Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Importance of History

There are a few things that I am really passionate about. Of course my family and my ministry top the list. Farming is at the top of the list also, but the next thing I am passionate about is history. I have always love history, even as a very young child. In fact I am most interested in pre-1900 American history with an emphasis on 18th century stuff. It is interesting though that my passion for history also spills over into my other passions. I love to learn about family history and how families lived and interacted throughout history, I am always looking at my ministry from a historical perspective trying to learn from the past and preserve the past ... but, I really see my passion for history crossing over when it comes to farming.

Recently I picked up the book, "Harris on the Pig :: Practical Hints for the Pig Farmer" by Joseph Harris. This book was originally published in 1883 so it is over 100 years old. The thing that strikes me most is how practical the information is. But, I can also see that when it comes to pig farming our modern farmers have strayed away from this great knowledge of what just plain works.

What often happens in the rush to produce more and produce more quickly is that the tried and true ... the history ... is lost. I sort of mentioned this type of thing the other day when I talked about Gearld Fry's article on keeping the heritage breeds. What has happened (and not just in farming) is that the younger generation leaves the farm in order to go to college. Many of this generation have gone and earned agricultural degrees or at least immersed themselves in the latest and greatest, so when they get back to the farm they feel the need to change everything. I think they feel they need to change because they think there is more money out there that they are missing ... or maybe because they believe there is an easier way to do things ... or even just because that is the way that everyone else is starting to do it!

But, for whatever reason they change the way the farm has been run. They begin to specialize. They begin to upgrade their breeds through crossing in order to have the highest production possible in the shortest amount of time (disregarding other factors such as cost and efficiency). They begin to move the farm away from a diverse entity into a mono-crop or mono-animal production plant. And what happens is that history, what has worked in the past for year after year, is forgotten.

Now, I will admit that I tend to the nostalgic from time to time ... but, I do realize that there is a place for innovation. But, I want to see innovation rooted in history. Take Ultra High Density Grazing for example. I think it is safe to say that is an innovation that is starting to take off right now. And on the surface it seems like something new ... until you pop in that old VHS of "Dances With Wolves". They American Bison herds were doing Ultra High Density Grazing for years, they were just doing the paddock shifts themselves! Wow, now that would be innovation ... cattle that did paddock shifts for themselves. There are many more examples of how farmers and people in other professions have taken a page from history to produce innovation, not just changed for the sake of change.

So, I would call myself a beginning farmer. I would say that I am striving to become a sustainable farmer. But, I think I would like to add that I am going to be a historically minded farmer!


Yeoman said...

Wow. Farming and then history! My interest exactly, and in that order also.

I'm older than you (44). I've always tended to look to the past a bit, but spitting my time between highly rural activities, and then the modern practice of law has convinced me that material history is very poorly understood.

In real terms, what matters is what works, and what works in the greatest sense. What works best. What is sustainable.

Many people assume that what is new, is what's best, but that's far from the case. Sometimes it is, but many times, it's just new.

Horses, in ranching, are a good example. Over the past 44 years I've watched the various things that "are going to replace the horse" come and go. They haven't. They may have augmented the horse, and in some cases made the use of the horse more efficient. In many instances, however, the new device just came and went. In the end, the horse works too well to be replaced in this use.

So it is the case for many other things. However, people are so accustomed to what's new being better that they'll do it without thinking.

As an aside, fwiw, the real push towards specialized single crop farms came after WWII, but got started during the Great Depression. The USDA backed it, during certain administrations (but not all of them), on the thesis that it was more "modern", and that it boosted farm incomes. The thought was that it was inefficient for the traditional farm, which consumed part of its own production, to keep on. This was based, however, on a false economy. It's also resulted in a massive loss of farms, as specialized farms grow bigger and bigger. If you drive through the farm belt, you'll note the vast number of abandoned farmsteads. That is partially the result of this process, and also partially the result of the increased coverage of modern implements. I.E, if you were farming with draft horses, or mules, you'd cover a lot less ground. All things being equal, I can't say that the results of the process have been happy ones.

Kramer said...

Its funny that in America, Ultra High Stock Density and Managed Intensive Grazing are perceived as new. As you stated, bison have been doing this forever but so have other countries. New Zealand wouldn't think of putting food that could be grown for humans in a cows mouth. Hence the reason they only do grass fed beef. Americans have taken the concepts of quantity over quality from car sales to beef. For car sales its great for the consumer but in food, all you get is cheap, low quality, bad for your health products. Pretty soon, historians will look back in history and see clearly what happened to American Agriculture.

Ethan Book said...

Yeoman and Kramer ... some good thoughts! I can't tell you how strongly I believe you must keep our history in view at all times. In fact, it is something I even teach in my youth groups!

Mellifera said...

Hey there,

Interesting you should mention! My husband is an historian (still in grad school...) and I'm the future farmer in the relationship. It's really interesting how once you look at it so much of history turns out to be Just Farming. (This is especially true because he's focusing on the colonial era, plantation economy, slave labor, etc.) We get to talking and come to find out how much history and agriculture illuminate each other and fill in the blanks. Someday we'll write a book... er, he'll write a book. : )

Ethan Book said...

Mellifera ... You should write the book together! I think it would be fun to add to a book, but I know that I could never write one on my own.

Mellifera said...

It's true. And the good news is history professors have to write books if they like having a job, so there will be a steady supply of projects to tag onto. : )

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