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.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Tyler French: Attending to other tables as well as our own


I have just finished writing the copy for Nourish SC, a traveling exhibit of eight panels addressing community food security in my home state of South Carolina. I hope for the exhibit to become a rallying call for members of the local food movement to expand their efforts on the social equity front, which has been ignored in favor of the environmental and economic fronts of the movement. In creating the content for the exhibit, I interviewed 13 individuals involved in either the local food movement or increasing food security, including a local farmer, a USDA official, a food bank COO, social work and public health professors, and a board member of United Way of the Midlands.

I immediately encountered tension between the spoken and the actualized goals of the local food movement.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Plowing Boston Common

"Victory Garden Program. Secretary Plowing Boston Common, 04/11/1944" 
Maybe some of you have seen this image before, but it was new to me - I stumbled on it while looking for something else in the Flickr Commons.  The source captions it as above, and I'm assuming that the "secretary" is the state or federal Secretary of Agriculture, but that's not specified in the archival description.  (It looks like it could be Claude Wickard, FDR's Agriculture Secretary in 1944).

I love lots of things about the photo, but particularly the fact that they're using draft horses, which seems to suggest either that they were going for an "olde tyme" kind of association or trying to make a point about conserving fuel during the war (or maybe both).  And it raises so many questions for me, including where these guys in suits learned to plow with draft animals!

~ Cathy



Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Rebecca Bush: Farm families beyond “Farmer Bob”

Picture an American farmer.  Strong, independent, face well-worn with creases caused by worries about weather and money and the future - the image isn't too hard to conjure.  Dodge used this familiarity to great effect with its 2013 Super Bowl commercial, one of the most talked-about ads of the game:



So based on the majority of that lengthy ode to farmers of America, what demographic boxes can we check off?  Almost always, our imaginary farmer is a native-born white man over the age of 40, probably living in the Midwest, Great Plains, or certain areas of the South.  This may be an easy and effective advertising trope, but it doesn't begin to capture the complete story of agriculture and food production in the United States, either historically or today.

In the American South in particular, agriculture and food is wrapped up in a messy racial relations stew, one that touches on the history of 300 years of unequal labor and land ownership determined by skin color.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Diana Lempel: With taste, smell, and imagination


I’m standing in the basement of Bondir, the intimate, award-winning Cambridge restaurant, watching Chef Jason Bond dismantle a hindquarter of beef, removing fat from muscle and muscle from bone. As he drops each chunk into its designated plastic tub, he explains to me what it will be used for. Every bit of this 200 pounds of meat will be consumed. The steaks will dry-age for some months; the fat, brightly yellow because the cow was grazing on bright green grass, will be rendered and used for daily cooking; the tough muscles will be stews, cooked with the stock made from the bones. This one animal will feed hundreds of diners; it’s the only way for high-quality meat like this, Chef tells me, to be economic.

But I don’t think it’s just economy that drives Bond’s pursuit of a "snout-to-tail" approach to beef, or his painstaking efforts to remove different kinds of pollen from every dried blossom of a fennel bush, or his abiding affection for his long-lived sourdough starter.To show what I mean, here’s a reflection offered by Sous Chef Rachel Miller, as she prepped spiced kuri squash. "I like to read a lot of old cookbooks because they’re more resourceful... it’s more about ingredients and a process... different ways to utilize what grows here, because that’s what we’re going to have a lot of."