Sunday, November 18, 2012

Connecting to farm history (and why Martin Van Buren is cooler than you think)

Martin Van Buren c.1855 (Mathew Brady)
Despite his indisputably awesome side-whiskers, Martin Van Buren doesn't have the brand-recognition of many of his fellow American Presidents.  A single-term (1837-41) Chief Executive whose tenure was shaped by the financial crisis of the late 1830s and the excruciating sectional tensions leading up to the Civil War, he's mostly remembered today for his role in creating the party system and for the fact that his political nickname, "Old Kinderhook" (O.K. for short) has passed into our everyday language.

Lindenwald, Van Buren's post-Presidential home
Van Buren's relative obscurity has been an interpretive and public relations challenge for the national park site at his post-Presidential rural estate in Kinderhook, New York, and it was also a foundational issue for me when I started working on an Ethnographic Landscape Study focusing on farming for the park about three years ago.  It was perfectly plain to me that a national park that encompassed a vibrant working farm--as Martin Van Buren National Historic Site has done since a 2009 boundary expansion that now circles Van Buren's entire property instead of just its central mansion--had many potentially exciting links with present-day debates and struggles over the politics of food, farming, health, community, and economics.  But what did it have to do with Martin Van Buren?  I remember asking, at our initial project meeting, how close I had to stay in my research to Van Buren himself, and being told, "Everything has to connect to or through Van Buren.  He's the reason this park exists."

Artist's rendering of Van Buren's farm c. 1850
Over my next few posts, I'm going to write about how I did that, chapter by chapter, in the study (which you can now download from the park's website).  In this first post, though, I thought I'd just say a bit about that challenge of finding ways to stay centered within a very specific history and interpretive mission while building out toward the larger context of today's food movement and all the social, political, economic, and moral questions it raises.  This is of course the central challenge of public history:  maintaining a balance between the  uniqueness, contingency, and essential "otherness" of the past--and the methods of inquiry that historians have developed for building knowledge about it--while remembering why it seemed important to focus on a particular aspect of the past--in this case, ongoing debates about farming as we rethink the costs of our energy-dense, globalized way of life--in our present-day work.

In a nutshell, it was possible to do this at Martin Van Buren NHS because of the still-essentially-agricultural society in which Van Buren lived and the always-essentially-political nature of debates about food, farming, health, and land use.  You don't have to think very deeply about food in the 21st century before you find yourself engaging with political questions.  And because the economy of Van Buren's America was still largely built around agriculture, those farm-related questions connected with nearly everything else.  Here are some of the big links that seemed most salient as I was gathering data for my study:
  • Questions about the place of farming within a market-oriented society. Farming was becoming much more a matter of commercial exchange in the early 19th century, with supply chains  lengthening, crops becoming commodities, and prices determined more by distant market conditions than local costs and circumstances.  Martin Van Buren and his neighbors farmed for their own household sustenance but also increasingly sold commercial crops like potatoes, apples, and hay for New York City and more distant places, entering into the kinds of volatile, market-driven relationships that farmers have been trying to navigate ever since.  The present-day food movement is attempting to rethink these kinds of markets and relationships and to shorten our food chains again.
  • Questions about the relationship of agriculture and industry.  Industrial manufacturing was  surging to the forefront of the 19th century American economy, particularly in the older northeastern states.  Industrialization brought new tools that made farms more productive but also created new expectations that they should be as efficient and mechanized as factories.  It's another vicious cycle that farmers have been caught in ever since:  greater efficiency means lower prices, which means the need for greater mechanization and higher yields just to stay economically viable.  And again, the contemporary new/small-scale/local/sustainable food movement is trying to find ways out of the cycle, back to a scale of production and marketing closer to what existed in Van Buren's time.
  • Questions about labor and land.  Van Buren took up farming at a time when young, landless farmers were already struggling to find and afford productive land in the old northeast (that's why so many of them headed west) and when the country was sharply divided over the use of non-free agricultural labor.  As with debates over land protection and access today, these 19th century arguments were all about morality, market forces, and the relative political power of regions and kinds of people.
  • Questions about the role of government.  As with industrialization and commercialization of farming, Van Buren lived and farmed--and was involved with politics--at a sort of hinge-point in U.S. history.  Particularly after the Civil War, the federal government became much more involved in agricultural policy, methods, and markets (Abraham Lincoln signed the U.S. Department of Agriculture into existence as a Cabinet-level position in May 1862, just two months before Van Buren died).  It's another ongoing set of issues, which have been clearly felt in the recent months of negotiation over the 2012 Farm Bill.  Do some kinds of farms and products need or deserve public support and subsidy?  How (and how much) should food production and marketing be monitored and regulated?  How have farmers made their voices heard politically as their numbers have dwindled, and what does that mean for the steadily-increasing numbers of new/young/locally-oriented farmers who are choosing a different path from the dominant one that's been mapped out over the past 150 years?
The kind of farming Martin Van Buren practiced at Lindenwald was quite different in many ways from what's happening in the contemporary food movement.  But the questions he was grappling with in and through his farming endeavors are still strikingly relevant--in fact, we're still working on the exact same questions, just from a different place within the same economic and technological processes.  In my next few posts, I'll trace those questions through the specific history of one Hudson Valley farm over three+ centuries.

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