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The summer of 1942 was not looking good for the American farmer. Half a year into the war effort, resources were low and demand was high. As the Columbia Daily Spectator reported in April of that year, “deprived by war needs of much of the transient labor he normally uses, he has nevertheless been asked to hit new highs in output.”
Inspired to action by the impending crisis, the influential journalist Dorothy Thompson conceived of the Volunteer Land Corps, a program that would offer basic army wages ($21 per month) to young men and women who went to work on farms in New Hampshire and Vermont for the summer. LIFE profiled the 600 “pioneering youngsters” at the close of that summer, noting that the program benefited participants as much as it did the farmers. “Under their sun-bleached mops of hair the youngsters carry a new understanding of rural America,” the magazine declared.
Many of the young workers were from the New York City area and had never seen a farm. They spent their summer days pitching hay, milking cows and husking corn, but beyond the daily rigors of farm life, LIFE weighed in, they had the opportunity to “learn firsthand what American really is.”
Thompson told the Spectator that she was pleased with the response from the privileged youths: “They have been quite easily persuaded that they might as well pitch in with a pitchfork as with a golf stick. The work on the end of the fork, however, will be just a bit heavier. And there won’t be any caddies.”
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.