Bahamian workers arrive at Hillsborough County farm.

By Charles Nelson

In the earliest weeks of this new COVID-19 world, empty shelves in stores and warnings of coming food shortages worried many Hillsborough County families. We’ve faced these kinds of shortages before, and we’ve survived them. Think, hurricanes! But our farm families were likely reminded of an earlier time when our food supply was under an even greater siege.

Following Pearl Harbor, and for WWII’s duration, there was a sharp loss of available farm field workers. By May 1942, Hillsborough County farmers felt the acute loss of workers. Ruskin Vegetable Cooperative President Paul B. Dickman announced that in his fields alone 200 extra pickers were urgently needed.

He warned that “If more workers aren’t obtained, much of the crop will rot in the fields.”

This loss of farm labor was a real threat arising from three primary causes and affected every farm industry:

The draft—farm boys were among the first to enlist and be drafted.

The opportunity for higher-wage jobs in a nearby defense industry—with earnings of $1.25 an hour (and more) vs. $.22 for farmworkers.

A shortage of migrant workers unable to move about the country due to tire and gasoline rationing.

Brandon area dairy farmer J. P. Wilbanks said that dairy farms in Hillsborough County were short 300 workers. As a result, milk was scarce just as war-time demand was increasing from an influx of soldiers, shipyard workers and their families into the Tampa Bay area.

For cattlemen, the draft was considered the biggest problem. They urged local draft boards to leave them alone, arguing that it took many years for a cowboy to learn a big pasture.

One local cattleman argued that “the cowboy is a highly technical man with considerable skills. Roping and riding skills would make him a wonderful soldier, but cattlemen can’t use transient men to replace him.”

Hillsborough County fruit and vegetable farmers were “scared to death” over the reality of labor shortages. They already faced ongoing weather-related issues that often challenged a “just-in-time” labor system.

Facing a dramatically reduced labor pool to draw from was a disaster in the making. Around Plant City, the normal acreage of 2,500 to 4,500 acres was reduced to about 1,000 acres as farmers realized there would be no labor to pick the product.

For the war’s duration, farmers sought myriad ways to strengthen the short supply of workers, but they needed help.

Dickman said that “Farmers can’t compete with high wages in other war work and if something isn’t done to relieve the farm labor shortage, America is likely to go hungry in another year.”

Federal and state governments were aware of the problem and did try to help. In October, the federal government exempted some farm and cattle workers from the draft as “essential workers.” Modifying immigration rules where necessary, temporary farm workers were shipped from the Bahamas, Cuba, Haiti and Puerto Rico into Florida.

Dickman unsuccessfully recommended that Italian war prisoners be sent to Hillsborough County to ease the requirements, but federal rules precluded their use in Florida as no POW could be held within 250 miles of the coast.

In 1943, a New Deal agency, the Farm Security Agency, transplanted large numbers of farmworkers from Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi. This relief was temporary as many of these workers left Florida farm jobs to join war industries for a much higher pay.

Ongoing recruiting efforts by local farmers provided some relief as well, but labor shortages and crop losses continued throughout the war. Not until after the war did the number of farmworkers return to a more normal cycle which, along with improved mechanization, allowed farming life to return to more normal rhythms.

So, today, as we learn how to live with COVID-19, we might recall this lesson from our history to remind us that it doesn’t take much to threaten the things that we hold most dear.