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Food, Farming, and Public Humanities

The park's annual Harvest Day emphasized demonstrations of traditional crafts and farming methods rather than connections with the contemporary food economy.  Photograph by Cathy Stanton.

The Martin Van Buren National Historic Site’s annual Harvest Day emphasized demonstrations of traditional crafts and farming methods rather than connections with the contemporary food economy. Photograph by Cathy Stanton.

By Cathy Stanton

As a cultural anthropologist, I’m used to conducting fieldwork wherever opportunities present themselves:  in chance encounters, on visits to people’s homes, or on one memorable occasion, in a church confessional.  During the summer of 2010 though, most of my fieldwork was literally conducted in fields—farm fields, to be exact.  

I was researching the past and present of the agricultural sector in Columbia County, New York, for a study commissioned by Martin Van Buren National Historic Site, the post-presidential estate of the eighth president of the United States, and I hadn’t fully anticipated the challenge of getting time to talk with farmers during the growing season.  Rather than the quiet recorded interviews I’d hoped for, I ended up with a series of in situ conversations while they were finishing a day’s planting or checking a herd of cows or the progress of a field of grain.  The farmers were informative and willing to help with my project.  But they were also terse.  And tired.  

As with a lot of anthropological research, what seemed at first like an obstacle actually opened a window toward an important insight:  people who are trying to make a living as food producers, especially on a small scale, don’t have a lot of time or energy for things that don’t somehow contribute to their ability to keep a business going.  And that has important implications for public humanists who want to enter into partnerships with them or participate more widely in our food economy.

View of Martin Van Buren’s post-Presidential farm, included within the boundaries of the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site in Kinderhook, New York, and currently cultivated by a large Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm.  Photograph by Cathy Stanton.

View of Martin Van Buren’s post-Presidential farm, included within the boundaries of the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site in Kinderhook, New York, and currently cultivated by a large Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm. Photograph by Cathy Stanton.

Martin Van Buren NHS was interested in finding out more about local agricultural history because in 2009 it had expanded its boundaries to include most of Van Buren’s original farm, which surrounded the mansion that had been the core of the national park since its founding in 1974.  But although the farm fields are now within the park, the National Park Service actually owns little of the land outright.  Most remains in private hands, with the majority of the acreage now owned and cultivated by a large Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm.  Through a series of agreements with a regional land trust, Van Buren’s fields are protected in perpetuity for both their agricultural use and their historic significance.  The arrangement has challenged the park to rethink its relationship to working agriculture – more specifically, the local food movement that has grown exponentially in many parts of the U.S., including Columbia County, during the last two decades.

The Martin Van Buren study provided an opportunity to think about how historic sites and public humanities might engage with that movement.  In a time of widening concern about the economic, social, and environmental effects of our fossil-fuel-intensive modern way of life and the long-distance supply chains that supply many of our basic needs, the food movement is one of the best points of entry for reflecting on that way of life and beginning to make changes in it.  As a topic for public engagement and interpretation, food is accessible.  It provides opportunities for people to gather, share, and learn.  At the same time, most people—myself included—know startlingly little about the complex histories of production, policy, and economics that have shaped the systems that produce our food.  

For example, most of us are aware that there’s a vast system of agricultural subsidy in the United States supporting the production and sometimes mediating the pricing of key commodity crops like wheat, soy, corn, and milk. These policies come to our attention more noticeably every five years when Congress debates a new Farm Bill.  But there’s very little public understanding of how and why they  developed, let alone what it might take for alternatives to large-scale commodity-based agriculture—like today’s trend to toward eating more locally—to thrive in the longer term.  The public humanities can play an important role in this kind of education, which is intimately connected to the food choices people make every day but which can also contribute to the larger project of rethinking our energy-dense, globalized lives. But there are also real challenges in moving in this direction, as the Martin Van Buren project made clear to me.

