Historically, Napa Valley harvests have always provided challenges for local farmers, ranchers, grape growers and winemakers.
But, during World War II, an additional and critical challenge was a labor shortage caused by all the locals who left Napa County to serve in the armed forces. Several local and national efforts and programs were implemented to resolve that need for seasonal workers.
For example, in 1943, a The Napa Daily Journal headline read “American Legion Prepares Drive For Volunteer Crop Workers To Avert Losses.”
It reported, “The Napa County Farm Production Committee appealed to the Napa post to throw the support and the work of the Legion’s organization into the critical problem of finding some 4,000 hands to rescue a prune and tomato crop, the loss of which would be a costly blow to the production of war’s prime essential — food.”
The Farm Committee also “pointed out that from the commencement of the harvest, around Aug. 15, at least 3,000 of the hands needed must be recruited right out of the homes of ourselves and our neighbors.” The committee promised top wages and extra gasoline, a strictly rationed World War II era commodity, for those who agreed to volunteer as emergency harvest workers.
As an additional means to recruit as many volunteers as possible, the Farm Committee appealed to the sense of national pride and loyalty of Napa County residents. The Journal continued, “It is a patriotic duty of every person with any spare time to throw himself into the breach created by the labor shortage; for food is essential and must be harvested.”
At about the same time, the U.S. government sought out new sources for additional manpower to help alleviate the farm labor shortage being experienced throughout America. As part of that effort, the federal government expanded that search for farm labor to beyond its borders, in particular, Mexico.
That campaign became known as the Los Braceros program. Beginning in 1943, the U.S. government established the program to recruit able and willing Mexican men as temporary wartime labor. According to some of those men who were a part of the Los Braceros program, it presented them with more than a challenge, such as learning to speak English while on the job and adjusting to a different culture. It came with the great personal sacrifice of leaving their families, friends and homes behind in Mexico. The loneliness was profound.
Others from beyond the U.S. borders were also enlisted as harvest labor. In 1945, the Journal reported the details of one such example. The August edition article headline announced, “German War Prisoners Will Help Out With Harvest This Fall in (Napa) County.”
It continued, “Destined to take their places in the prune orchards and vineyards of Napa County as an emergency harvest labor this fall, 250 German prisoners of war will arrive at the converted Napa County Farm Labor Camp on the Silverado Trail on Aug. 14, it was announced at a meeting at the St. Helena grammar school.”
The Journal added, “Col. Walter Millis, director of the army prisoner-of-war program at Camp Beale, emphasized that the Germans are not criminals in any sense of the word. He said they are regular soldiers of the German army and are cooperative and intelligent.”
Even during World War II, with all of its challenges and sacrifices, Napa County remained a productive agricultural region.