Agriculture and the Environment: Some ways of Identifying Key Themes
Debra A. Reid, Curator, Agriculture and the Environment
Contribution to the NCPH Working Group: Interpreting Agriculture (2018 conference, for discussion on Saturday, April 21, Las Vegas)
People may say that Henry Ford hated farming, but agricultural artifacts captivated him. He featured them in the 12-acre museum dedicated in 1929. Peter Cousins, the first official curator of agriculture (1969 to his death in 1995), reorganized the exhibit around 1977 and wrote interpretive labels. He reduced the footprint of agricultural artifacts significantly, and its space has shrunk even more in the twenty years since his death. Now the exhibit contains the pick-of-the-litter or cream-of-the crop of individual objects that can hold the attention of many visitors on their own merit – the 1907 Ford experimental tractor, the No. 1 Fordson tractor shipped to Luther Burbank in April 1918, and the Sperry-New Holland co-axial flow combine introduced in 1975. The exhibit title — “Agriculture: Innovations in Farming” — fits squarely within the current institutional mission: “The Henry Ford provides unique educational experiences based on authentic objects, stories, and lives from America’s traditions of ingenuity, resourcefulness, and innovation” (see “History and Mission,” at thehenryford.org). Reframing this exhibit is high on the institutional to-do list.
The main label of the current exhibit features technology. It explains that American farmers tried to overcome “the special challenges” that they faced: “dense forests, hard prairie soil, labor-intensive work, and a shortage of workers.” They sought practical solutions, and persisted in their quest. “New inventions built on the successes of earlier ones.” The main label explains that some inventions had “far-reaching impact, revolutionizing how the work was done and how much farmers could produce. These were the great innovations that not only changed farm work but transformed our lives.” It concludes by inviting guests to: “Explore the many inventions that improved farming and the great innovations that transformed it.”
Machines sit in one of four sections, and each section emphasizes one process most relevant to the purpose of each machine in that section:
Preparing the Fields and Planting
Mowing, Reaping, and Threshing
Picking and Processing
Corn Harvesting and Combines
Artifact labels put machines into some context, but little interpretive intervention occurs.
I began my job at The Henry Ford in January 2017, and rethinking interpreting agriculture and the environment is something I do daily. I wrestled with strategies as I prepared Interpreting Agriculture at Museums and Historic Sites (Rowman & Littlefield, February 2017). Topics addressed in that book inform my approach. I know I need themes that capture guests’ attention, captivate their imagination, and call them to action.
My first epiphany came after plowing with oxen at a Tiller’s International workshop using an Oliver No. 40 plow, the Cadillac of early twentieth-century plows. The next time I walked past the Oliver No. 20 plow, situated on a pedestal at the front of the “Preparing the Fields” section, I realized that the “antique” could be made relevant by linking it to alternative agriculture. The plow has a remarkable pedigree, donated by James Oliver, Sr. to Henry Ford, but that’s the insiders’ story. Most guests care because alternative leads us to discussions of organic which leads us to discussions of livestock and draft power and local food systems. This naturally transitions guests to the diametrical opposite – agricultural practices dependent on fossil fuels that most of the other artifacts in the exhibit document. Most historic houses and historical societies have, in fact, more artifacts useful to interpreting the pre-fossil fuel era of agriculture and the mutual dependency of animals and soils and farm families that existed during that time, rather than the agriculture of the 1930s to today. The big question then becomes, how to link the “antiques” that document the era of local food systems, with the present situation without truncating the story of “modern” agriculture. The Henry Ford collection can help build that bridge.
Michelle Moon and Cathy Stanton urge readers of The Public History of the Food Movement: Adding the Missing Ingredient (Routledge, 2018) to engage with current food politics by cooperating with like-minded special interest groups. That resonates with my goals to interpret today’s food and drink chain. Yet, their comment about “agriculture” left me pondering anew the “loaded” nature of that term. They explained that “our [Moon’s and Stanton’s] discussions … shift between talking about farming and talking about food…; it is simpler to do so than to stop and dig into the question (admittedly a historically important one) of why we tend to be so fixated on agriculture to the exclusion of other kinds of subsistence and sustenance” (pgs. 8-9). The Henry Ford collection documents the scope of agriculture. It is not just about farming, nor it is just about food. Farmers express their culture through their “agriculture.” Farmers then conduct their business through exchange with bankers and lawyers and markets and processors and other farmers and politicians. The collection that Henry Ford amassed, and that others have expanded since his death in 1947, document the business of farming as well as the culture of farmers, farm families, and associated businesses. This includes their relationships to the natural environment and their cultivated acreage and pastures on which they husband their livestock. The whole encompasses a farm ecosystem; agricultural ecology is just one of the components of this.
The biggest intellectual hurdle to overcome, that I perceive, derives from the publics’ avoidance even abhorrence of the term “agriculture,” not a fixation with it. Of course, farmers fixate on agriculture because that is what they do; it is their culture. Even though farm families constitute less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, they have a powerful lobby, significantly disproportionate to their demographic. Often perceptions of agriculture by the 98 percent of the population that depends on it but do not do it, convey personal perspectives of the public, not of farmers. I addressed reasons for such polarity in Interpreting Agriculture in Museums and Historic Sites. Moon and Stanton have caused me to argue for agriculture – that is, farmer culture and practice — not just food and drink chains — as the vehicles by which we tell the story.
