Sunday, September 30, 2012

Re-locating authenticity at Hancock Shaker Village

My hopes for an extended summer road trip taking in many of the farm history sites I've been keeping an eye on didn't quite come to fruition, but I did manage to get to Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, a place that seems to be especially venturesome in playing with the line between past and present.  My colleague and friend Patricia West and I spent a day looking around the village and came away very impressed with the way that HSV has made a case for its present-day farming and renewable-energy generation as entirely authentic to the Shaker history on display here.

HSV currently provides vegetables for about 60 CSA shareholders
A 3,000-acre farm and village of 300 people in the 1830s, the Hancock settlement shrank, like all Shaker communities, in the later 19th and early 20th centuries.  In 1960, the few remaining members sold the property to preservationists.  The village reopened as a museum in 1961, on the cusp of an expansive moment in living history that saw the creation of many such farms and villages around the U.S.[1]  The popularity of the Shaker aesthetic among collectors and decorators made this site, like nearby Historic Deerfield, upscale rather than rustic, and my sense is that the viewing and buying of Shaker-inspired crafts and furniture has always been a big part of its appeal for visitors.

The 90 kw solar array greets visitors at the main entrance
Recently, however, there have been some changes--or rather, some additions, as HSV certainly hasn't abandoned Shaker chic in its gift shop or its marketing.  Along with its traditional offerings, though, the site has added a 90-kw array of photovoltaic panels, installed in 2009, and launched a small CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) operation in 2011.  What's particularly interesting about these projects is the way that they're both implicitly and explicitly linked with contemporary concerns about energy use and sustainability, and how they're rhetorically linked with Shaker values and precedents in wayside plaques and other interpretive statements.  As it's phrased on HSV's website:
Hancock Shaker Village is a center for exploring what it means to live a principled life in the 21st century.  Part of that process is to understand the impact of energy consumption on our selves, our community, and our world.  We at Hancock Shaker Village look to the Shakers' use of water, wind and other renewable energy sources as an inspiration for how we run the Village today... [A]ll season long we incorporate this modern renewable energy and sustainable agriculture initiative into our daily and seasonal programming – helping to bridge the gap between past, present, and the potential for the future.
Farm and Facilities Manager Bill Mangiardi on the job
It's true that the innovative and iconoclastic Shakers provide particularly good raw material for this approach.  But it also requires present-day management that is not afraid of creating jarring juxtapositions within the kinds of of landscapes and practices we expect at historic sites. I've heard preservationists deplore the way that the location of the 450 PV panels--right at the main entrance to the complex--interrupts the historic landscape, but that's clearly the point:  not to hide a modern "intrusion," but to foreground it as a living example of how the historic site sees itself as following the Shaker ethos.  This year, some air conditioning was added to the Shakers' original root cellar in order to give the CSA more flexibility in how it harvests and packages food for shareholders to pick up.  Neither of these things is authentic to the literal landscape and technology of the 19th century, but they support what I see as a more sophisticated vision of authenticity that takes into serious consideration the meanings that the Shakers invested in this site as well as its buildings and their contents.

As I say, these additions don't represent a radical shift away from HSV's tried-and-true interpretation.  Its annual fall Country Fair and wildly popular Baby Animals event in the spring in no way challenge the conventional emphasis on the aesthetic qualities of this lovely New England place.  The fair is heavy on high-end handcrafts and the spring event reinforces the association of small-scale, "old-tyme" farming with the childlike, the nostalgic, the cute and fluffy, something I've tended to see as one of the more insidious strategies that historic farm sites adopt in order to attract an audience.

But the sheer numbers that HSV manages to pull in in this way--15,000 for the 2012 Baby Animals--make me less dismissive.  Out of that considerable crowd there are bound to be a substantial number of people who notice the PV panels and the working farm fields and who perhaps inquire about the CSA or leave with a sense that there's something unexpectedly vigorous and forward-looking happening at this beautiful historic site.  Over time, those oddly-juxtaposed elements--the cutesy and the experimental--may support a lasting shift into more consequential food and energy production, a circuitous route back (or forward) into a different and more interesting kind of authenticity.

