Skip to Content

Teaching Agricultural History: Lessons from the 2013 Agricultural History Society Annual Meeting

Posted by Jodey Nurse
26 June 2013 - 12:55pm

After first attending the Agricultural History Society Annual Meeting in Manhattan, Kansas, in 2012, I was eager to return for the 2013 Annual Meeting in Banff, Alberta. I found this year’s conference, like the first one I had attended, to be highly engaging and incredibly inspirational and motivational. My understanding of the topics and approaches being pursued in agricultural history was broadened because of this conference, and the feedback I received in terms of my own research projects, was indispensable. There were so many panels of interest to me that I had difficulty trying to select which panel to attend. This spoke to the quality of the papers and the salience of the topics addressed. A list of the papers given on the diverse range of topics is impossible here, but even a cursory review of the program leaves the impression that there is some very interesting work being conducted in the field of agricultural history.

Perhaps one of the most important contributions of the Annual Meeting is the conference’s ability to inspire and generate new ideas for the teaching of agricultural history. While each paper contributed to this in its own way, there were some events in particular that forced attendees to consider how we approach the teaching of agricultural history, especially in terms of the grand narratives that we often create to convey often complex and detailed historical events and choices. For example, the opening plenary posed the question “Do Crops Determine Cultures?” to a distinguished group of scholars in the field. All the discussions seemed to refute a deterministic understanding of a culture based on the cultivation of a particular crop; however, there was a recognition that crops can shape social interactions, particularly in terms of gender roles, notions of ‘race’, and considerations of class. Also, it was argued that crops can and have influenced our relationships – including our understanding of market systems, social institutions, or the environment, just to name a few. Evident in this discussion too was the idea that cultures also influence crops: by the way in which we use them, raise them, and ultimately label them. Whether considering the cultivation of citrus fruits, the production of cotton and wheat, the farming of rice, or the raising of livestock, the historian engaged in teaching the history of agriculture must recognize that while crops can shape culture, culture can also shape crops, and a deterministic narrative is neither a sufficient nor adequate representation of how agriculture has developed throughout the world.

This idea about the complexity of agricultural history and how it should be taught in academia and conveyed to the public at large was carried on throughout the Annual Meeting. In his keynote address, “The Domestication of Plants, Animals, and…Us: The Late-Neolithic Multi-species Resettlement Camp,” Dr. James Scott questioned the basic narrative of agricultural evolution, connected as it has been with the concept of ‘the march of progress’. In a fascinating talk about the choices behind, and implications of, the domestication of plants and animals, Dr. Scott revealed that not only did domestication reshape the natural world, it reshaped us. With the domestication of crops came the reorganization of work, home life, familial relations, etc. Furthermore, by bringing people, as well as the plants and animals they chose to farm, closer together, domestication created the “perfect storm” for the transfer and spread of disease. Dr. Scott focused on the many costs of domestication, and while the benefits were less clear, the talk clearly encouraged historians to continue to emphasize the fact that choices in the past were not inevitable, and that when making decisions today we should consider the consequences of these past choices, with an eye towards their amelioration in the future.

Finally, possibly one of the most salient panels on teaching agricultural history was the roundtable panel discussion entitled, “Agricultural History in the Age of Michael Pollan.” This panel was not just interesting because of my own appreciation for the readability of Pollan’s work and the message he is trying to deliver, but because I too have questioned some of the assumptions he presents and the simplistic narrative he can create. A panel of esteemed scholars weighed in on the legacy of Pollan’s work and how, as historians, we can better insert ourselves in the public discussion surrounding the production of food. Varying levels of appreciation and concern for Pollan’s work were expressed, but I agreed strongly with the view that Pollan has not sufficiently addressed issues regarding the role of government farm policy in food production and the enormous inequity of power relations within the industry. The significance of considering the complex political, social, economic, and ideological choices that have been made in the past and continue to shape our societies today was a lesson clearly articulated.

Overall, I came away from this year’s Agricultural History Society Annual Meeting inspired by others’ work and motivated to continue my own. I not only feel better in tune with the developments in the field, but I feel better equipped to teach a more complete and accurate understanding of agricultural history. The goal, of course, is to create a narrative in which history both engages and explains the complex nature of past decisions and the legacy those choices have had. With the incredible interest in the history of food production and agricultural practices, agricultural history will be an increasingly popular field of study and I feel that agricultural historians will have a significant role in contributing to both academic and popular debate alike.

How do you deal with agricultural history in your classroom/museum lessons?

Photo Source: Egyptian Domesticated Animals, Wikipedia Commons, date unknown.