First, there’s a tendency at historic sites to default to food and farm interpretation that emphasizes “old timey” qualities:  muscle-powered plowing or butter-churning, nostalgic recipes and foods, rustic and picturesque landscapes that audiences automatically associate with images of a bygone era.  Even though contemporary small-scale locally-oriented, farming often resembles these historical models, the choices farmers within the local food sector make are driven much more by a combination of practical and political considerations than a desire to educate their customers about the past per se.  These choices often produce a hybrid set of farming methods that complicate neat distinctions between past and present, artisanal and industrial, conventional and alternative, local and non-local. In Columbia County, I met farmers who used draft animals to reduce the carbon footprint of their cultivation, while acknowledging their dependence on highways and trucking to get their products to market.  Others were fully conventional in their use of machines and pesticides but had developed economic models that enabled them to survive by selling to a clearly defined customer base that was close to home. It’s important to make room in the picture for these kinds of variations if we are going to grapple with what it means to eat more locally or regionally, but those variations can sit uneasily with what audiences expect—and thus what interpreters tend to want to deliver—at historic sites.

Modern tractors in use at the CSA farm lying within the Van Buren site are viewed by some as an intrusion on its historic landscape.  Photograph by Cathy Stanton.

Modern tractors in use at the CSA farm lying within the Van Buren site are viewed by some as an intrusion on its historic landscape. Photograph by Cathy Stanton.

At Martin Van Buren NHS, this tension made itself felt in the park’s uneasiness about the strikingly modern tractors and black mulch covers used by the farm that was growing food around the national park.  These “intrusions” were jarring in the historical landscape, and park managers were struggling to shift their own visions and expectations to the point that they could see a more historically layered geography.  The farmers were interested in the land’s history, but concern for replicating exactly the farming methods used during Van Buren’s era played no part in their decision-making.  They constantly weighed a range of considerations that included not only cost and time but also whether their methods were in keeping with the philosophical approach that motivated them and how best to communicate their decision-making to the shareholders who sustained the farm.  They moderated their use of machinery by using hand-labor for many tasks, but they also believed that using up workers’ bodies in the heaviest kinds of toil was less ethical and ultimately less sustainable than making use of an available (albeit fossil-fuel-powered) machine that could do a job in a fraction of the time.  This unsentimental choice reflected a long history of such decisions on this and all farms:  How can we get the crops in most efficiently and continue to stay on the profitable side of the margin?  These questions are sharpened for farmers within today’s food movement because they cannot compete on price alone with the industrially-produced food sold in supermarkets, which have the advantage of huge economies of scale.  Ethics and economic viability thus combine uneasily for farmers attempting to create true alternatives in today’s food system.

Some historic sites have grappled directly with these kinds of questions by starting farm programs of their own.  Wyck Historic House, Garden, and Farm in Germantown, Pennsylvania, the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in Chicago, Shelburne Farms in Vermont, Hancock Shaker Village and Appleton Farms in Massachusetts are among the historic places that actually produce (and in many cases also sell) food, putting themselves into the “real” food economy in innovative and often inspiring ways.  In such projects, staff involved in the humanities and education aspects of the site are also more directly involved in decision-making about farming methods and products   than is the case at Martin Van Buren NHS, although weather and budgets always force some confrontation with the practical and environmental realities of farming.  

Even for public humanities projects willing and able to take that step, though, there are still important benefits to seeing things from the perspective of those who are outside of the non-profit and preservation sectors—especially farmers whose primary concern is making a living and whose potential interest in educating publics is always closely linked with that goal. Brian Donahue, founder of a non-profit community farm in the Boston suburb of Weston, has argued, “If a farm project isn’t ecologically and economically sound, then it usually isn’t very educational, either. It just isn’t convincing to . . . students to do things that require a large subsidy just to break even.”¹  The bone-wearying labor of farming and the financial stresses farmers face are essential factors to bear in mind as we work to educate ourselves and public humanities audiences about why food systems are the way they are in a capitalist society and what it might take to change them in any lasting way.

