Bitter Strawberries

     Farm work is one of the best jobs for getting to know people as they really are.

The First Job and the Sweetest

Sylvia Plath’s first job was on a farm in the summer of 1950. I am grateful to the inestimable Maria Popova (Brain Pickings) for these extracts from her journal and from an article in which she described “The Rewards of a New England Summer.”

And so there are summers every year, but the one which brought my first job is unique. Warren and I went up to Lookout Farm right after I graduated… Every day we biked up together early in the morning, left our bikes at Wellesley College usually and hitched a ride with one of the other hands. I can never go back to those days spent in the fields, in sun and rain, talking with the negroes and the hired hands. I can only remember how it was and go on living where I am… But … this Farm Summer will always be The First Job and the sweetest.

It was clearly a time that fed her memory and imagination. The essay ended with:

When you see me pause and stare a bit wistfully at nothing in particular, you’ll know that I am deep at the roots of memory, back on the Farm, hearing once more the languid, sleepy drone of bees in the orange squash blossoms, feeling the hot, golden fingers of sun on my skin, and smelling the unforgettable spicy tang of apples which is, to me, forever New England

“The Rewards of a New England Summer”  printed in the Youth Section of the Christian Science Monitor’s “Family Features” page.September 1950.

That summer also wrote Bitter Strawberries, her first significant published poem. It appeared in the Christian Science Monitor (August 11, 1950) after her graduation from high school.

The time on the farm gave Plath an opportunity to connect with people not of her background. It allowed for blissful wool-gathering and a kind of meditative listening.

Bitter Strawberries is about working side by side with pickers as they discuss the news of the cold war tensions with Russia and what should be done. The world’s affairs are the gossip of the day as the fruit is picked and the work continues.

I am now firmly convinced that farm work is one of the best jobs for getting to know people as they really are. As you work side by side in the rows, your hands move automatically among the leaves and your thoughts are free to wander at will. What, then, is more natural than to drift into conversation with your neighbor? It is really amazing what a receptive ear can do by way of encouraging confidences…

Food, Fairness and Farming Won the War

The WLA was first set up in 1917. It reformed in June 1939. Women were initially asked to volunteer. From December 1941 they could also be conscripted. At its peak in 1944, there were more than 80,000 women –  ‘land girls’ – in the WLA. The purpose:  boost food production, reduce imports and free male agricultural workers for the armed forces.They did a wide variety of jobs on the land; worked in all weathers and conditions and could be sent to work anywhere in the country. It was disbanded in 1950.

Who knows whether the thousands of women who served on the land in WW2 had a comparable experience of bucolic bliss. Some did for sure. Many of the Women’s Land Army recruiting posters from WW2 do promote the benefits of working on the land as an enticement to enlist. The Land Army – they claimed – was the opportunity for an open-air life that was happy and healthy.

Of course, Land Army work was more than a summer job of bringing in the harvest. It was a year round slog in all weathers. The pay was poor and the conditions often harsh.

We can learn a great deal about what they thought and experienced from publications like The Land Girl and. while it tends toward the practical and the positive – it makes clear that working the land also meant blisters and backache, callouses and chilblains, scratches, sores and splinters.

But there was also purpose. It’s clear that many were motivated by the mission and the sense of doing something worthwhile. And indeed they were. Seventy per cent of the food consumed in Britain before the war had to be imported making it vulnerable to being starved into surrender.

This is a food war. Every extra row of vegetables in allotments saves shipping… the battle on the kitchen front cannot be won without help from the kitchen garden.”  – Lord Woolton, Minister of Food, 1941

Where’s the right foot? The Ministry of Food launched ‘Dig for Victory’ in October 1939. It urged transforming gardens into vegetable plots. The goal was to replace imported food to free up shipping space for war materials, and to make up for food sunk in transit. By the end of 1940, 728,000 tons of food on its way to Britain had been lost, sunk by German submarines.

People knew that if war came it would be necessary to boost food production at home and impose rationing to ensure people were fed and the supply of food distributed equitably. That was one of the big lessons from WW1 – a total war involves all of its members in a fight for survival and victory depends on commitment. Government propaganda kicked into high gear to create and strengthen that shared sense of purpose and doing one’s bit.

The irony is that for all the deprivation of rationing the British population emerged healthier than it had ever been before. And people had been educated about how to create nutritional frugal meals.

Lest We Forget, 1945 Leonora Kathleen Green (1901–1966). Britain imported 70% of its food; 20 million tons of shipping a year. 50% of meat was imported, 70% of cheese, sugar, cereal, fats 80% of fruits, 91% of butter. 50% of cheese imports came from New Zealand, a long ways away by shipping lanes. Starving the enemy population into submission was a shared war goal.

Rationing meant that no matter how rich you were, the food available was equally shared at fair prices.

Expanded home production reduced the dependency on imports and ensured an adequate food supply.

Rationing and restarting the Women’s Land Army were two major responses to the threat to the food supply. They were significant weapons of war and helped keep the common purpose alive, boost morale and secure the victory.

When war did come in September 1939 there was no patriotic surge of excitement and clamor that had accompanied the declaration of war in 1914. It was with a far more sober and matter-of-fact resignation – not a glorious fight for king and country – but a communal struggle in which to do one’s bit for survival.

