Stories without endings and questions without answers

Cathy Stanton, Tufts University

Like several others in this group, I’m engaged with questions about how to link agricultural histories with the widespread contemporary public interest in food and farming. This is a central concern in the book that I recently co-authored with Michelle Moon (Public History and the Food Movement: Adding the Missing Ingredient, Routledge, 2018), in which we discuss the importance of telling “stories without endings” when we interpret food. That is, we should resist the past/present dividing line that usually structures historical presentations, and instead find ways to trace the complex continuities of the issues we face today around human, animal, and environmental health; farm labor; land tenure; economic disparity and volatility; and the relationship of private enterprise and public oversight of agriculture and the resources we depend on for food and water. In many cases—perhaps most, or even all—these questions are not simply similar to those of the past: they are frequently exactly the same long-running debates, which have never been fully resolved.

The main reason it is so difficult to resolve questions about food and farming is that there is a fundamental and very poorly-understood paradox at the heart of our food system, which public humanists and historians can and should help our publics to explore. That paradox stems from the fact that the resource base that ultimately provides all of our food has inherent limitations of fertility and productivity, but our economic system demands continual growth and improvements in efficiency. These have been achieved over a long history of mechanization, consolidation, and importing nutrients from outside the immediate growing area, particularly in the form of potent human-made fertilizers and pesticides; in these processes, the shift toward a petroleum-based economy over the course of the twentieth century has been a crucial factor.

This long history of scaling up, expanding geographically, and turbo-charging existing agricultural practices and markets with oil-based technologies has created the series of seemingly insoluble puzzles we grapple with in our food system today: farmers unable to charge enough for their products to make a profit; enormous amounts of waste all along the food chain; the paradox of simultaneous food insecurity and obesity; the focus on continual expansion even as we already produce far more surplus food than can be used. Again, this is not a new story: its roots reach back into the early nineteenth century and even farther, and many of its historical manifestations—a technological innovation, a story of farmers facing displacement, a food safety scare—have a “ripped from the headlines” quality that makes them ripe for public interpretation. And as several of the participants in this Working Group show us, the many “food movement” projects and enthusiasms that our publics are already familiar with offer exciting new partnerships and opportunities for historians to contribute to public knowledge around food.

My argument here is that we should be pushing ourselves to do so in a way that continually links past and present and doesn’t shy away from discussing the histories of industrial capitalism, oil-dependency, and corporate control of the food system. Although these sound wonky and perhaps alienating, in my experience it can be done through historical story-telling in a way that’s actually engaging as well as responsible to our work as historians and our role in public and civic institutions at a time of environmental crisis.

I realize this introductory statement sounds somewhat abstract, rather than being rooted in a specific project or site. I am working on a number of public education projects and some publicly-engaged ethnographic scholarship on small-scale food marketing and regional image-making in Massachusetts, where I live. But I’d like to offer these ideas more as a general provocation and perhaps a way to come at some of the great projects described in these case statements from a slightly (or radically) new angle. I’d be happy to share experiences of how I’ve been working on putting them into my own practice, and am looking forward to learning more about others’ work in this exciting field as well.


  1. Julia Brock says:

    Hi Cathy,
    Your insightful comments took me back to a question from the Deborah Fitzgerald piece that Debra Reid posted in our Google drive (apologies for posting the entire paragraph): “We often think of industrial agriculture as a force, as something that happened to farmers. We do not imagine farm families signing up for industrial agriculture, any more than they signed up for the oil crisis or giant pits of hog manure or hard tomatoes. But the facts and consequences of industrial agriculture are all around us, from the kind of food we eat to the landscape in which we work and rejuvenate. In a sense, we all signed up for it, but how? Did it result from our intelligence or our ignorance?” This gets at a complication, in my mind–in storytelling how do we implicate farmers and consumers (past and present), as is likely necessary, and by doing so how do we avoid alienating the publics we serve? I’m interested to hear more about your work in introducing to audiences the burden of responsibility for the paradox you point to in your statement.

  2. Debra Reid says:

    Cathy – I look forward to all being in the same room so we can discuss these important topics. I value your thoughtfulness and insight, but I also think that we approach things from different perspectives. That means we have the ingredients for a healthy debate!
    I take comfort from your statement about “the importance of ‘stories without endings’ when we interpret food” (and believe that fiber and fuel warrant comparable extensive treatment).
    This has current relevance given the potential Chinese tariff on soybeans and how it will affect farmers in the United States. Soybeans, processed, become part of several foodstuffs, ethanol and synthetic fibers. Soybeans as a crop, however, have little relevance prior to their adoption as a forage crop during the early twentieth century. They do not become one of the two major crops in the Midwestern Corn Belt until the 1950s. Soybeans have a beginning in the United States. The story about their significance relates to the commodities that the bean displaced. This begs the question, what will dislodge soybeans? Dicamba and dicamba resistance should launch conversations about synthetic herbicides, genetic modification, and environmental degradation. These can contrast with soymilk and other soy-based produces including inks which might be advertised as environmentally friendly substances.
    Plenty of stories without endings!

  3. Debra Reid says:

    Good points, Julia – particularly the statement about implicating farmers and consumers without alienating the public. The consumers are the public. Since the early 1970s, national agricultural policy responded to consumer pressure for inexpensive food, and not sustainable practices.

  4. Leisl Carr Childers says:

    I deeply appreciate the emphasis on continuity – the lesser-utilized partner to historical change. And, I also am thinking about this paradox of a finite set of land/resources and cultural and economic pressures towards growth and efficiency. In the American West, this has created the multiple use policy and undergirds the problems in public lands management. Another framing of this paradox that I’ve encountered is the nature-as-commodity and nature-outside-humans polarization. Much of our environmental thinking is structured by these two positions and yet in our environmental preservation laws, both are codified and trade-offs are made in policy. Plenty of criticism has been leveled at the system that is global capitalism, but that makes for poor public-facing material. Perhaps we can talk about how to help audiences “see” the tensions themselves?

  5. Amrys Williams says:

    I’m looking at my marginalia on your piece and seeing a lot of YESes and check marks next to underlined sections. What I’m most curious about is: Whose stories best convey this complicated continuous narrative? What stories do we tell—are you telling—to make industrial capitalism, oil-dependency, and corporate control both visible and engaging to the public?

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