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Do Crops Determine Culture?: The Annual Meeting of the Agricultural History Society

Posted by Jason Hauser
1 October 2013 - 10:49am

  Rather than fly into Banff, Alberta for this year’s annual meeting of the Agricultural History Society, my colleagues and I chose to drive. We shared a desire to fully experience the many landscapes that make up the 2400-mile stretch from Starkville, Mississippi to Canada’s first national park. As expected, the cross-country road trip was exciting, and we began to worry that the actual conference would pale in comparison to our action-packed, if at times arduous, journey.

   The conference, however, did not disappoint. The setting, of course, contributed significantly to everyone’s favorable impression of the event. Banff’s beauty is legendary; when sharing travel plans with friends and family, most were quick to offer that it may well be one of the more scenic destinations in North America. But while the mountain air and the exciting atmosphere of the resort were intoxicating, the most stimulating aspect of the conference was the tremendous level of scholarship on display throughout weekend.

   The theme of the conference, “Crops and Cultures,” provided the topic for an excellent opening plenary session. Each panelist weighed in on how, and to what extent, the agricultural basis of differing societies affected their unique cultures. Perhaps the most interesting portion of the discussion hinged on the semantics of the question posed to each presenter, “Do crops determine culture?” The language, each panelist agreed, was slightly troublesome. While every scholar agreed that what people produced and how they produced it had a definite affect on culture, the speakers were wary of assigning complete determinism to agriculture.

   The excellent plenary energized the attendees for the entire weekend, it seemed. Though some feared the allure of the mountains would pull scholars away from the conference, the threat of empty rooms never materialized. Throughout the event, panels were extremely well attended and the Q and A sessions were consistently lively.

The diversity of the scholarship proved to be a strength of the conference. Graduate students pitching dissertation topics presented alongside accomplished scholars, creating an atmosphere that was simultaneously encouraging and professional.In addition to entertaining different levels of scholars, the conference also featured a wide array of topics. In light of the conference’s location, there was a definite emphasis on international scholarship. Moreover, the conference’s inclusive selection of topics widened the traditional scope of agricultural history to include rural, urban, and environmental histories.

The merits of a wide focus were on display at one of the more fascinating events of the weekend, a round table discussion of the pedagogical potential of Michael Pollan’s works. Both the presentations and subsequent discussion were a testament to the dedication each scholar had to researching and understanding history and to actually teaching the subject as well. The presenters had no problems with Pollan's popularity or activism, but rather questioned the ultimate utility of his message for aspiring academics. The panel, perhaps one of the most attended of the weekend, continued to encourage conversation as professors and students discussed their own experiences with Pollan as they filed out of the presentation room.

Such experiences promise to make this year’s annual meeting one to remember. As my colleagues and I chewed over our individual experiences on the long drive home, we were appreciative that the conference had provided more than enough fodder for four history students to argue about over the next three days.


How do you incorporate agricultural history into your history lessons?


Photo: Thresherman's Reunion, Agricultural Machinery Show, Austin Manitoba. Creative Commons, by Shahnoor Habib Munmun