Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Growing a historic site: The Oliver H. Kelley Farm

Farm fields at the Oliver H. Kelley Farm in Elk River, Minnesota
Jill Lepore has spoken about what she terms "cuspiness"--the feeling of being on the edge of big changes.  I often have that sense when I look at what's happening in the realm of food and farming interpretation in the museum and public history realm, and it's been confirmed by encounter with many people in those fields who are reaching toward a much more consequential and socially-engaged way of connecting audiences with big questions relating to food. 

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
Kelley's Minnesota farm was bought by the Grange in 1935 and operated as a small museum-cum-shrine until 1961, when the organization donated it to the Minnesota Historical Society.  Twenty years later, MHS launched a living history program representing the kind of "progressive" mixed farming that Kelley's family had practiced there in the 1860s.  The emphasis has been on hands-on learning, heritage breeds and seeds, and period demonstrations of things like horse-powered threshing (at right), woodstove cookery, and the like.

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
And in conversation with one of the kitchen interpreters, I heard that on a longer tour than our tight schedule allowed for, visitors would have been encouraged to make more connections with the history of the Grange as a farmers' movement.  When I asked whether audiences seemed curious about those more political questions and how they resonated with present-day food politics, the interpreter said, "I think they are but they don't really realize that they are," confirming my sense of "cuspiness" and an emergent new role for historic sites like this one.

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
But although those interests were part of the support that MHS built for its funding request, advocates for smaller-scale, lower-input farming were apparently also at the table when the new interpretive approach for the Kelley Farm was being hammered out.  This range of viewpoints alone seems to enable that a much broader and more critical set of questions about agriculture can be asked at the site.  Intriguingly, these planning conversations have already produced consensus among a wide range of farm interests that there are three key ideas that the public should consider about agriculture:
  1. Everyone needs to know more about how their food is produced.
  2. 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.
  3. There is a crying need for more smart people to get into agriculture.
The devil of all this may still appear in the details--"more smart people" may mean more genetic engineers to some farmers, while others may see a need for smart farming and marketing methods that directly challenge the dominance of lab-based approaches to breeds and seeds.  But it seems very heartening that MHS has at least convened a forum where those questions could conceivably be raised.  And I look forward to revisiting the farm after its re-set (projected for spring 2016) and seeing how they've been able to work things out in practice.  At least from a preliminary glance, the project seems to embody the promise of what historical organizations can bring to the often-fraught debates over food and farming:  some kind of common ground, a little intellectual and political breathing-room, and the benefit of historical perspective that can counter-balance both nostalgia and ideology.

On the way home from Minnesota, this larger-than-life billboard at O'Hare Airport in Chicago struck me as exactly the kind of simplistic boosterism that a site like the Kelley Farm may be able to challenge.  True, far more people will likely see the billboard than will visit the farm, but it's an important and promising step.  Large-scale and industrialized farmers are by no means blind to the problems of the dominant food system--in fact, they probably feel its effects more sharply than anyone else along the food chain.  Convening a conversation and crafting an interpretation that includes them is in itself a profound challenge to both pastness and spin, which seems likely to enrich public understandings about how we ended up with our present-day food system and what it might take to rethink it for the future.