Sunday, December 4, 2011

Getting history to the table

When I finished my dissertation in 2003 and was casting around for a new research project, I thought I would study the ways that dairy farming has been used to create an image for Vermont as a tourist destination. Although I hadn’t articulated it clearly for myself at that point, I think I was looking for some way to investigate places where the “real” business of agriculture overlapped with the expanding realm of agritourism, all out of some vague sense that this was something that increasingly mattered as the consequences of our mobile, industrialized, petroleum-based food industry (and society) became clearer and more distressing to contemplate. I did some preliminary exploration, read enough about American agricultural history to recognize that it was far more complicated than I’d ever imagined, and then got too busy with other things to pursue the full-scale ethnographic project I’d had in mind.

Six years later, I was handed a wonderful chance to return to a subject that had only gotten more interesting and urgent in the meantime. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been completing an Ethnographic Landscape Study for Martin Van Buren National Historic Site in Kinderhook, NY, a national park that preserves the rural estate of America’s eighth President. The park has recently expanded its boundaries to take in more than 200 acres of farmland that Van Buren cultivated in his post-Presidential years. The fields are now being worked by a large CSA farm, and so the park, which is used to thinking of itself as a purely historical site, is having to reenvision itself as to some extent an active participant in the working agricultural landscape of the area. The representational is beginning to overlap with the real at this site, a merger that my study was intended to clarify and support.

What’s really been interesting to me is the way that this historic site and many others seem to be trembling on the verge--or are maybe just beyond it, in a few cases--of reintegrating historic and supposedly obsolete farms and farming methods into vital present-day efforts to rethink and remake our contemporary world. The past few years have seen an enormous broadening of public awareness and concern about climate change, peak oil, global capitalism, and all that connects to them (which is just about everything). And food and farming seem to be the entry-points through which people can most readily address this daunting and often depressing set of issues. Even in the few years between my initial forays into the local-food scene and today, there’s been an exponential increase in farmers markets, CSA farms, local and regional “food hubs,” and other projects that to varying degrees work to rebuild the kinds of food production and consumption that existed in most places until the mid-20th century.

There’s a potentially exciting role for historic sites and organizations to play in all of this as sites of research, cultivation, and exchange. As I’ve been talking with people in the public history and museum fields about these ideas over the past couple of years, I’ve had a sense of a groundswell of interest and activism that is just beginning to build and that's casting around for ways to root itself in practice and networks of association. This blog is intended to be a node in that emerging conversation, one that I hope will help to coalesce some of the bits and pieces swirling around out there at the moment.

At the same time, I hope the blog can help to explore and counter the insidious association of small-scale farming with “pastness.” The best historical inquiry helps us build knowledge about the past that isn’t colored by nostalgia, wishful thinking, or romanticism. But historic farm sites tend to be imbued with all that stuff--what I think of as the “baby lamb effect” that shapes visitors' experiences of farms that are outside the present-day agricultural economy. The rosy glow that surrounds “old tyme” farmscapes makes it harder to see the harder-edged histories of how and why we ended up with the food system we now have, and what it would take to invent (or reinvent) and sustain something different.

So the big question that this blog poses is: How can historic sites help with the hard task of creating broad, historically-informed civic and policy discussions about food, farming, and all the complex issues connected to them? In other words, how can we make sure that history is at the table as we’re figuring these things out?

That’s a big question, and I’m hoping some answers may emerge in the field over the next handful of years. In a more concrete sense, I’d like to ask you where you see examples of this already starting to happen. Where is history already at the table, and what good things (in addition to the list that’s started here) are underway at the intersection of historic preservation and working agriculture?


  1. Interesting premise. I look forward to how you will investigate. Some antique techniques are being revisited as alternatives to industrial farm techniques.

    I just found out that geese were once used as "weeders" and would selectively eat bugs and weeds and leave the crops and fertilize as they went... seems like a much healthier alternative to chemicals!

    good luck with your blog!

  2. Thanks for this! There are various examples I've heard of where animals are being used like this - there are ranchers in the American West who are training their cattle to eat certain weeds, which feeds the cows and keeps the weeds under control at the same time (while, as you point out, turning the weeds fairly directly into fertilizer). So much of this stuff isn't rocket science. ;-)

  3. I am trying to figure out how to post.

  4. OK, I obtained a Google account , and now I can post. Victory over technology; well, I think I lost and technology won. Anyway, I like this blog and look forward to more.

  5. Thanks for persevering, Allen! I don't like the feeling of being herded inexorably toward Google either (although I do like Blogger as a platform). Will look forward to hearing your thoughts.