A Raw Deal (Part 3) – Agricultural Operations at Japanese Internment Camps (6/3/2022)

Several factors were considered in determining where to locate the Japanese American internment camps of World War II. In addition to being inland and not near possible sabotage targets a major consideration was the farming “potential” of the site. The idea was to make the internment camps self-sustaining, as much as possible, from a food production standpoint.

Figure 1. Farming operations at the Manzanar Internment Center in California.
Photo taken by Ansel Adams from the Library of Congress

In this Footnote, the third in the series, we examine the agricultural operations at the internment centers. In Part 1 we examined why Japanese American internment centers were created, and in Part 2 we looked at the vocational agriculture and FFA programs in the camps.

The reason “potential” in the first paragraph is in quotes is because much of the land had not been farmed before, but the idea was to improve the land so it could be put into agricultural production. In some locations this meant irrigation and in other locations — draining the swamp. After all, there was an abundant supply of labor in the internment camps to transform the land. The government’s intention was to improve the land for after the war.

In Personal Justice Denied, the 1982 report of the Commission on Wartime Relocations and Internment of Civilians, the land is described (1982, p. 156-157):

The sites were indeed unattractive. Manzanar (CA) and Poston (AZ), selected by the Army, were in the desert. Although both could eventually produce crops, extensive irrigation would be needed and Poston’s climate was particularly harsh. Six other sites were also arid desert, Gila River, near Phoenix, suffered almost as severely from the heat as Minidoka (ID) and Heart Mountain (WY), the two northernmost centers, were known for hard winters and severe dust storms. Tule Lake (CA) was the most developed site; located in a dry lake bed, much of it was ready for planting. Topaz (UT) was covered in greasewood brush. Granada (CO) was little better, although there was some provision for irrigation. The last two centers — Rohwer and Jerome — in Arkansas-were entirely different. Located in swampland, the sites were heavily wooded, with severe drainage problems.

Let the Farming Begin

According to Lillquist (2010, p. 79):

The primary goal of the WRA [War Relocation Authority] agricultural program was to grow food for direct consumption by the evacuee residents of each center. Next, in declining importance, was raising livestock feed crops, seed crops, and “war crops” (crops to help the war effort). Within these guidelines, each center’s goals varied slightly. Most desired to transfer crop excesses to other centers and to provide meaningful employment opportunities for evacuees. Other objectives included selling surplus produce on the open market, preparing evacuees for life after the centers, and developing lands for the post-war years.

At each internment center there was a Caucasian Chief of Agriculture. Under him were Caucasian or evacuee superintendents of the various operating divisions or units (such as field crops, livestock, vegetable production). Within each operating unit there was an evacuee foreman. Caucasian administrators developed the center agriculture programs, often with the assistance of the evacuees. At Heart Mountain in Wyoming an advisory committee of evacuees from each residential block helped plan the agricultural programs. It should be remembered that many of the evacuees had extensive agricultural backgrounds and experience. It would have been stupid to not utilize this expertise.

Figure 2. Henry Inouye, an evacuee supervisor of farming operations in the Granada, Colorado (Ameche) Internment Center standing in an onion field. Photo from the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

Since many of the Japanese had been involved in truck farming before their internment, it should not be a surprise to learn much of the farming involved truck crops. By the end of 1943 the camps collectively produced 85% of their vegetables consumed in the camps. The Tule Lake Camp located near Newell, California produced enough produce for its own mess halls and the surplus was sent to other camps.

Figure 3. Tule Lake surplus vegetables were sent to Manzanar.
From the Daily Tulean Dispatch, October 6, 1942

Sixty-two varieties of produce were raised for human consumption in the internment camps with each camp growing at least twenty different vegetable crops (Lillquist, 2010). Green beans, cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, daikon, lettuce, Napa cabbage, onions, peas, potatoes, squash, tomatoes, and turnips were grown in all the centers. The list of vegetables grown are shown in Table 1. Are there any you don’t recognize?

