Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Growing a historic site: The Oliver H. Kelley Farm

Farm fields at the Oliver H. Kelley Farm in Elk River, Minnesota
Jill Lepore has spoken about what she terms "cuspiness"--the feeling of being on the edge of big changes.  I often have that sense when I look at what's happening in the realm of food and farming interpretation in the museum and public history realm, and it's been confirmed by encounter with many people in those fields who are reaching toward a much more consequential and socially-engaged way of connecting audiences with big questions relating to food. 

Michelle Moon and I were once again struck by this at a workshop we led at the American Association for State and Local History conference in Minnesota last week, and it struck me even more on a tour I took as part of the conference, to the Oliver H. Kelley Farm in Elk River, Minnesota.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

History at the edges of the conversation

A couple of high-profile entries in the civic conversation about the politics of small-scale farming--one in the New York Times and a response on Huff Post's Green blog--show some heartening, if also still small-scale, historical perspectives on the odds of making it as a farmer in the U.S.

Bren Smith's much-discussed piece in the Times, "Don't let your children grow up to be farmers" (August 9, 2014), noted how farmers' long-standing problems of debt, access to land, and competition are playing out within today's food movement.  He points to the proliferation of CSAs, hobby farms, and non-profit farm projects as a new pressure within the marketplace, and notes that like most farmers, he's had to supplement his income with other kinds of work in order to keep his farm going.

Interestingly, he also looks to earlier "food movements" of the late nineteenth century, the Depression era, and the 1970s as models for the kind of direct political action and advocacy that he thinks today's small-scale farmers need to embrace more seriously.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Looking under the lawn

The Tufts campus is at its loveliest at Commencement time.
This past weekend was Commencement at Tufts University, always an inspiring rite of passage and a chance to reflect a bit after the intensity of the academic year.  It's particularly reflective for me this year, after a spring spent gathering information and ideas about the campus as a former, current, and perhaps future site of food production.  My "New Food Activism: Roots and Visions" class was devoted, in part, to reenvisioning the landscape around Tufts' Medford campus through the lens of its agricultural history, and my sense of the place has been shifting as a result.  In particular, I've been rethinking the lawns.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Here's to the sprouting season

Source:  Tufts Digital Collections and Archives.
I've been grubbing away quite diligently on my food/farm/history project since my last post, but the Spring 2014 teaching semester and conference schedule steamrolled over my good intentions to keep posting here occasionally.  Now that all of that is more or less over, I'm planning to get back into some regular blogging again.

That's not me grubbing in the dirt at the left, BTW.  It's a Tufts College (well, technically Jackson College, Tufts' then-new college for women) undergraduate helping to prepare the ground for the school's World War I garden in April of 1918, on the site of what's now the arts complex. Opening some new research into the history of food production on the Tufts campus is one part of what I've been doing this spring, in collaboration with a terrific group of students in this year's "New Food Activism: Roots and Visions" course.  I've just finished grading the final papers from that class, and they've opened up some exciting directions that I'll be pondering more deeply, including in blog posts here and some advance planning for next year's class and possible future projects at Tufts. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Dairy dilemmas: Milk and cheese as "wicked problems"

Dairy cows at Appleton Farms in eastern Massachusetts
Sandra Batie, an agricultural and resource economist at Michigan State University, uses the term "wicked problem" to describe issues so fraught with internal paradoxes and inconsistencies and so overlaid with competing and often contradictory ideologies and assumptions that it is difficult or impossible even to have a collective conversation about them, let alone figure out how to fix them.[1]  Batie sees agriculture as a particularly "wicked problem," and much of my recent focus on food and farm history arises from this same idea.  Because we have so little shared sense of how we got to the food system we have now, many of the attempted fixes and alternatives often feel fragile and ungrounded.

Take dairy.  It's one of the agricultural sectors most overlaid with both nostalgia (think milkmaids, butter churns, black and white Holsteins on a Vermont hillside) and ideology (think childhood nutrition, school lunch subsidy, and the raw vs. pasteurized debate).  It's also one of the liveliest frontiers of local-food revitalization (think urban professionals turned artisanal cheesemakers).  


