Tanks AND Tractors

turbinesDuring World War II, the U.S. government was faced with a big problem – how to provide both tanks and tractors.

On the one hand, the government needed almost every manufacturing plant, including ag machinery plants, to start producing material for the war – rifles, ships, tanks, airplanes and ammunition. On the other hand, they needed farmers in the U.S. to produce more food than ever before. They had to feed troops and the people living in allied nations who were under attack. Farmers needed equipment to replace the farm hands who had been drafted.

Agricultural equipment manufacturers were caught in the middle. They were expected to produce for war as well as the farm.

To deal with the situation, the government set up the Office of Production Management to decide which plants would shift some of their capacity from producing civilian goods to war material. Just before Pearl Harbor, they issued a “limitation order.” It said that production of civilian farm equipment would be held at 80 percent of 1940’s production level, but that the companies should increase production of repair and maintenance parts dramatically. In other words, make fewer new tractors but help farmers repair their old ones.

All of the agricultural machine companies in the U.S. became heavily involved in war production.

  • The U.S. division of Massey-Harris built the M24 and M5 tanks, aircraft wings and truck bodies. The Canadian division produced wings for Mosquito bombers, Stuart tanks and naval gun mounts.
  • John Deere built transmissions for the M3 medium tank. They also manufactured aircraft parts, ammunition and mobile laundry units.
  • Case produced wings for B-26 bombers, aftercoolers for Rolls-Royce aircraft engines and hundreds of thousands of artillery shells.
  • Allis-Chalmers produced steam turbines and propeller shafts for ships. Later they built the casings that housed the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan.

But war production didn’t stop innovation in agricultural machinery. In fact, it may have spurred new technologies. New challenges created innovation. During this decade, tractors got smaller and more powerful, self-propelled combines were introduced, hydraulic systems made it possible to control larger implements, the Vise Grip pliers were invented and tractors replaced horses on farms forever.

The war also did not stop the various companies from competing for the agricultural equipment market. Early on, the Ford-Ferguson tractor company tried to convince the government that their tractors were lighter and more powerful than their competitors. So, they argued, Ford should be allowed to build thousands of their tractors, replacing older, heavier tractors that could then be turned into scrap iron to build ships. That idea didn’t fly.

m-3 tanks assemblyBut, in 1944, the Massey-Harris company used a call for an increase in wheat production to increase their market share in farm equipment. Massey had just brought out the first self-propelled combine that they said was more efficient in harvesting wheat. They proposed that the War Production Board allow them to produce 500 machines over their regular quota IF the buyers agreed to harvest 2,000 acres of wheat each. The story of the “Harvest Brigade” is a fascinating one.

What all this meant to the individual farmer was he or she was in a difficult and contradictory period of time. On the one hand, the average farmer was expected to produce more with much less manpower. The only way to do that was to buy new machines or keep the old ones running. Most farmers had enough money to buy new equipment for the first time in a decade. But, because of production quotas, machines were hard to find. Farmers often had to convince the implement dealer or the government that he or she could produce more than the neighbor with the new machine. See a comparison between the work that horses can do plowing a field compared to succeeding generations of tractors in this interactive movie feature.

hoffFarmers found a way. Those who had made the conversion to tractor power kept their tractors running. Farmers who hadn’t sold their horses before the war found ways to buy new machines, sometimes on the black market.

Orville Hoffschneider remembers how he needed a corn picker and tractor during the war. Orville ended up buying the tractor on the black market. “Rationing… you lived with it,” he says. “You have people that would sell you something.”

Between the old and new machines, the number of tractors on U.S. farms rose from almost 1.6 million tractors in 1940 to 2.4 million tractors in 1945 – an increase of two-thirds.

As the machines made their way to the farms they helped create a revolution in farm productivity. That revolution intensified after World War II ended.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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