Sunday, December 2, 2012

Beyond baby animals: Farm/history synergies and the insidiousness of pastness

Admit it.  When you look at this image, you think "yesteryear" or something close to it.  The photo isn't, however, of a living history village or reenactment of olde tyme farming.  It's from the Tillers International website, and shows a pair of the oxen that Tillers uses in teaching and developing small-scale, non-energy-intensive farm techniques--mostly intended for use in international rural development projects--based on the tools, methods, and lessons of American agricultural history.  In other words, it's very contemporary, even cutting-edge, as are the many small farms that use draft animals rather than (or along with) petroleum-powered machines. 

But that "yesteryear" impulse is a tough one to get rid of, and my own dissatisfaction with it--and  the way it permeates virtually all historic sites and projects relating to agriculture--is one of the main reasons I was eager to take on the Ethnographic Landscape Study project for Martin Van Buren National Historic Site.

In the first chapter of the study, I set out some of the reasons why historic sites might want to build stronger partnerships with contemporary food activism, education, and markets, especially at the "sustainable" end of the food and farming spectrum.  I also tried to spell out some of the things that stand in the way, including the fact that most farms have to be very attentive to profitability in ways that differ from non-profits'  approach to finances.  That need to stay profitable also means that farmers have to adapt, sometimes very quickly, to changing weather, markets, and other conditions, which puts them somewhat at odds with historic sites' tendency to focus on a single period or span of time.

I've touched on all of that already in other posts, so in this one I thought I'd just mention one additional idea that I put forward in Chapter One:  that it can help to parse out the various layers of synergy between historic sites and working farms.  To my eye, there seem to be three:

  1. Direct synergy.  This happens when a historic site's agricultural or agrarian history is part and parcel of the reason why it was preserved, as at Shaker settlements or farmers' museums like the one at Cooperstown.  As with everything else about farming, though, even this "direct" connection is often fuzzier than it seems at first.  The most holistic, "authentic" agricultural landscapes (for example, living history villages) are often re-creations, villages, while the most direct, contemporary cultivation of historic farms may prove difficult to integrate into historic landscapes, as has been the case at Martin Van Buren NHS.

  2. Indirect synergy.  This comes in various forms.  
    • Because farming was such a widespread way of life in America until well into the 20th century, many--perhaps most--historic sites have an indirect synergy with farming, even it it's not part of their original mission.  Civil War battles fought in farmers' fields have resulted in preserved battlefields that need to be kept cultivated in order to convey a sense of the historic landscape.  
    • A second kind of indirect synergy emerges from shared concerns with education about past and present farming practices.  For many farmers, especially in the local food and sustainability movements, public access to farms and education about farming practices are essential to building an informed clientele that will enable small-scale and artisanal farms to survive and thrive.  For historic sites, of course, education about the past is seen as inherently valuable;  teaching people about present farming practices falls into a somewhat grayer area.
    • Finally, the values of the kinds of people who tend to work in historic preservation, public history, and cultural resource management tend to involve them in "localism," land stewardship projects, and environmentalism, making them personally and professionally sympathetic to things like small-scale farming, the sustainable food movement, and efforts to protect open space and working farmland.

  3. Implied synergy.  This is the insidious one.   For many contemporary visitors to historic sites, farming itself is inherently historic, old, and unfamiliar, creating expectations and perceptions that may turn out to be at odds with present-day farming practices and landscapes.  Especially in the all-encompassing environment of older-style living history farms, visitor nostalgia, escapism, and purely aesthetic pleasure (just look at those pretty purple flowers in the photo above!) can quickly override interest in more present-oriented farming issues and methods.
Hancock Shaker Village combines baby-animal cuteness with working agriculture.
It's my hope that the continuing expansion of the local-food movement signals new potential for overcoming what I think of as the baby-lamb (or sometimes piglet) effect.  That doesn't mean we shouldn't enjoy the flowers and the fuzzy baby animals--just that it would be great if we could learn to see them as part of agricultural landscapes that are both "historic" and "working." 

Next post:  Trying to see farming (and culture) outside of Western categories.

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