Issues of viability and profitability also push us toward even more complex questions about how to engage more fully in this educational project.  The boundary expansion at Martin Van Buren NHS presented the park with an existing farm with which it had to develop a working relationship.  In seeing themselves as a part of the broader county-level farm economy though, park managers were presented with an opportunity to  think about other potential relationships and connections.  

Columbia County, New York, where the Van Buren site is located, is also home to many small-scale farms that are part of the food movement.  While many, like this one, cultivate historic farm properties, economic viability is more of a priority than preservation and interpretation.

Columbia County, New York, where the Van Buren site is located, is also home to many small-scale farms that are part of the food movement. While many, like this one, cultivate historic farm properties, economic viability is more of a priority than preservation and interpretation.

A case in point:  The range of participants and demonstrations at the park’s annual Harvest Day celebration tended to reinforce the aura of “old timeyness” and nostalgia that surrounds much agritourism and small-scale direct marketing of local food.  But just down the road, a “conventional” farmer expressed some resentment about what he saw as an exclusionary and often elitist mode of farming that was intensifying the pressures he already experienced in finding enough land to support his 600-cow dairy operation.  For him, the expansion of heritage tourism, land trusts, direct-marketing, and not-for-profit farming was a threat, not an opportunity.  And from within the local food movement itself, a breeder of heritage cattle was also wary of some of the directions that the movement was headed in, particularly new farmers’ reliance on land trusts and agricultural easements as tools for accessing farmland.  To this stubbornly self-reliant farmer, the non-farmers who monitor compliance with easements are not necessarily so knowledgeable as he is about the specific habitats and seasonal rhythms of the land he farms, and he prefers to keep control in his own hands.

All of this points to a series of questions:  As a public entity, should the national park have been reaching out to a wider range of local or regional food producers, than those already involved in the local food movement?  What were the assumptions and existing affinities that had produced the limited range of Harvest Day participants, and what educational and civic opportunities were missed by continuing to stay within those limits?  What are the implications of these questions for public humanities practitioners attempting to participate more fully in debates about food and farming in general?  The report from my study addressed those questions and situated them within the longer history of farm pressures and changes on and around Martin Van Buren’s land.²

A final challenge, of course, is that the public humanities also struggle with financial viability.  Like farmers, they have to make many difficult choices about where to expend their limited time, energy, and resources.  As a case in point, the Harvest Day celebration that was an annual feature at Martin Van Buren NHS is now no longer held, having fallen victim to budget cuts and staff shortages. 

In this straitened economic climate, public humanities practitioners are wise to ask how much a nonprofit entity can actually offer to farmers.  But if we see the current economy—and the globally-heating climate that is not unconnected to it—as a harbinger of the future, we would also be wise to engage as seriously as we can with the implications of these questions for our food economy and our society.  Food and farm history may contain far more questions than answers for historic sites at this point, but gathering people round the table to talk about them—and making sure to include food producers like those I spoke with as part of the Martin Van Buren NHS study—seems like an important step in strengthening communities for challenges to come.

Cathy StantonCathy Stanton is a Senior Lecturer in the Anthropology Department at Tufts University, where she teaches courses on, among other topics, food, tourism, and urban culture.  She has written widely about culture-based redevelopment strategies, including in her 2006 book The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City.  For many years she has served as a consultant to the National Park Service’s Northeast Region Ethnography Program, in which capacity she produced the 2012 report, “Plant Yourself in My Neighborhood”: An Ethnographic Landscape Study of Farming and Farmers in Columbia County, New York, referenced in this article.  The report was honored with the National Council on Public History 2013 award for Excellence in Consulting.  With Michelle Moon, she is currently working on a book for Left Coast Press about new approaches to interpreting food and farming at historic sites.

1 Brian Donahue, Reclaiming the Commons: Community Farms and Forests in a New England Town (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 81.

2 For the full report, see Plant Yourself in My Neighborhood: An Ethnographic Study of Farming and Farmers in Columbia County, New York (Boston:  Northeast Region Ethnography Program of the U.S. National Park Service, 2012). 

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