Saturday, December 29, 2012

From "so what?" to "how?" Merging farm histories with farm and public history practice

In recent posts, I've been teasing out some of the useful aspects of the kind of detailed ethnohistorical knowledge about past and present farming practices that went into my Ethnographic Landscape Study of farmers and farming in Columbia County, New York, in an attempt to address the fundamental "So what?" question that lurks behind any historical inquiry.  However, "So what?" only gets us part of the way toward a more vital, shared historical consciousness about the agricultural past.  Equally important is how to put this kind of knowledge into active practice so that it can inform contemporary debates and choices relating to food and farming.

Wayside plaque at Martin Van Buren NHS
The final chapter of my report to Martin Van Buren National Historic Site proposed two guiding principles that the park might use in its management and interpretation of the agricultural land within its boundaries.  The first principle was that there's an ever-present danger of creating an aura of "pastness" through too much focus on "period" farming techniques and landscapes, which should be countered by emphasizing longer-term questions and issues (such as the ones I wrote about in a previous post) and creating a permeable boundary between past and present.  The second--important in any kind of partnership, but perhaps particularly with partners trying to survive in a risky and demanding business like farming--is that any farm-related projects should offer some identifiable, concrete benefit for the farms as well as for the park.

Building on those basic principles, I outlined a number of recommendations and sample project ideas, which can be found in Chapter Nine of the report itself.  Some of these raised as many questions as they answered (for example, how should a public agency like the National Park Service make decisions about which specific farms or modes of farming to partner with?).  But I've come to accept that farming is just like that--there are few, if any, definitive guidelines!  My suggestions tried to take into account both the politics and the practicalities of contemporary Columbia County agriculture, as well as the particular role played by Martin Van Buren himself and the park that preserves his working farm, while leaving room for the shared production of new knowledge informed by a careful consideration of evidence and debates from the past.

All of this has left me with a desire to extend these questions and ideas further, which I'll be doing this spring along with a number of fine public history colleagues.  And that gets me to the plan for the next several months of the blog.  In partnership with Michelle Moon of the Peabody Essex Museum, I'll be facilitating a Working Group session on "Public History and the Local Food Movement" at the National Council on Public History annual meeting in Ottawa, Ontario in April.  NPCH Working Groups are usually convened to focus on specific issues or projects, and ours is intended to further the professional conversation about the food/farm/history intersection and set out some of the theoretical and methodological issues in a way that's broadly useable by people in the field.

Working Groups also generally hold some kind of pre-conference intra-group discussion, and that's where the blog comes in.  We're planning to hold our discussions here, in the form of a weekly post from someone in the group and some commentary by others.  We welcome broader participation by readers and friends--any and all ideas will enrich the mix.  Michelle will lead off with the first post shortly, followed by what I think will be a really intriguing series of pieces focusing on that core issue of useability--getting history to the table as we're rethinking our food systems and all that connects to them.  This is not--I repeat, not--merely a ploy on my part to get out of writing a blog post each week!  I'm looking forward to expanding the dialogue and moving toward our face-to-face gathering in Ottawa in April.

Happy New Year to all, and happy eating!

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