- 1941 - 1945 -
The Fruit Front, Part 3
Labor Shortages

     After Pearl Harbor, many men joined the military or were drafted, creating a labor shortage in California canneries and orchards.    Also, women took over traditionally higher paying male jobs in other industries.  So, there were less men and women to work in the canneries.  The labor shortage hit canneries hard just as maintaining production levels was mandatory to meet military orders.  Failure would mean hungry soldiers and a loss of future military support.  With these things in mind, canners thought creatively to find ways to continue processing. 

     Canneries did the best they could to start using machines to replace laborers.  Unfortunately, war shortages made most mechanical items hard to come by.  The War Production Board even asked canners to donate their typewriters to the war cause in 1942.  Some canneries began using more forklifts to make up for the lack of male laborers in the warehouses, but the older canneries had wood floors that could not handle the weight of the machines.  Concrete floors would have helped this problem, but the military was using most of the building machinery and supplies in the area. 


     In the 1942 canning season, only fifty percent of the experienced peach canning workforce and seventy percent of trained tomato processors could return.  With two canneries in operation, TVPA had 4,395 employees, 2,976 of whom were adult civilians, 360 minors, and 1,059 service members in 1942. According to a 1944 manager’s report from Tri Valley Packing Association, in cannery managers rarely had a full crew during the day and struggled to maintain even half a crew at night.    

     Canners searched for creative solutions to the labor shortages.  Some male cannery workers received deferments from service because food production was a vital part of mobilization, but many new laborers began working in the canneries.  According to a Tri/Valley Growers history, the successor of Tri/ Valley Packing Association (TVPA), many wives of cannery employees who had joined the military worked in the canneries during the canning season.  Canners constructed temporary housing and restrooms for temporary workers and paid the employees cash at the end of each day. TVPA even purchased a bus to make sure they could move employees around as necessary.

     Tri/Valley argued that there would have been no one to work the night shift if not for the service men working in the canneries.  Sailors from the Vernalis and Livermore bases helped at the canneries in the evenings during the pack receiving cash for their work.  Canners asked the Army for assistance during the pack, albeit without success.

     Canners also asked for dispensations from employment laws to hire children under the legal working age for both the orchards and canneries.  They particularly requested girls aged sixteen to eighteen to prepare fruit.  Labor agencies did not grant approval to hire minors.

     Finally, canneries and growers appealed for volunteers in surrounding communities, and the community responded.    In October 1942 an article in the Modesto Bee asked women to join the “Women’s Tomato Peeler’s Army” and help the canneries process the tomatoes “pouring in from the fields.”  Highly valued by the military, canned tomatoes had become a popular consumer product.  The article informs women that there will not be any uniforms for them or movie stars to cheer them on but that they can save food needed to sustain those fighting across the oceans.


     Orchards felt the labor shortage as keenly as the canneries.  Newspapers have stories about communities taking to the fields during the harvest to make sure the precious crops were not wasted.  Stores even adjusted their hours by closing in the mornings in Modesto so employees could help bring in the peach crop in 1942.

     The federal government brought in workers from other countries. During the 1943 harvest, guest workers from Mexico picked clingstone peaches in the San Joaquin Valley under the federal Bracero Program.  This agreement began a labor relationship that lasted until 1964 when the program ended, to the dismay of canners. 

     Even prisoners were used for labor.  An experimental program began in 1942 in which convicts from Folsom prison worked in pear orchards.  German prisoners of war picked peaches in Tulare in 1944 and were even paid wages.

     Just as in munitions, shipbuilding, and airplane factories, women rolled up their sleeves and took over jobs in the canning industry previously held by men.  Some volunteered to pick fruit, others pushed carts of fruit, and a few women moved into management positions, such as Sylvia Kempton.



 California League of Food Processors Papers, University of California - Davis, Shields Library Special Collections

 "Army Refuses Plea for Fruit Workers." Modesto Bee. August 24, 1942.

"Canners Pledge to Help Army." Modesto Bee. March 6, 1942.

"Folsom Convicts Are Released to Help." Modesto Bee. August 24, 1942.

"Men, Women Are Needed by Canneries Here." Modesto Bee. September 26, 1942.

"Store Closing Is Voted Here to Aid Peach Men." Modesto Bee. August 24, 1942.

"Stores of City Will Close Again." Modesto Bee. August 24, 1942.

"Tired Clerks Swap Tales of Prowess as Peach Pickers." Modesto Bee. August 26, 1942.

"Women Volunteers Are Needed to Aid Canneries." Modesto Bee. October 3, 1942.

Tri/Valley, Growers. Tri/Valley Growers 50 Years of Survival and Growth 1932 - 1982. Tri/Valley Growers.

Van Konynenburg, Frank A. A Home & a Price: 75 Years of History with the California Canning Peach Association. Lafayette, CA: California Canning Peach Association, 1997. 

Walter, Warren. "Labor Shortage Problem Faces State Canneries." Modesto Bee. March 13, 1942.