|Farm fields at the Oliver H. Kelley Farm in Elk River, Minnesota|
Michelle Moon and I were once again struck by this at a workshop we led at the American Association for State and Local History conference in Minnesota last week, and it struck me even more on a tour I took as part of the conference, to the Oliver H. Kelley Farm in Elk River, Minnesota.
Kelley was a New-England-born self-taught farmer and mid-nineteenth-century agricultural "improver" who carried the gospel of mechanization, efficiency, and commercial competitiveness into what was then the western frontier. He was initially focused on politics and real estate speculation, purchasing land on the Mississippi River near what he hoped would be the state capital. When Minneapolis, 30 miles downstream, was chosen instead, he shifted into journalism, advocacy, and education on behalf of farmers, while using his own 190-acre property as a model for what he saw as the agriculture of the future. Although he returned to politics and the east coast after the Civil War, he had a lasting effect on American farming through his founding of the Patrons of Husbandry, a fraternal organization for farmers better known as the Grange, which became (and to some extent remains) an active force in the agricultural sector.
|Two-horse-power threshing machine at the Kelley Farm|
All of this initially struck me as being heavily imbued with the kind of "pastness" that I've felt working against public history's ability to make more active contributions to present-day discussions about food and all that connects to it--land and energy use, economic paradigms and scales, social and environmental impacts and relationships. Standing in the kitchen of the Kelley house watching two interpreters show people in our tour group how to pound cabbage for making sauerkraut, I found myself thinking, "What a waste of a truly spectacular farm history site." A 190-acre working farm less than an hour from a major urban area seemed to offer extraordinary opportunities for doing far more than simply showing "how things used to be."
There were a couple of signs that more was going on. One of the farmhand interpreters told me about a new chapter of the Grange that he and some other younger public/living historians and educators--many of them in urban places--have founded, putting me in mind of how the Greenhorns and other new and young farmers' organizations have keyed off older forms of organizing and mutuality as they work to rebuild smaller-scale agricultural and economic systems.
|Pickling demonstration in the Kelley kitchen|
It wasn't until we were back on the bus heading for the Twin Cities that it became clear this idea is far more than just a gleam in the eye for the Minnesota Historical Society.
After a thoughtful planning process involving multiple agricultural partners ranging from "Big Ag" companies to sustainable-farming networks, MHS has launched an ambitious project to expand and re-set its operations and interpretation at the Kelley Farm. With $10 million in funding from the state legislature, they will build an expanded and multi-functional Visitor Center, add more cropland, and explode the site's timeline so that everything from restored prairie to twenty-first century machinery will be found on the property.
Bob Quist, the site manager for the farm, gave us an enlightening behind-the-scenes glimpse of the conversations and coalition-building that resulted in this really impressive commitment to a reenvisioned food and farm interpretation. As a state-affiliated, largely state-funded agency seeking substantial public funding for a farm-related project in a heavily-agricultural state, MHS could hardly ignore the perspectives of the mainstream agricultural sector, which includes the kind of heavily industrialized farming that is anathema to many food-movement activists.
|The Kelley Farm's c.1980 visitor center will be replaced by 2016|
- Everyone needs to know more about how their food is produced.
- Old-fashioned and romanticized notions about farming--"a guy with a straw hat," in Bob Quist's words--get in the way of understanding present-day realities in the agricultural sector.
- There is a crying need for more smart people to get into agriculture.