[1] For more on the history of HSV, see its website.  On the fascinating subject Shaker tourism, see Gregory Clark, “Shaker Tourism and the Rhetorical Experience of the Aesthetic” in Rhetorical Landscapes in America: Variations on a Theme from Kenneth Burke (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2004, pp. 50-68), and recent work by emeritus Cornell historian R. Laurence Moore.  

Saturday, September 15, 2012

My inner Anglo-Saxon and the right tool for the job

I was pretty much a card-carrying white Anglo-Saxon Protestant to begin with, but I got a birthday present last month that made me feel even moreso.  My husband gave me a beautiful new scythe from Scythe Supply in Perry, Maine, and I've been learning to use it to mow the grasses and weeds in the clearing around our house.

Learning, in this case, has involved some trial and error, and also some diligent reading of David Tresemer's classic The Scythe Book, which came with the scythe.  Tresemer has a deep sense of the history and lineage of this particular hand-tool, and the book reminded me of how the pre-modern continues to lurk in many aspects of our supposedly postmodern world.  You can definitely hear it in the old English words that turn up in scything:  peen, tang, snath, windrow.  And Tresemer also notes that in the days before standardized measurements, there were many variations on how large an acre was, perhaps based on what could typically be mowed by a person in a day--a metric that was influenced by differences in local and regional methods, tools, and levels of skill.  Mowing a field with a scythe evokes some sense of connection to peasants haying in preindustrial Europe and yeoman farmers carving out farms in colonial New England.

The scythe's renewed popularity seems to be part of a recent trend toward "reskilling" and the somewhat longer-standing "appropriate technology" movement.  These and other related movements (for example, DIY and urban homesteading) emphasize hand tools, small-scale production, muscle-power, and low energy inputs, all of which also tend to support personal and local agency rather than top-down or large-scale control of resources and production of all kinds.  Among the hybrid farm/history sites that I've been keeping an eye on as I've been thinking about the intersection of historical knowledge about farming and contemporary farm economies, there are two that have clearly embraced this approach:
  • Tillers International, in Michigan, connects the dots among historical and small-scale modes of farming, energy conservation and efficiency, and rural self-determination.  Its classes and projects are a fascinating blend of the nostalgic and the forward-looking, and it treats the historic farm tools in its museum collection as "models of innovation" that can be used to inspire re-designed and re-invented technologies for contemporary farming.
  •  The Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in New York state has recently launched a "Slow Tools" project that aims to create efficient, ergonomic tools and machines suited to the small scale of most new young farmers' operations.  Beginning with a small electric tractor that can serve multiple purposes (above), the engineers and inventors working on the project plan to offer open-source designs for a variety of energy-efficient equipment.
 Scythe Supply's "Why Use a Scythe?" page includes a list of many different kinds of people and groups who find scythes preferable to petroleum-powered mowers, and the list reflects the heartening diversity of the hand-tool and back-to-the-land movements.  Farmers, gardeners, ranchers, and growers of various kinds are represented;  so are those who want to limit the environmental impact of their mowing by avoiding heavy equipment (an argument sometimes put forward for the use of draft horses in small-scale logging operations).  The page mentions "A pair of 81 year olds who remember mowing in their youth and have returned to scything for exercise" as well as "Living history centers needing period equipment"--all in all, an interesting blend of the nostalgic, the practical, and the representational.

A dissenting voice on this comes from a commenter on a post I wrote earlier this year extolling the virtues of small-scale farm equipment.  When the piece was re-posted recently on the National Young Farmers Coalition "Farm Hack" blog, a fifth-generation Wisconsin farmer took me to task for ignoring the many downsides of old equipment, including safety concerns and costs in time and effort.  It was a useful reminder that we always need to ask the question, "Why did we move away from doing this in the first place?", a historical approach that can be an important corrective to assuming that anything old or small-scale is inherently better.

