these are the Belgians,” the very words that Julius Cæsar wrote two thousand years ago.

No service in this war appeals to America more than to carry food to the Belgians, in order to keep from hunger that little nation which, single-handed, defended the gateway of liberty.

But first we must furnish food to the British, the French, and the Italians. In doing so we shall have the added satisfaction of knowing that in spirit, if not indeed in physical fact, we are taking it also to the people of Belgium.

Let each of us do his share toward bearing bread to the Belgians.

Source: Frederick V. Coville (March 1917), “War, Patriotism, and the Food Supply”, The National Geographic Magazine 31(3): 254–256.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).