Who Joined the Women’s Land Army and What Work did they Do?

April 1940 – before Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz – saw the first edition of The Land Girl a publication for and about The Women’s Land Army.

The first woman to register for land army service – Valerie Hodge – was an artist living in an attic in Bristol. In the first edition of The Land Girl she explained why:

Here was the thing for me – the service to serve England – the service to keep this land alive – and also a service in which one could help in the everlasting process of creation, instead of helping in destruction.

First edition. April 1940. It proved popular. Circulation rose to 21,000 a week and readership would have been considerably higher. It provided practical advice and support, information, poetry, jokes, and patriotic propaganda but never bellicose jingoism. Editorials urged tolerance of difference and international understanding.

Others were motivated by a desire for greater independence and the prospect of comradeship

By autumn 1941, more than 20,000 women had volunteered to serve a third of whom  came from London. The majority came from towns and cities and had little experience of rural life and agricultural labor.

They came from across the spectrum of social class, education and occupation.

“Peggy Field, a former London model gave up the high life to volunteer for the WLA. Following a short course at an Agricultural College, Peggy was posted to Kenneth Peploe’s farm at Walcot. ‘During the past winter she has ploughed more than 100 acres. It has not all been easy going, and the weather was often trying, but Peggy was unperturbed. Often she kept at it longer than the men, and on only three occasions has she slipped back to London for a few hours.’” Swindon Evening Advertiser, March 1941

Many –  such as Una in the short story The Land Girl – lived at the farms where they worked and in many places conditions could be very basic and the lifestyle lonely.

As recruitment expanded, hostels were set up to house the volunteers. By 1944, there were 22,000 “land girls” living in 700 hostels across the country.

We are lucky to have the work of the artist Evelyn Dunbar who painted many scenes of the Land Army at work and rest. She illustrated Michael Greenhill’s 1941 manual  used to train the women in the basics of agricultural work.

Hilda Harrison 1888–1972 A Land Girl, 1942, chalk.

Land girls were the employees of the farmers for whom they worked and were paid directly by them. The basic minimum wage was 28 shillings a week – half of which was deducted for board and lodging. To give some idea of parity – the average basic wage for a male agricultural worker was 38 shillings.

The basic working week was 48 hours in winter and 50 in summer. The “Land Girls Charter” of 1943 improved these conditions somewhat by raising the wage and providing for a week’s paid holiday leave.

Some land girls were engaged in specialized horticultural tasks – market gardening and forestry – but most were engaged in a variety of general agricultural work including ploughing, planting, harvesting, hay-making, milking, lambing, hedging, ditching and draining. Land reclamation included operating heavy machinery. Some 6,000 women worked in the Timber Corps, felling trees and running sawmills

Rats, mice and other pests were a serious threat to food and fodder supplies and there are accounts in The Land Girl of how the women tackled the problem. teams were trained as vermin squads and became effective rat catchers.

The basic WLA uniform was brown corduroy breeches, wool socks, green v-necked jumper, fawn aertex shirt and a brown felt hat. Additional items such as dungarees and two styles of overcoat were also available. Various regulations set out rules and guidelines. Individuals adapted as conditions and their wardrobe allowed.

“NEVER twist your hat into fancy shapes or wear it at the back of your head.”

Evelyn Dunbar Women’s Land Army Hostel,1939

Women’s Land Army Dairy Training, 1940, by Evelyn Dunbar The WLA reached its peak in 1944 and about a quarter of were employed in some form of dairy work. This painting depicts a scene at Sparsholt Farm Institute near Winchester – a former agricultural college converted into a WLA training institute,

Evelyn Dunbar, “Milking Practice with Artificial Udders” (1940)

Evelyn Dunbar, Men Stooking and Girls Learning to Stook, 1940

Baling Hay Evelyn Mary Dunbar 1940

Women’s Land Army at Work by James Bateman 1940

Women’s Land Army: Ditching
Leonard Daniels (1909–1998) 1943

Land Army Girls Going to Bed 1943 by Evelyn Dunbar.

‘A 1944 Pastoral: Land Girls Pruning at East Malling’ by Evelyn Dunbar

Land Drainage: Overtime, by Bernard Casson

Potato Sorting Berwick Evelyn Dunbar

Inside the first edition of the Land Girl there’s a note about the artist  – Eliot Hodgkin (1905- 1987)

That cartoon does seem out of character for his work. He is better known for exquisite and incredibly detailed still lifes.

The featured image is from his Nine Strawberries of 1955.

It draws together Plath’s poem and the work of the those who produced The Land Girl and of course the work of the land girls and the experience of Plath on the land.

The last words go to the poet and writer Laurie Lee:


  1. I wonder if I’d have the physical strength for this kind of back-breaking work. Certainly the Brits don’t seem to be able to/don’t want to replace the eastern European fruitpickers who are now ignoring the UK like the plague.

    Wonderful artwork – shows Ravilious wasn’t the only one working in that style.

  2. Know what you mean! Record seems to suggest that the fitness and the skills came with time. Plus the callouses and backache. I love Evelyn Dunbar’s work and especially the illustrations. And Ravilious.

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