"What's the best tool for this particular job?" is perhaps an even better question to ask, with an awareness that "better" might encompass everything from fuel costs and environmental impact to the aesthetic/physical/personal satisfactions of feeling a sharp blade slicing through damp grass in the early morning.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Re-county-izing? Thinking about the county agricultural fair

The Franklin County Fair took place in Greenfield this weekend, and that's got me thinking about the surprisingly dynamic history of county-scale life in Massachusetts, and what role the county might play as we try to adjust to smaller-scale food systems.

The Franklin County Fair has been held since 1848, making it one of the oldest continuously-operating agricultural fairs in the country. [1]  As James Gildea's insightful 2008 history of the event shows, the fair was founded at a time of political, social, and economic uncertainty and upheaval, with fierce debates over famine-driven immigrants, abolition and the future of escaped slaves in the north, and the perceived decline of agricultural productivity in an increasingly industrialized and urbanizing New England.  Although railroads were snaking across the region by that point, the realities of transportation and communications systems meant that most people's lives still took place on a more circumscribed level.  County fairs and county governments made sense because the county was roughly the scale on which most people lived. [2]

Over time, however, the expansiveness that fossil-fuel powered transport and instant long-distance communication made possible also prompted the dissolution of many forms of organization that once took place at the county level.  More than half of Massachusetts' original 14 counties were dissolved as governmental entities in the late 1990s, with their administrative functions absorbed into state agencies.  A handful--including Franklin County--opted for a looser "council of governments" model in which municipalities collaborate on some planning processes and provision of services but there is no longer any centralized county government. [3] For a good capsule history of these changes, see the League of Women Voters website.)

Counties--if not necessarily county government--may be beginning to make more sense again as we try to re-envision life on a more geographically-limited scale.  You can wrap your mind around a county.  It's usually not so vast that you couldn't cross it in a day, even using muscle-power.  But it's varied enough that it expands our horizons beyond the purely local and offers enough things to see, buy, and do that it can function as a kind of little world, if you approach it that way.

The fact that county agricultural fairs endure in many places in New England and elsewhere also makes sense to me.  Despite the industrialization and globalization of agriculture, people who farm still do so in ways that are inescapably located in specific places and in relationship with others in the networks of production and cultivation that exist in those places.  The continued existence of 4H Club exhibits, pie and pickle contests, and horse and tractor pulls speaks to the realness of the farm economy in this part of the world, despite long-standing rumors of its demise.

And fairs are lively places that often combine old and new in highly compatible ways.  You can see that in the program for this year's Windsor County Agricultural Fair in central Vermont, the theme of which was "New Agriculture" (something that, as its website notes, "of course is really just returning to the 'old' ways of local food and small family farms") and which included the usual mix of midway entertainment, music, and racing, along with solar energy demonstrations and a farmers market.  For its first eight decades (1850s to 1930s), this fair was held at the Billings Farm in Woodstock, giving it an interesting historical connection with a site that now exists somewhere between the museum world and the working farm economy.

The Columbia County Fair, founded, like Greenfield's fair, in the tumultuous 1840s, is another fair that I know a bit about through my research on Martin Van Buren's farm in Kinderhook, New York.  Are there others out there that seem to reflect the scale and potential dynamism of county-level living? I'd be interested to hear!

[1]  Agricultural fairs had come into popularity earlier in the century, with the 1811 Berkshire Agricultural Society fair, not far west of Greenfield, among the earliest documented (Douglas Hurt, American Agriculture: A Brief History. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1994, p. 104).  Franklin County is actually represented at two fairs, the second being the Three County Fair in Northampton, founded in 1818.
[2] The scope of the county is implied in the origins of the word:  it refers to the holdings of a count or viscount--that is, a large landed feudal estate.
[3] For a good capsule history of these changes, see the League of Women Voters website.