Personal stories are key in telling the story of agricultural innovation

A woman in a photograph drives a red farm machine on a hill in the countryside. She looks at the camera, wearing a baseball cap and denim shirt. Strapped to her back is a baby who looks at the camera suspiciously.

American agriculture has changed dramatically since World War II, impacting many aspects of American life. Curator Peter Liebhold has been collecting stories from individuals to help document this change. In this post, he answers questions about the progress of the Agricultural Innovation and Heritage Archive.

How many stories have been collected so far?

The Agricultural Innovation and Heritage Archive has already collected about 40 stories from individuals and families in states around the country. By the end of the month, anyone will be able to browse all of the stories that have been accepted so far into the archive.

I'm reading every story and looking at every photo and video clip that comes in and am excited to make these available online for all to read soon—they're too interesting to keep to myself. 


    Cate and Mat E from Vioqua, Wisconsin, shared this photo. "More and more people are seeking a way to know their farmer, to support agriculture that respects the land and the environment," they wrote in their story.
    Cate and Mat E from Vioqua, Wisconsin, shared a story about the importance of energy on their farm. "This past summer during the August rains, when our area was hit hard by straight-line winds, power was knocked out for 3 days... Growing vegetables on a small scale, sustainably, is difficult but it's also what our community supports," they wrote.

    What's your initial reaction to the process of using the web to collect these stories?
    We created the Agricultural Innovation and Heritage Archive thinking that digital tools and social media could change the tools of the curator (and maybe history itself). In the past, curators independently researched topics and found objects for museum collections largely through personal contacts. Inviting the general public into part of the process is an attractive innovation in collecting history.

    So far it seems to be working.

    By that, I mean that the public is helping to fill in parts of the story of American agriculture. In her story "Walking the Beans," Sharon C. from Illinois provides interesting insights into an important story that never makes it into the history books. It seems simple but to hear it first hand from a participant is really important.

    Sharon even provided a list of her morning activities before walking the beans which, she notes, begins "about daylight:"

    1. "Get out of bed.
    2. Put on some light weight clothing
    3. In kitchen, breakfast, make lunch-get thermos with ice water (very important)
    4. Take some cutting device—long handle hoe, or homemade–long handle with cutting device attached for cutting weeds from between plants in each row
    5. Get in the truck—Time to head to field and get started"

    With each submission of a story from the public, there's always more to learn. What changes have you noticed in agriculture that affect your life, landscape, and what you eat? Do you have stories related to farm auctions, crop insurance, or buying seed? How has your family seen farm financing change?

    I hope people will dig into their photo albums, think about their past, and reflect on how agricultural life and work have changed.

    One thing that has struck me as I read the entries to the archive is the diversity of agriculture. This sounds silly, of course; I know farming happens in every state of the Union and the experience is broad. But reading these stories makes it more real. It keeps me humble as a curator. We shouldn't just look at big or well-known history, we need to think about everyone's experiences.

    What kinds of stories are you looking for?

    We want to understand agricultural innovation and many people have responded with stories of change sparked by innovations, inventions, and new processes. Stories about insect proof sprinklers, cow waterbeds, self-propelled sprayers, and crop tracking systems are a testimony to the diversity of American innovations.

    Within the theme of innovation, I am less interested in stories that celebrate a particular product or service. Instead, we are interested in the personal experiences related to these innovations. How did they change life on an American farm or ranch? What was the motivation for a new idea? We don't want just new products but how those changes affected people, your community, and you individually.

    A photo from Myra G's story
    A photo from Myra G's story

    Myra G. in Californian really hit a homerun with her story "Two Generations Realizing the American Dream." Hearing about the relationship between daughter and father and the surprising transfer of knowledge from commercial jewelry manufacturing to salad green production is amazing. For an historian of technology, this looks like a great possible dissertation topic or a fascinating book endeavor. Here's a quote from her story about washing and bagging organic salad greens with the help of her mechanically-savvy father:

    "My dad separated our salad packing into individual steps and figured out how to do each one most efficiently. With materials that came mostly from the junkyard, he quickly created a very efficient system: As the washed and dried salad was inspected, it was pushed down into a basket that rested on a scale. The scale was rigged to a bicycle bell that would ring when it hit four ounces so no one had to watch the scale."

    Walter P's reminiscence of being sent to his grandparents farm in Pace, Mississippi, is incredibly vivid and moving. Sharecropping is a topic that many historians have examined but this personal perspective of the experience is rarely told. I hope that he can find some photographs of the participants to give it even more power.

    "I also remember my day in the sun picking cotton with my grandparents and other pickers dragging a long sack, listening to the work sounds of my African American heritage," wrote Walter. 

    Any advice for those who would like to add their story?

    I hope to encourage more people to follow the example of people who have submitted oral histories they have collected from friends or community members. This interview with Masa K., a Hawaiian cowboy, is a great example. Get the photo album out of the attic and sit down with a relative or friend and talk about the past. Maybe some teachers can have their classes do this as a project. History is interesting and important. Share those photographs and stories with us. Some will be stories of success, some failures, and some just everyday experiences. We really want to hear about all your personal experiences of farming in America.

    Peter Liebhold is the chair and curator of the Division of Work and Industry. For more background on the project, see Peter's last blog post.