Table 1. Produce Grown in Internment Centers

Ao uri Cantaloupe Eggplant Melons (Persian) Peas Spinach
Asparagus Carrots Endive Melons (water) Peppers (chili) Squash
Beans (azuki) Casaba Garlic Mustard greens Peppers (green) Strawberries
Beans (dry) Cauliflower Ginger Mizuna Popcorn Sunflower
Beans (green) Celery Gobo Napa cabbage Potatoes (Irish) Togan
Beans (lima) Chard Goma (sesame) Okra Potatoes (sweet) Tomatoes
Beans (mung) Chongi Habucha Onions (field) Pumpkins Turnips
Beans (soy) Corn (sweet) Horseradish Onions (green) Radishes  
Beets (table) Cucumbers Kohlrabi Parsley Rutabagas  
Broccoli Daikon Lettuce Parsnips Sage  
Cabbage Dill Melons (honeydew) Peanuts Shingiku  

Source: Lillquist, 2010.

Since some of the crops, such as azuki, daikon, goma, Napa cabbage, and shingike were staples in the Japanese diet and finding seeds to grow these crops was next to impossible, some of the internment centers specialized in growing these crops for seed purposes. Gila River (AZ) grew over 30 seed varieties on eighty acres and supplied seed to the other centers.

Some of the camps had canning or food processing centers. Five camps had pickling operations and two had dehydration facilities. The crops not consumed at the camp were processed and shipped to other internment camps. The Minidoka (ID) pickling center was temporarily shut down at one time when it was discovered the workers were using the facilities to make sake.

Figure 4. Article about the pickling plant at Tule Lake. January 9, 1943.

In addition to produce, field crops were grown, and livestock was raised at the various centers. The field crops included alfalfa, barley, sugar beets, clover, corn, oats, rye, sesbania, sorghum, Sudan grass, sunflowers, wheat, castor beans, cotton, and flax. The last three crops listed were for war purposes.

Beef cattle were raised at four centers – Granada (CO), Gila River (AZ), Manzanar (CA) and Topaz (UT). Gila River (150 cows) and Granada (31 cows) also had dairy operations. All internment centers raised hogs that were fed center garbage plus grains grown on the farms. Meat and eggs came from chickens raised at all the internment centers. Turkeys were also raised at Topaz and Tule Lake.

Figure 5.  Feeding hogs at Tule Lake. Photo from Lillquist, 2007.

There were slaughtering facilities for poultry at all centers. Amache, Poston, and Tule Lake had facilities to slaughter large animals. Centers without large animal slaughtering facilities hauled livestock to private slaughtering plants in nearby towns.

Figure 6 . The butchering facility at Manzanar. Finding workers for the slaughter house was hard because butchers were held in low standing by Japanese society. Photo by Ansel Adams from the Library of Congress.

The Agricultural Leave Program

There was an acute labor shortage in agriculture during World War II. During the summer of 1942 agricultural producers were concerned that there would not be enough workers to harvest the crops, especially sugar beets. The producers petitioned the White House for help. This led to the development of a seasonal leave program for internees willing to work in agriculture.

Internees who were judged to be loyal to the United States were allowed to leave the camp. State and local officials were required to pledge in writing that labor was needed, and that workers’ safety would be guaranteed; employers were required to furnish transportation plus housing and had to pay prevailing wages; evacuees could not be hired in place of available local labor. By the end of June 1942, 1,500 workers had been recruited under the program.

The program was so successful and the demand for workers was so great, 10,000 evacuees were on seasonal leave from the internment camps during the fall of 1942. The need for the agricultural workers exceeded the supply, both inside and outside of the internment camps. So who comes to the rescue? Lillquist (2007, p. 52) writing about the Granada (CO) interment center writes:

Labor was often in short supply as evacuees could make more money outside the center than on the inside.  Amache High School vocational agriculture students helped fill the void by raising alfalfa, feed corn, corn, potatoes, dried beans, and tomatoes on 500 acres of previously uncleared land

The Japanese internee seasonal workers were sent all over the United States to help farmers during WWII. The demand for workers was so high various companies resorted to placing advertisements in the internment camp newspapers. See Figure 7.

