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November 2002 Historically Speaking THE NEW PRESIDENT Agriculture as History Peter A. Coclanis Farming and farmers don't get much attention, much less respect in American academic circles any more. With farmers constituting such a small proportion ofthe U.S. labor force, and with the cultural turn in the humanities two decades ago, agriculture and agriculturalists now seem so elemental , so material in the eyes ofmany as to disqualify these subjects from the list ofthose deemed worthy ofserious—i.e., fundable and prize-worthy—scholarship. It's hard to make hogs or harrows transgressive, I guess. This inattention, however depressing, does have its comic aspects, one of which relates to the growing distance and estrangement ofagriculture from the mainstream cultural milieu. A few years ago, for example, in the Daily Tar Heel, the University ofNorth Carolina-Chapel Hill's student newspaper, a graduate-studentcolumnist(in history, no less) opined that college was the time for young people to "sew" their wild oats.1 (Where is Isaac Merrit Singer when you need him?) Similarly, in the actress Mary Frann's 1998 New York Times obituary, a friend was quoted as saying that in the last year or two before her death, Frann had had "a hard road to hoe."2 Most roadswould be hard to hoe, I suspect . And just last spring, I was second reader on a senior honors thesis at UNC, the writer ofwhich at one point included a passage stating that "in a capitalistic society . . . one man weeps, the other sows . . . "J Fair enough, but if true, it must follow, then, that in socialist societies people reap what they need, not necessarily what they sew, right? Other types ofevidence attestto my point as well. In the late 1980s, for example, that venerable body for rural youth, the Future Farmers ofAmerica, officially changed its name to the National FFA Organization.4 Nowthe change mayhave come aboutin part because farming qua vocation doesn't have much of a future, but it arguably also came about—like Kentucky Fried Chicken's name change to KFC—because farming, like frying , is nowconsidered déclassé. More tellingly still, an article entitled "Auburn Seeks to Revamp Aggie Image," appeared in the Wall StreetJournal a few years back. According to the piece, the school was changingthe name of the Department ofAgricultural Engineering to the Department of Biosystems Engineering , because the old name was turningoffthe public, which increasingly views agriculture in negative terms as "an unsophisticated, lowtechnology field."5 Auburn! When a place like Auburn—a land-grant school since 1872—is embarrassed to be associated with farming, you better believe that academic research on the history ofagriculture is in trouble. In its briefhistory, the Historical Society has tried to remedy this problem, publishing impressive pieces in theJournal ofthe Historical Society on farmers and farming by Victor Davis Hanson and Louis A. Ferleger, respectively /' Everylittle bit helps, ofcourse, but I'm still pessimistic. For a lot ofreasons. There is the case involving one ofmy U.S. history colleagues , a senior historian, who recently told me thathe leaves farmers completelyoutofhis surveyon U.S. historysince 1865 because they don't contribute to the narrative thrust of the course. In the spirit ofFarmers' Alliance firebrand Mary Elizabeth Lease, I should have replied with a "Thrust this!" I'm still kicking myselfthat I didn't. One can go on and on with this type of anecdotal evidence. The editorship ofdiejournalAgriculturalHistory is currentlyopen, and I was approached about the position, an attractive one in manyways, but one that demands a modest level of institutional support. I approached myhome institution aboutthepossibility ofsuch support, and learned that agriculture is not where we as an institution want to position ourselves for the future. Cultural studies, nanoscience, orglobalization, anyone? Finally, last summer I gave a set oflectures in China on agricultural history. In working on one of the lectures, I had to check on some developmentsin English agricultural history, so I walked over to UNCs Walter R. Davis Library and went straight to the source: the much-renowned, multi-volume series The Agrarian History ofEngland and Wales, edited over the years by luminaries such as H.P.R. Finberg, G.E. Mingay, and Joan Thirsk...


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