Friday, January 25, 2013

Anna Duhon: Windows onto the farmscape: Becoming part of the story

FEP researchers Anna Duhon, Conrad Vispo, Claudia Knab-Vispo
How do we help facilitate people’s connection to the land? This is the central question that drives our work at the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program, a small, community-based research and outreach initiative on a working educational farm in the mid-Hudson Valley.

Our trio of researchers includes a botanist, a wildlife ecologist and a social scientist. Together we strive to open different windows of knowledge onto our county’s ‘farmscape’--the term we use to describe a landscape that even in its most out-of-the way corners has been shaped by a long history of agricultural land use and for which agriculture continues to be a defining factor.

The windows we open are often very different--a look into the native butterflies and the fields they thrive in, or the industrial history as it impacted land use, or the new farmers that are just marrying their visions to a piece of land. With the landscape as the connecting core of our research, we are always striving to mesh our different disciplines into a more holistic picture. This involves bridging areas of research that are often separate or even at odds, such as the cultural and the ecological, or agronomic and conservation sciences. By opening such different windows, we hope not only to deepen our own perspectives, but also to invite further exploration and engagement with the land from a broad base of interests; creating entry points that might draw in farmers alongside history buffs, or wildflower enthusiasts alongside local food lovers.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Angi Fuller Wildt: Communicating the virtues of local foods

Olives grow in the U.S. too!
As both a co-owner of a small-scale sustainable agricultural business and a public historian, the work that I do synthesizes public history with actively producing and marketing locally and regionally produced foods. In addition to cultivating, growing and selling mushrooms, herbs and produce to local restaurants and at our Columbia, South Carolina All-Local Farmers' Market, our business sells olive oil made from olives grown in southeast Georgia. One aspect of our marketing entails informing our customers about the 18th and 19th century exportation of olive oil as a commodity from coastal South Carolina and Georgia. Most people are quite surprised that olives can be cultivated in the southeast United States. Sharing the history allows them to have a sense of connection to the roots of the region. Many customers appreciate that the product isn’t shipped across the country or an ocean and that it supports economies close to home.

Another educational opportunity takes us into university classrooms and local venues to engage in dialogues about the ecological and economic benefits of growing and consuming heritage varieties of produce and other foods grown organically and locally.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Will Walker: Oral history as a way in to complex discussions

Farmland, upper Delaware River, New York state, 1943 (Library of Congress)
Interviewer: Do you feel you have a different attitude towards food than someone from a more urban area?
Narrator: Well, I think something that a lot of people don’t realize and I think that they should start thinking about it more is our water supply. A good water supply, we’re losing it, for drinking water. Now my house, my farm is all on spring water. The farm up there, that’s gravity feed, we don’t even have a pump on it. The water runs freely to the three houses, the barn, and the cows. It’s self-flowed, runs right to the barn. Up on my house where I live in Pierstown, that’s all spring. The farm when we had it up there was all spring. I think that with this drilling and spoiling the water with doing things, building houses and stuff, we’re losing a lot of our good water supply and I think that we should be thinking about it.
This past fall, several of my students and I used oral history selections like the one above as the starting point for dialogue sessions on issues related to farming and the environment.  These narrative pieces offered a way into complex discussions of land use, natural resources, and agriculture.  Such conversations are urgently necessary in the area in which I live and work—upstate New York—as the natural gas industry presses for authorization to drill using the controversial technique known as hydrofracking.  Fracking was not, however, the only topic of discussion at the four dialogue sessions we convened in the fall.  Longer-term questions of agricultural and environmental change were also consistently part of our conversations.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A New Year's Toast: Let Us Begin

Greetings all, and thanks to Cathy, our host at History at the Table. I'm delighted to be the first guest blogger in our discussion of public history and the local food movement, which will of course culminate in our Working Group meeting at the NCPH 2013 meeting in April. This will be the first of many posts on this intersection in coming weeks, as each member of the Working Group takes a turn offering insights and questions. Knowing that the conversation to follow will be lively and provocative, I raise a metaphorical glass to all present and say "Let us begin."

I'll be speaking from personal experience first, describing how my work at one museum led me into the local food movement, and then making the case more generally for a strategic re-evaluation of food interpretation in museums.

How One Museum Got Slower

In 2004 I became education director at a historic site and museum called Strawbery Banke,  a preserved urban neighborhood in Portsmouth, NH. Its more than 20 restored houses (with associated period landscapes) feature a mix of traditional interpretive strategies - first person roleplaying, didactic displays, period rooms, guided programs. 

Like many such sites, we faced the challenge of maintaining audience attendance in a time of widespread decline. With tongue only partly in cheek, Cary Carson, chief researcher at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, predicted "the end of history museums" in 2008, noting that attendance has been sinking for three straight decades . Reach Advisers found that history museums,
compared with 7 other museum genres, ranked lowest in popularity with all demographic groups. Only 31% of family museum visitors even venture to historic sites.

What could we do to forge new connections with potential participants? We didn't have to look far for inspiration. The local food movement was blossoming around us.