Figure 7. An advertisement for sugar beet workers that was placed in internment camp newspapers. Ctrl+ to enlarge.

Some of the workers experienced hostility and were harassed by locals (Personal Justice Denied, 1996, p. 182) but, “Still, overall, the program was judged a success, For the farmers, crops were saved. For the evacuees, it was a chance to get out of the camp and to make more than camp wages, which was particularly important for the many evacuees in increasing financial distress.”

Agricultural Research

There is an adage that when life hands you a lemon, make lemonade. That is exactly what some of the internees at the Manzanar internment center in California did. Rubber was in short supply during the war years. Scientists across America were trying to find a replacement for rubber. Guayule, a shrub plant used to produce latex was experimentally grown at Manzanar.

Japanese American scientists and experienced plant nurserymen who were internees at Manzanar, in collaboration with a professor from CalTech, developed new processes for propagating, hybridizing, and processing the guayule plants. The research team succeeded in propagating guayule from cuttings and were able to hybridize the plant which resulted in higher yields of rubber. They also perfected a new and rapid method of processing the guayule (Unrau, 1996).

Scientists in increasing numbers from UCLA, Stanford, and UC-Berkley came to Manzanar to learn more about the research. Two scientific journal articles, one in the Journal of Botany and one in the Journal of Heredity were published by the interned scientists in 1944. A third article, based on the research, appeared in 1947 in the journal Industrial Engineering and Chemistry.

So what happened to the guayule plant research? When the internment camps were closed at the end of World War II the guayule research lab was shut down. Pressure from rubber exporters and later oil companies influenced the government to shut the research down.

Concluding Remarks

Karl Lillquist, in his article “Farming in the Desert: Agriculture in the World War II-Era Japanese-American Relocation Centers” sums up the agricultural operations at the internment camps best (2010, p. 86):

Despite all these challenges, many of the agricultural programs were successful. Evacuee knowledge and interest in agriculture proved a key factor. Gila River benefitted from having evacuees who had years of vegetable-growing experience in rural settings. Heart Mountain’s evacuee assistant farm superintendent stated “I had the privilege of raising crops with about 500 of the finest farmers in America, including experts in soil analysis and seed growing.” …Organizations such as 4-H and Future Farmers of America, and adult education courses helped interest and prepare evacuees for center agriculture employment following relocation. Center newspapers promoted agriculture by regularly carrying articles on the various programs as did agricultural fairs that were held within the centers. Operations also benefited from interactions with local farmers. In turn, evacuee farmers assisted local operators…The combination of existing knowledge and education allowed the evacuees to generate a considerable quantity of produce, feed crops and livestock.

One lesson we can learn from looking at the agricultural operations at internment camps is that it never hurts to utilize the knowledge and expertise of others. The Japanese internees had a voice in what was grown in the camps. At the Rowher internment camp in Arkansas the internees introduced  irrigation and eggplant to the local farmers (Cain, 2004). It might be interesting to look at the list of vegetables in this Footnote and try to grow some of the unusual ones in our greenhouses. If we open our minds to new ideas and knowledge, no telling what we can learn and accomplish.


Cain, Erin (October 15, 2004). Rowher. Arkansas Research and Economic Development.

Lillquist, Karl (2007). Imprisoned in the Desert: The Geography of World War II-Era Japanese American Relocation Centers in the Western United States. Central Washington University, Geography and Land Studies Department.

Lillquist, Karl (Winter, 2010). Farming the Desert: Agriculture in the World War II-Era Japanese-American Relocation Centers. Agricultural History, Vol. 84, No. 1.

Personal Justice Denied. (1982). National Archives. https://www.archives.gov/research/japanese-americans/justice-denied

Unrau, Harlan (1996), The Evacuation and Relocation of Japanese Ancestry During World War II: A Historical study of the Manzanar War Relocation Center, Volume II. National Park Service.