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When co-ops went to war
By Donna F. Abernathy
1942, Sunkist President C.C. Teague extends the best wishes of the
co-op to Yeoman Fred W. Leggitt Jr., one of 44 employees of the
cooperative who had enlisted in the armed forces that year.
Recently, Hollywood has
refocused the American public's attention on an event that many historians
define as the greatest chapter in our nation's history.
'Saving Private Ryan,' moviemaker Steven Spielberg's box office hit, has evoked vivid memories of World War II for many. These recollections include not only veterans' tales of battle but also reminiscences of efforts on the home front that were so crucial to the ultimate victory.
Many of America's cooperatives carved their own niche in this chapter of history. From the moment the United States entered the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, cooperative members and employees played an important role. Their job: to keep our fighting forces supplied with the food and fiber deemed as strategic commodities in the war effort.
For commodity cooperatives around the nation, the war years were the best of times and the worst of times. Government purchases resulted in record sales and President Roosevelt urged farmers to boost production. At the same time, a severe labor shortage made it difficult to harvest and process the raw products coming from the nation's fields, groves and milk barns. Adding to the difficulties were the struggles to obtain fairing pricing at a time when the government-the co-ops' biggest customer-was administering strict price controls.
On a more personal basis, cooperatives would see many employees as well as members heading to the European Front or the Pacific Theater. Some never returned.
Here, from the pages of seven US. cooperative history books, is a snapshot of the wartime contributions and sacrifices made by the nation's united producers of food and fiber.
For the troops
The declaration of war
against Japan on December 8, 1941, changed U.S. businesses almost overnight.
Commodity marketing and processing cooperatives were no different. Traditional
markets disappeared-export markets were cut off due to fighting while rationing
changed domestic consumption habits. Simultaneously, Uncle Sam became the
biggest, and most demanding, customer. The government laid claim to the lion's
share of domestically produced commodities that were deemed strategically
important to the war effort. Demand exceeded supply most of the time.
In the Upper Midwest, members of Land O'Lakes saw their mainstay, butter, take a distant second to dried milk, which grew into a blockbuster military provision during World War II. Milk was the favored beverage among soldiers, and yet fluid milk was impossibly bulky and too prone to spoilage for shipment thousands of miles overseas. Powdered milk provided an easy solution to the problem and Land O'Lakes emerged as the world's biggest manufacturer.
By the peak war years, Land O'Lakes was operating 22 milk-drying plants. The increase in demand for dried milk grew from 22 million pounds in 1941 to 119 million pounds by 1945. Even after the war, the co-op's dried milk continued to be in demand as an important ingredient in formulas developed to help malnourished refugees and concentration camp survivors.
In all, the cooperative produced 940 million pounds of dairy foods, eggs, turkey, and chicken during the war years, much of it for the armed forces. One Land O'Lakes producer, Harold Zupp of Albert Lea, Minn., raised a single turkey flock in 1944 that provided Thanksgiving dinners for 100,000 GIs.
With the government as a hungry customer, citrus consumption skyrocketed during the war. At the California Fruit Growers Exchange, now Sunkist Growers, cooperative employees worked around the clock to produce millions of gallons of orange, lemon and grapefruit juices for shipment to American and Allied soldiers serving at home and around the globe. During wartime, more than 65 percent of their output filled government orders.
In 1942, more than 320,000 gallons of straight orange juice and 800,000 gallons of concentrated orange juice made by the Exchange's plants were for government orders. During 1943, more than 10,000 carloads of Exchange citrus were shipped in concentrated form, twice the amount that had been exported annually before the War. By 1945, the California-Arizona citrus industry set an all-time shipping record of 140,544 rail cars of fresh fruit.
Just like the foodstuffs commodities, cotton was also in demand by the government. The California Cotton Cooperative Association (CCCA), later to be renamed Calcot Ltd., answered the call for short-staple cotton to spin into uniforms, blankets, tents, sand bags and other army supplies.
Members of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association contributed both short-staple cotton as well as premium long-staple fiber to produce parachutes, life rafts and gliders.
A Land O'Lakes advertisement that appeared during World War
On the home front
While helping the armed
forces wage war in Europe and the Pacific, cooperatives were fighting their own
battles at home. Price controls and labor shortages, as well as the scarcity of
industrial supplies, plagued producers and processors.
Across the board, agricultural producers were frustrated by the government price regulations that existed for three years. The farmers argued that controls did not take into account the increased costs of production and handling brought about by rationed input supplies and labor shortages. Some producers spoke out in favor of price "ceiling" adjustments only to be labeled as traitors by their opponents. Land O'Lakes led cooperatives in responding to this criticism. The co-op called in the services of its longtime advertising agency, Campbell Mithun, to develop a series of ads promoting farmers as hard workers for the war effort. The ads drew high praise and educated the public about the actual circumstances for agricultural producers.
With so much of America's work force engaged in military duty or working in factories, there were few laborers left to harvest citrus fruit and pick cotton. This manpower shortage threatened to slow or halt some strategic commodity production.
Calcot members recall that the civilian population turned out to help meet the labor demands. In some instances, children were released from school to participate in "victory harvests" to pick the fiber. Co-ops in Arizona and California were among those that employed large numbers of Mexican workers to help fill the labor gap. Fillmore Citrus Association, Farmers Cooperative Gin and McFarland Cooperative Gin, all California cooperatives, were among those that resorted to using Italian and German prisoners-of-war to help harvest the crops.
The Rural Electrification Administration, forerunner of the Rural Utilities Service of USDA Rural Development, also pitched in to help agricultural producers meet war goals. Skeleton crews-depleted due to wartime-- worked diligently to electrify the nation's farming regions to give farmers much needed electric "hired hands" to substitute for human labor. Co-op members like the Ralph Childs family of Delaware County, Iowa, and a member of Maquoketa Valley Rural Electric Cooperative, were able to power milking machines, water pumps, brooders, heat lamps and feed grinders to double their dairy and meat production in 1943.
Manpower wasn't the only commodity in short supply The scarcity of industrial products like wood and paper had the citrus co-ops scrambling for alternative sources. The wood shortage was so severe in 1945 that production almost came to a standstill at California Fruit Growers Exchange due to a lack of containers. To fill the void, the co-op was forced to purchase additional timberland to maintain its supply of boxes. At the Piru Citrus Association in California, packinghouses had to limit their fruit-wrapping operations and some shipments were packaged in mesh bags, the forerunner to today's common mesh packaging.
In the early months of 1945, the successful Normandy invasion on D-Day signaled the beginning of the end of the war. Soon the troops would come home. At the same time, many commodity cooperatives would relinquish their "strategic" wartime status. Though the great push to produce more with so much less would quickly disappear, their significant contributions to victory were already etched in history.
information for this article taken from:
"Heritage of Gold: The First 100 Years of Sunkist Growers, Inc.," 1993;
"From the Ground Up: The First 50 Years of Farmers Cooperative Gin," 1987;
"Celebrating Tradition. Building the Future: Seventy-Five Years of Land O'Lakes," 1996;
"Beyond the Harvest: The History of the Fillmore-Piru Citrus Association," 1997;
"Strength Through Unity: Arizona Cotton Growers, The First Fifty Years," 1993;
"The Next Greatest Thing: 50 Years of Rural Electrification In America," 1984; and
"Legacy Of A Shared Vision: The History of Calcot, Ltd.," 1995.
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