Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Rebecca Bush: Farm families beyond “Farmer Bob”

Picture an American farmer.  Strong, independent, face well-worn with creases caused by worries about weather and money and the future - the image isn't too hard to conjure.  Dodge used this familiarity to great effect with its 2013 Super Bowl commercial, one of the most talked-about ads of the game:

So based on the majority of that lengthy ode to farmers of America, what demographic boxes can we check off?  Almost always, our imaginary farmer is a native-born white man over the age of 40, probably living in the Midwest, Great Plains, or certain areas of the South.  This may be an easy and effective advertising trope, but it doesn't begin to capture the complete story of agriculture and food production in the United States, either historically or today.

In the American South in particular, agriculture and food is wrapped up in a messy racial relations stew, one that touches on the history of 300 years of unequal labor and land ownership determined by skin color.
  Cotton is the most significant crop in this narrative, but after the Civil War, it determined whether African Americans and poor whites could devote enough land to grow gardens to feed their own families, or whether they needed to depend on credit from not-always-reliable country stores.  Yet food and agriculture are among the most universal of shared histories - after all, everyone has to eat.  How then to reconcile a potentially uncomfortable conversation with the simple universal appeal of food?

The Harriet Barber house in Hopkins, South Carolina
I've been thinking about these questions for a couple years now, starting with my time at the University of South Carolina.  In looking for a thesis topic that put a different spin on a rural topic, I found a group of land-owning African-American farmers during Reconstruction who lived near Columbia.  Though many of these individuals failed to make payments to keep their land, some were successful in creating small farms that offered food and livelihood for their families.  Further investigation revealed that family gardens, though not always an indicator of success, seemed to make a difference in how long families could keep their land, with 10 families retaining land ownership nearly 140 years later. 

The history of African-American agriculture has often been one of discrimination and exploitative labor - unpleasant topics, to be sure, but important ones.  Food preparation and tradition, particularly when it's home-grown, seems to offer a friendlier and equally important narrative.  What is the best way to combine these two facets of Southern history:  delicious regional dishes with ingredients pulled from a garden, prepared by those who did not always control their own agricultural production?  It's easy enough to pull recipes from a Junior League cookbook or even from a 1902 fundraising cookbook meant to establish free kindergarten schools "for the education and moral training of the children of the poor."  Talking about the foods eaten by those "children of the poor" can be seen as more depressing, less "fun," and not as readily accessible without conveniently archived recipe books.

Today, the act of buying food is still stratified by class - certain stores are considered to be lower-class, while other stores, especially chains like Whole Foods or Fresh Market, are sometimes seen as only for those bringing home a certain salary.  (For proof, look no further than my favorite SNL one-liner in recent memory, which defined the poverty line as "the invisible line that separates Target from Wal-Mart.")  It's important to remember these common perceptions as we publicly present the history of food production and consumption.

I am currently planning a large exhibition on the history of regional food and agriculture in the Chattahoochee River Valley region of Georgia and Alabama.  As I prepare this exhibit, I'm seeking to capture diverse stories from men and women of many different ethnicities and ages.  There are older "traditional" farmers in the area, as well as a couple that has been featured in a Southern documentary about young organic farmers.  As part of the exhibit, I want to spark community dialogue through the inclusion of contemporary voices and programming that introduces visitors to ideas, debates, and resources about local food.  My hope is that all of these elements will create a diverse story that speaks to many people and provides a catalyst for more conversations about local food today.

~ Rebecca Bush, The Columbus Museum, Georgia


  1. Rebecca,
    I can relate to your stories of struggling to connect class, race, and gender dynamics with histories of farming. One of the things I'm interested in exploring in my area is the history of migrant laborers, who were predominantly African American in the mid twentieth century. I've had a few interesting experiences where, unprompted, white farmers have started telling me about when the buses of black laborers would arrive. They are simultaneously eager to tell these stories and uncomfortable with talking about race. I'd love to pick your brain about strategies for both discussing these histories with white farmers and tracking down African Americans who worked in my region of upstate NY in that period. ~Will

    1. Will, Connecticut has a history of bringing students from historically black schools as summer tobacco labor. Workers included Martin Luther King. http://connecticutexplored.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Laboring-Shade-Summer11.pdf

    2. Very intriguing, Will! And it's even possible that African Americans in my area could have made their way to your area. I hadn't thought about exploring the history of migrant workers in Georgia and Alabama, or those who traveled to the north, but now I'll have to investigate. Yes, let's brainstorm on your thoughts and mine.

  2. I also encountered stories about crews of black seasonal farmworkers working in upstate New York in the mid-20th c. - seems that many of them were from New York City, but my guess is that many of them also had rural Southern backgrounds and came north during the Great Migration. I didn't get as far as tracing any of these workers, but my hunch is that if we were able to add in that layer of history, we might find that people have some ambivalence about it - i.e. these farmworkers came north to get *away* from the grind of rural agricultural poverty, and actually embraced industrial and other kinds of work as a more positive alternative, as has happened in many parts of the world once small-scale farming became less economically viable in more market-oriented societies. One of the dangers of our current rediscovery and revalorization of farming and farmers is that we may forget all the good reasons that people have had for leaving farms over time!

    1. Very true! This actually reminds me of an ongoing discussion I have with a couple non-museum-trained colleagues at my institution, who are afraid an agriculture/food exhibit won't be "sexy" enough to attract attention. Despite my promotion or more appealing overview of these topics, there are definitely many less glamorous aspects!

  3. Fascinating. I was particularly struck by your discussion of the role of gardens in the home economy. Often promoted by those who have the resources as a way to reduce the home food budget and acquire fresh, hyperlocal organic food, the constraints on land ownership and use, free time and access to training, mean that it is at best a very uneven solution in today's world. Your project (and the comments by Will and Cathy) are good reminders that while some structures of the past did provide access to home gardens as resources, they were not always the same kinds of socioeconomic structures we would propose as models for the future.

    1. Yes - as Tyler has noted in his most recent post, the "rhetoric of ease" for local food is not always a convincing or valid argument!

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