Today’s post was written by Joseph Gillette, Archivist at the National Archives at College Park.
With an eye toward the post-war needs of farmers, the Department of Agriculture conducted a series of tests from 1942 to 1943 to see if military jeeps could be repurposed for farm use after World War II. While admitting further testing was necessary, an initial report suggested the jeep might be of good use on a farm “for light hauling and for light field work such as harrowing, planting, [and] mowing hay”. A press release from May 27, 1942 announced the jeep generally tested favorably as a “farm power unit”, while being somewhat underpowered and undersized for typical plow work.
For its part, the army looked favorably on the experiments, agreeing not only to supply the jeeps needed for further testing, but also asking to be kept apprised of the progress of Agriculture’s work. Likewise, the State Department expressed an interest in the tests, feeling the use of jeeps in farm work might help in improving the agricultural productivity of liberated countries until such time as tractor production could fill agricultural needs. A Supplemental Estimate of Appropriation submitted by Agriculture to the House of Representatives requested funds to further investigate the adaptation of the jeep to domestic and overseas farm use.
Despite an earnest defense before the House Committee on Appropriations, funds for additional testing were not approved.
In May 1944, the State College of Washington Agricultural Experiment Station in Pullman, WA produced a bulletin detailing their tests in assessing the jeep’s usefulness for agricultural work. The bulletin included several photographs:
The bulletin confirmed Agriculture’s earlier assessment of the jeep as a useful piece of farm equipment for most kinds of non-plow work.
A few months later, Secretary of Agriculture Claude Wickard informed Secretary of War Henry Stimson that Willys-Overland, the company that produced the jeep, offered Agriculture the use of eight jeeps for further testing. The jeeps would be bought back by Willys from the Cleveland Ordnance Procurement District Office and shipped to several agricultural experiment stations for testing. No federal funds would be expended as “the states to which the vehicles will be assigned are prepared to undertake the work”. Test results would be made public.
The War Department, not wishing to establish a precedent for the “diversion of productive capacity…when our troops are not receiving needed equipment which has to come from the same basic facilities”, once again refused. However, they made a counter-offer to provide “eight second-hand jeeps in operative condition”. Unfortunately, the records don’t include a resolution to the issue. Willys-Overland, the Jeep’s producer, did ultimately engineer, build, and sell jeep variants specifically for farm work. Ultimately, these underperformed in the marketplace, being too expensive, too light, their undercarriage’s too low to the ground, and their drivetrains not rugged enough.
To this day, the jeep sells well as a family vehicle and a means of off-road adventure.
Just don’t ask it to plow a field.
 At one point during hearings of the Deficiency Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, when an Agriculture official was asked by a skeptical Congressman if he, in fact, knew “anything at all about a jeep”, Congressman Louis Ludlow of Indiana interjected, “It will do everything except climb a tree, I think”.