War Gardens and Liberty Pigs

While I attempted to track down the history of the University of New Mexico’s student farm (Fields We Dreamed Blog), I discovered another locavore experiment from the same era  The university archivist told me that during World War I, UNM grew a garden to supply the dining hall. “They even kept pigs,” she recalled.

After wading through the World War I Regent’s Minutes, a dusty business,  I can conclusively report that pigs and vegetables grew on or near campus in 1918. The swine possibly lived near the truck garden that was probably established on mesa landimages the university owned a mile northeast of the campus. “Possibly” and “probably” figure here because the minutes do not pinpoint the location. In an adjacent comment, the Regents noted that the mesa property contained “level land, suitable for cultivation once irrigation provisions are made.” Given the symbiosis between omnivorous pigs and garden fertilizer requirements, it would make sense to locate the projects near one other.

Home Economics, the “science” of household management, had just been invented at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Home Ec stressed the idea that the housewife ran her domain like a successful business, utilizing strictest economy. The educated homemaker of 1918 wasted nothing. She repurposed bedsheets, hoarded drippings, and concealed her leftover leftovers beneath a lake of white sauce. Her methods dovetailed with the government’s attempts to promote frugal eating in order to free up more food for their soldiers and their allies. War propagandists advised housewives to observe meatless days, eggless days, and wheatless days. images-1images-2One recipe from the period made an “acceptable” cake from bacon-fat, spices, and flour, glued together with chopped dates. The War Office urged families to plant war gardens to stretch food supplies. They encouraged chicken keeping and a family pig. That pig would eventually be served with “liberty cabbage,” a.k.a. sauerkraut. Patriotic Americans renamed foods to erase their German origin. Hamburgers morphed into Salisbury steaks. A Pennsylvania doctor even coined “liberty” measles to replace the German kind but that name, unlike the disease, did not catch on.

UNM’s regents knew that a truck garden for the dining hall did not make fiscal sense. The dining hall was already running on the principles of strictest economy. They actually made a profit in 1917 on a board charge per student of $23./month. The president explained that nobody expected the War Garden to make money. Instead he iterated the reasons for establishing it as a matter of good citizenship and capital improvement, saying “first, in the line of patriotism on the part of the University, and in answer to the call of the government; second… is to reduce the land in one year by intensive cultivation from a wild state to a thoroughly cultivated condition…” With that caveat, the cost of the garden would be charged to Campus Improvement.

UNM paid out $100. to $150. a month for labor on the land. Seed bills topped $300. The new pressure cooker cost them $45. Contrast this to the president’s own salary of $75. a month. As many others have discovered over the years, it’s not easy being green.

The liberty pigs puzzle me. The president of the Board of Regents and a local named Hutchinson, who apparently raised pigs, exchanged correspondence about on-going pig trades throughout 1918 and 1919. The university sent Hutchinson mature Duroc sows and, on one occasion, a Duroc boar in exchange for the same weight plus 10% of smaller pigs (140 to 170 pounds), to be supplied at the rate of four or five a month. I hypothesize that the smaller pigs became dining hall casualties. It’s the other half of the equation that confuses. What was the university doing with mature sows? Sows weigh 500+ pounds. Boars are bigger. For that matter, why did they have 12 gilts (virgin sows) to trade for bacon pigs?CraigW_Boar_600images-3Why didn’t they consign the gilts to the dining-hall when they were smaller? Was UNM breeding pigs? Then why trade with Hutchinson? Children where I grew up understood the Wheel of Pig by the first grade. You feed young pigs farm leftovers and they, in turn, plump up into pork which you eat when the pig’s time had run and then you feed the next leftovers to the next pig. UNM dining hall leavings could have fed growing pigs. The University’s on-going pig exchange does not make sense.

In 1920, the new Board of Regents wanted to know why Hutchinson has a $400. bill outstanding “for months or maybe years.”  Hutchinson replied that he didn’t owe any money because contractually, the university promised him pigs inoculated against hog cholera but the pigs they delivered had promptly died of it. He said he would be happy to talk with UNM but to please give him some notice because “we are as busy as can be at this time planting our crops.” The contract he produced to support his case doesn’t mention inoculations. The Regents don’t appear to understand why they are owed money. Furthermore, they always had had a copy of the contract in their files. The only thing clear about the business is that the university had given up on pigs.

Both the War Garden and the Liberty pigs illustrate some of the problems of smallhold farming, particularly when conducted by people who are new at the game. The research necessary to establish that the garden and the pigs really existed illustrated the difficulties of running an under-endowed university a century ago. When I asked for the Regents’ Minutes archive, the librarian winced. She perked up when I said that I only wanted material from World War I. “Oh, you’re in luck then,” she said. “The older Regents’ minutes are handwritten. The university bought the typewriter in 1912.”


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