Yet it's a component of the food system whose history is particularly murky and ill-understood.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Around the table in Ottawa: A report from the Working Group on Public History and the Local Food Movement

The Working Group at Ottawa's Experimental Farm, April 18, 2013
The series of posts that appeared here in the first few months of the year were written by members of the "Public Historians and the Local Food Movement" Working Group that was convened for the 2013 National Council on Public History conference, held last month in Ottawa.  The group held its face-to-face meeting at Ottawa's Central Experimental Farm, a visit that enriched our thinking about some of the ways that public historians do and might intersect with both agricultural practices and public interest in food and farming.

Participants came to the table with a very wide range of backgrounds in interpretation, training, research, advocacy, and community organizing. Some key ideas that emerged from our discussions included:
  • the importance of challenging the class distinction between manual and intellectual labor
  • how to use tangible/physical experiences of growing and cooking food as a way to develop stronger questions that can inform our work as historians
  • the need for long-term commitment to food- and farm-related projects
  • how to educate ourselves and others about the complex realities of farming, agricultural policy, and marketing food
  • ways to use public historical spaces and legitimacy to create new forums where people can connect across various class, political, and occupational boundaries.
The Working Group has a working lunch
One of the most stimulating parts of the meeting for me was the discussion of how our work as public historians can best relate to advocacy and activism.  Most of the people around the table were involved in some kind of food and farm education and interpretation, usually in ways that intersected with "the food movement" (broadly defined).  We recognized that our own values, tastes, and politics underpinned our interest in pursuing food-related projects, so we certainly weren't arguing that public historians should seek some kind of purely neutral or disinterested stance.

But at the same time, we found ourselves agreeing that historians’ essential neutrality (that is, our core commitment to critical, contextualized inquiry) is a gift that can help us to raise more nuanced questions and create useable spaces for discussion within a politicized and complex field. So while we generally saw ourselves as advocates and allies for those working to relocalize food systems and challenge the dominance of big, industrialized agriculture, part of what we wanted to advocate for is a balanced conversation that doesn't demonize "big ag" or romanticize "the local."

Another working group: the Experimental Farm's dairy herd
That's a stance that many museums and public history sites have adopted in an era of "civic engagement, so it's not as though we came up with anything entirely new here!  What is new about linking this approach to food and farming related issues, I think, is the way our own actions and identities become immediately much more salient than is usually the case.  We talked about the importance of being willing to get our hands dirty--in the field and in the kitchen--as a way to build credibility and accountability with partners.  We touched on the potentially uncomfortable ways that our own class positions come into play in relation to food and farming (for example, in the way that the mostly-white, mostly-middle-class demography of public history replicates that of the food movement in general, something I wrote about in a blog post last year).  Because food is such an intimate and everyday thing, as well as creating such a powerful cultural and political field, that balancing act between advocacy and neutrality becomes both trickier and more essential. 

For my co-facilitator Michelle Moon and I, the next steps after the meeting in Ottawa involve the book project that we've been developing around these questions.  I'm hoping others in our Working Group will share a few thoughts here about where they see their food-and-farm-related work headed now.  What next after Ottawa?

~ Cathy Stanton 


Monday, April 15, 2013

Kate Christen: Kinetic history at play (and at work, of course…) in the fields of local food movements

Slavic Village Learning Farm, one of Cleveland Botanical Garden's Green Corps sites
The local food movement topic--all the topics our prior posts have highlighted (history, policy, community ramifications, etc.)--constitute a strong personal research interest of mine, and even more (especially since my research time is strictly limited!) a strong personal interest, full stop. Personal engagement plus research/professional interest clearly both factor for all of us in this workshop.

Doubtless also common amongst us is the draw of the topic's close framing in action-potential--its focus on historians as kinetic actors. From the initial description: "This Working Group is based on the premise that the methods and critical insights of public historians are crucial in uncovering and communicating those more nuanced histories, and that doing so is an outstanding way to link our own methods and values with vital public dialogue about a wide range of environmental and economic issues." Also in the original description (I think that's where): "developing or amplifying a historical and theoretical framework for thinking about the public history/food movement nexus and the opportunities for partnerships to extend civic dialogue and action in these realms." And as Cathy wrote this weekend, our posts show "that we're all groping toward defining a specific role for ourselves and our skills as public historians who want to strengthen efforts and discourses around local food while asserting the value of the kind of careful, contextualized knowledge that historians can help to build."

For our in-person time, I’m interested in exploring ways we may want to move on helping define and implement specific roles for public historians within these food-related settings, how we might pull these into action, including perhaps through some form of practice-oriented trainings.