By Juhie Bhatia
Monday, November 8, 2010
The Woman's Land Army is a group of almost-forgotten U.S. women who helped feed the country during World War I. Today their self-sufficient example is helping to nourish the locally-grown food movement.
CHICAGO (WOMENSENEWS)--Annie Farrell first got her hands dirty in 1973, when she bought a plot of land in upstate New York to experiment with growing her own food.
Today she's the master farmer of Millstone Farm in Wilton, Conn., which means she's no longer doing much of the daily vegetable gardening or animal husbandry.
Most of her time now is spent helping to preserve farmland, designing and building farms for others and working with the farm's educational programs.
It took Farrell more than three decades to get to this point, and along the way she did plenty of hard physical work and had many moments of feeling like a one-woman farming pioneer band.
That is, until she had a recent epiphany: Women have done all this before.
The realization struck during a reading of "Fruits of Victory: The Woman's Land Army of America in the Great War," a 2008 book by Elaine Weiss, a journalist of almost 35 years.
The book offers an account of the Woman's Land Army, created by U.S. women in the First World War, to train women to farm while men were called away to join the military. Similar land armies were also aroused during this time in Great Britain, Canada and Australia.
From 1917 to 1920 the U.S. Woman's Land Army drew 20,000 women--sometimes called "farmerettes"--to farms, where they lived in communal camps, performed "men's work" for eight hours a day and demanded wages equal to those of male laborers.
"The knowledge and wisdom these women learned and shared gave people back faith and security; we realized we can take care of ourselves," said Farrell.
But while the farmerette became a symbol of American women's patriotism at the time, Weiss says today she's been largely forgotten.
After Farrell learned about the farmerettes, she quickly sent a copy of Weiss' book to her friend Wendy Littlefield, a beer importer in Chicago who once started a farmer's market and has plenty of contacts in the networks of women's rights and environmentalism.
Littlefield's response: "We need to do something about it."
Littlefield teamed up with Nancy Stevenson, Victoria Post Ranney and Debbie Hillman to organize a three-day conference, "The Woman's Land Army: A Series of Walks, Talks and Tastings," in Chicago and surrounding areas. At the Oct. 5-7 events, Weiss, among others, gave talks, while farmers, activists and food enthusiasts gathered to learn about the Woman's Land Army and exchange ideas that reflected a new movement.
"Now food justice and food security issues are in the news again," Weiss said. "Today we're in crisis, but it's not a famine. It's about quality of food; not quantity of food."
One conference event took place in the dining hall of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum at The University of Illinois at Chicago. It was here that women's and immigrants' rights activist Addams talked with her colleagues during the First World War about the famine affecting Europe and the resulting food shortages in the United States, particularly in poorer neighborhoods such as the one surrounding Hull House.
Over a dinner of spicy corn chowder, containing peppers grown on the campus farm, guests at the Hull House event talked about, among other food-related concerns, the problem of "food desert" communities, those with little or no access to healthy foods.
Dinah Ramirez, executive director of Healthy South Chicago, a coalition of food-oriented groups, described a local resident who was so disconnected from fresh food that she asked how many hours it would take to cook fresh peas.
Her group has offered tastings of various fresh fruits and vegetables in local grocery stores to increase awareness of how to prepare these foods. She says these supermarkets have seen an increase in sales of some of the sampled foods.
Jose Luis Rodriguez, who focuses on obesity prevention at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Chicago's Humboldt Park, blamed his community's high obesity and diabetes rates on food deserts.
Johari Cole, who operates a certified organic farm in Momence, Ill., called the entire state a food desert because of Illinois' dependence on imported food.