I saw a recent television news segment highlighting a special farming exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. The story stated that the exhibit was being displayed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of John Deere’s successful Waterloo Boy tractor, which the company first acquired in 1918. The company and the John Deere trademark name are much older. It began manufacturing operations in 1837 with its pioneering plow and an assortment of farming hand tools. The company started experimenting with and producing tractors in 1912, but its tractor line did not begin to enjoy widespread popularity until the introduction of the Waterloo Boy. As those of you who have read my thoughts about the history and evolution of farming in my previous website posts know, I feel it is about time that the importance of agriculture to our American society is given greater attention. This was a special exhibit I had to see for myself.
Admittedly, I was not excited about making another trip to Washington, DC. It is a three-hour drive from our farm just to reach the Fairfax, VA transit station at the western edge of the Metro Orange Line. To add insult to injury, not only have the Metro transit fairs increased (which I anticipated), but they now charge a fee for weekend parking at the station and an additional fee for the fair card. Both of these were free the last time we used the system more than two years ago. The attendant at the station told us that the new fare card charge was for the plastic card they have introduced. He said that the paper cards were eliminated to “save the trees.” So, in the established tradition of our society’s hysteria-driven rush to a solution, the system now charges its patrons an additional fee for an “environmentally friendly” fare card made from a petroleum-based product. Oh, Admiral Farragut, I wish you had never uttered your immortal words, “Damn the torpedoes; full steam ahead!” Will we ever again learn to think critically before reacting?
However, we had already decided to abandon sensibility by going back to Washington in the first place, so we pressed on to our destination, the Museum of American History at the National Mall. Fortunately, the damp and unseasonably cool weather, along with the recent ending of the official summer tourist season combined to grant us uncrowded trains and a low turnout at the museum. Having heard that the agriculture display was a “special exhibit.” I asked a museum attendant where I could find it. After a small group consultation (two of them did not appear to know what I was talking about), I was told I could find it in the west wing of the museum’s first (ground) floor. The 1918 Waterloo Boy tractor was not difficult to find, with its trademark bright green and yellow paint, but it seemed to stand alone. The rest of the supporting “agricultural” displays were scattered throughout a broader exhibit detailing the evolution of our national economy. While it wasn’t an inappropriate place to educate the public on how the growth and evolution of agriculture influenced our modern economy, it hardly seemed like a special tribute to that story.
The overall display included a second antique Fordson Tractor, a small-scale model of the 1794 cotton gin, an interactive computer display that allowed participants to understand the thought process and choices a farmer must make to successfully operate a modern farm, and scattered tidbits of information detailing how the agriculture industry has achieved great increases in productivity from a declining workforce. These are points I have made in some of my past website posts.
I did find a display that explained how the introduction of the tractor contributed to farm productivity. Although a tractor allows a farmer to cultivate and harvest more land faster and easier than using work horses, the farmer also benefits from reduced “fuel” costs—a tractor requires fuel only when it is being used, where a team of horses must be fed constantly whether or not they are working—while making more land available for production—instead of dedicating it to grow food for horses. The competition to produce more food at a lower cost drove farmers to modernize their farm operations with tractors and other advanced equipment. These points, as well as the nation’s transition from a predominantly rural to a predominantly urban population, were clearly explained, although one has to look for the information in the larger display.
However, I noticed that some important aspects of the evolution of modern farming were not clearly discussed or were simply overlooked. For instance, I found no discussion of how these technological innovations allowed the most profitable farms to expand in size and scale, while the smaller, less profitable farms slowly disappeared. The increased productivity from industrial farms, combined with the evolution of modern food processing industries, provided more food for consumers at lower costs, which contributed to the gradual demise of non-commercial, individual family farming activities, such as milking a cow, raising a hog, and planting gardens. Why do all that work when you can afford to buy all the food you need from a store? It is during this transitional era that raising children became an increasing cost to the family and a less necessary source of supporting labor.
In my view, the full story of how advances in farm technology and mechanization helped fundamentally change American society is muddled when these other trends are not explained or discussed. They help us understand why and how we have produced an industrialized food processing industry and why so many people today do not understand where their food comes from. They also explain why so many small family farm operations have disappeared and why farmers and farm issues are so politically marginalized or misunderstood in our society. In that sense, I feel the Smithsonian’s agriculture exhibits fail to capture the true scope of today’s farming crisis. Acknowledging the role that agricultural modernization played in building our nation is an important first step. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go far enough to help the public understand why farmers struggle to produce the food our increasingly urban society needs. Perhaps they should consider adding a new dedicated farming museum to their collection. Until then, I’ll just have to keep discussing these obscure issues. I’m just relieved to be back home at Peeper Pond Farm.