Approaches to Take
I have long sought intellectual engagement, or what I call “minds-on” rather than just “hands-on” learning. Moon and Stanton affirm this. They describe interpretation focused on demonstration not reflective inquiry as the “butter churn” approach. It does not engage the public beyond the turn of the crank. Interpreting agriculture requires minds-on learning opportunities to carry the message forward.
Guest interests influence the topics to develop. During Fall 2017, I worked with an intern (Mr. Ben Thomason) to start documenting guest interests, and guest-object interactions. Mr. Thomason conducted a study between October 7th and November 4th of 2017. He completed 50 tracking study observations and collected 102 closed-ended surveys and 51 open-ended interviews with visitors. Evidence indicated two areas of strong interest. The first relates to machine functionality — how the agricultural machines are operated, how productive they could be, and what improvements were made over the previous machines/tools. The second strong area of interest related to the methods and processes of agriculture, meaning that visitors want The Henry Ford to explain the entire process of agriculture, with both the overarching history and developments, as well as the ground level seasonal labor that farmers of the past and present carried out.
These conclusions indicate that the public equates agricultural technology with improvements. The Henry Ford exists to complicate that impression. It emphasizes the quest for improvement, not the misperception that new machinery means better machinery. Mr. Thomason summarized the potential this way:
I think that the functionality of the machines and the processes of agriculture are what people were most interested in and there is a lot the exhibit can teach them…. Building up the information on machine functionalities and agricultural processes will give a strong foundation on which to build other topics.… like political, environmental, and public health issues as well as the connection of farming to city life and the economy. More specialized subjects will appeal to people who may be more politically, environmentally, or health minded which could keep people in the exhibit longer and make it more memorable for many visitors (excerpted from 15 January 2018 email from Benjamin Thomason).
One popular seasonal visitor engagement involves soil testing. Museum presenters have soil samples from specific locations in Greenfield Village, including Firestone Farm and Ford Home. The activity includes determining the best crop to grow on the soil given the farm’s chronology and geographic location. Corn and vegetables, including peanuts, grow best in slightly acidic soil (with a pH between 5.8 to 6.8). Wheat likes a more acidic soil as do sweet potatoes (pH of 5.5 to 6.5). Horticulturalists seek neutral or slightly more alkaline soils for flowering shrubs or ornamental plants, as do market gardeners or truck farmers who might specialize in asparagus (pH as high as 8). Guests walk away from this understanding how it directly relates to their home gardens.
Other intellectual engagement includes climbing aboard and into the cab of the Sperry-New Holland combine, but this area needs more interpretation. Mr. Thomason recommended updating the current interactive with graphics to show how much corn a farmer could pick by hand and how much the Sperry-New Holland combine could pick and shell in the same amount of time. The comparison cannot stop there, otherwise it will reinforce popular opinions about technology and efficiency. Instead, the additional context requires incorporating facts about the number of people and animals it once took to get the corn crop in the ground, cultivated, harvested, processed, and fed, compared to the synthetics and fossil fuels and cold hard cash that it takes in machine-and-chemical intensive agriculture. Last, the graphic will need to indicate that the human-and-animal intensive approach is not dead, but includes organic and alternative agriculture today.
The Henry Ford has the luxury of additional three-dimensional interpretive spaces to reinforce ideas. Visitors to Greenfield Village can engage with several working environments, including Firestone Farm. It opened in 1985 after staff relocated the house and barn and outbuildings from Columbiana County, Ohio, and after conducting intensive research in foodways and farm practices for the third-generation German-American Firestone family. The farm models farm-to-fork concepts. The kitchen garden lies just past the kitchen window. “Chinese weeder” geese, a heritage variety, help pull weeds, and their eggs join those from the chickens as part of the daily fare. But the market production of wool and of wheat, plus the coal stove in the kitchen complicates matters. Guests could easily walk away thinking the Firestone’s modeled farm-to-fork agriculture, and embraced “organic” operations. Instead, they must consider the Firestone perceptions of fossil fuels in 1886. The coal eased the burdens of male family members by reducing the quantity of wood required to keep the home fires burning. Farmers could transfer that labor savings into a few more head of sheep or pigs or beef cattle. But more livestock required more pasture and hay or corn acreage. This could not be increased by reducing acreage dedicated to other cash crops, but clearing a bit of woodlot could help increase pasture, and pasture could shift to wheat acreage in a coal-stove world. Investing in equipment helped farmers manage the increased acreage.
Take Home Messages
The slow-food movement has helped focus public attention on food. Public historians should take advantage of the opportunity that the food movement provides, as Moon and Stanton argue. This is not an easy task, as Reid has argued in Interpreting Agriculture, largely because few public historians have a concept of what producing food really entails. This is agriculture. Resources exist to facilitate this critical work. These include public history support systems – organizations such as the National Council on Public History and the American Association for State and Local History – but also organizations that have focused on agriculture history, and on interpreting agriculture – the Agricultural History Society (100 years old in 2019) and the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (50 years old in 2020).
Participants in the NCPH working group, Public History and Agriculture, share their practical approaches, and their lessons learned so others can join in on this important work.
Fitzgerald, Deborah. “Eating and Remembering,” Agricultural History 79, No. 4 (Autumn, 2005), pp. 393-408.
Moon, Michelle. Interpreting Food at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.
Moon, Michelle and Cathy Stanton. Public History and the Food Movement: Adding the Missing Ingredient. New York: Routledge, 2018.
Reid, Debra A. Interpreting Agriculture at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.