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Agricultural History: Maintaining Gains Made in the Age of Pollan

Posted by Brian Rumsey
3 July 2013 - 10:48am

Once a seemingly moribund field, agricultural history now teems with new life. Well, moribund might be a bit extreme, but around the time I started graduate school in 2007, I remember hearing members of the profession say that they had trouble generating excitement about agricultural history and had to fit their agricultural interests into other boxes. Notably, this was just as Michael Pollan’sThe Omnivore’s Dilemma began to take the country by storm, a surge that shows little sign of receding six years later. At a roundtable on agricultural history in the Age of Pollan held at this year’s meeting of the Agricultural History Society, there was general agreement that interest generated by Pollan’s work has helped turn courses on agricultural history into sought-after options in course catalogs.

As roundtable participants noted, this is a blessing, but a bit of a mixed one at times. Pollan writes with a definite sense of right and wrong regarding agriculture and the consumption of food. For his fans—and I write as one of them—a course on agricultural or food history may seem a lot like an opportunity to find confirmation of your beliefs.

I find little to quibble with in Pollan’s basic argument that large-scale agribusiness presents a host of concerns, and that smaller-scale and more localized agriculture will lead to healthier ecosystems, healthier communities, and healthier people. Is this argument really unique to Pollan, though? As one commenter at the roundtable observed, a major component of Pollan’s success is his ability to articulate the zeitgeist of our era. Agricultural historians well know that Pollan is not the only person to say many of the things he says, yet he understands what people are seeking—in a word, authenticity. They want to eat food that is somehow more authentically produced, and Pollan’s writing effectively taps into this desire.

This is hardly the first era in which people have sought authenticity, though. Historians have observed similar collective longings around the turn of the twentieth century (for example, Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace) and in the 1960s (for example, Douglas Rossinow, The Politics of Authenticity).  At the AHS roundtable, a commenter brought up the very relevant concern that the current uptick in agricultural history may be fleeting, subject to the fickle shifts of popular attention. I find it valuable to ground my own Pollan-esque convictions in an understanding of the trajectories of other similar movements, and should I ever have the opportunity to teach an agricultural history class full of Pollan acolytes, I hope that I can also impart a similar sense of context to them, perhaps helping to solidify an interest in agricultural history less prone to blowing away in the winds of an ever-evolving zeitgeist.

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

Photo: Canned Food, Wikipedia Commons.