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Living History Farms connects Americans with their food source


With its three working farms tracing agriculture’s development from the Native American farms of the 1700s to the sod-busting pioneers of the 1850s to the increasingly industrialized farms of the 1900s, Living History Farms is dedicated to preserving a way of life all Americans benefit from, but only 2 percent actually participate in.

A growing number of Americans have no direct connection to agriculture, a situation Living History Farms strives to remedy with its educational programs and authentic representation of the history of agriculture. Even among some natives of Iowa, a rural state becoming increasingly more urban with fewer than 10 percent of residents directly involved in agricultural enterprises, the connection between agriculture and food, as well as a growing number of fuels and fibers, is lost.

Connecting visitors – about 111,000 annually – to agriculture thus is becoming more critical, said Sandi Yoder, the Farms’ CEO. “People need to know what they see in the grocery stores is still all part of grocery stores,” she said. “People don’t necessarily connect that with farm production.”

Each day from May 1 through mid-October, Living History Farms gives visitors a glimpse into the nation’s rich agricultural heritage with a variety of hands-on activities. The popular “Get Your Grip on History” program offers a rotating schedule of 320 activities that are vital to a farm’s successful operation, whether it be a Native American farm from the days before Iowa achieved statehood or the more modern farms of the 1900s, when the shift from horse-drawn implements to motorized tractors and combines began to take place.

As the Farms’ historians give an oral history of rural life through the years, gleaned from exhaustive research and diaries preserved by farm families, outhouse pits are dug when they’re needed. Crops are planted, and later harvested, in season. Fences are whitewashed when they become dingy and gray. “You’ve got to be certain,” observed Farms board chairman David Narigon, “that Samuel Clemens is looking down and smiling because we have somebody whitewashing our fences.”

Programming like that inspired Terry Sharrer, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution, to write this in 1996: “No other museum – neither Skansen in Stockholm nor the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading, U.K., nor the Cotton Museum in Giza, Egypt, nor any museum in North America – offers as broad a view over the history of ideas about how things grow and how to grow them. For that reason, the Living History Farms, in my estimation, is now, as it has been for many years, the best agricultural museum anywhere. Living History Farms engages visitors with the central reality of agriculture … placing the emphasis where it rightly belongs – on the living.”

The high-quality programs at the Farms led to it receiving a $112,500 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. One of only five museums in Iowa to receive such a grant, the Farms competed with more than 800 museums for $15.5 million in awards. The federal grant will be used to implement the final phases of the first-of-its-kind-in-the-nation “Get Your Grip on History” program that makes learning fun. That program last week received a certificate of recognition for outstanding programming in the Iowa State Historical Society’s Loren Horton Community History Award competition.

Its mission until now has been to re-create agriculture’s distant past, but Living History Farms is moving closer to the present. Using a $500,000 donation from Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. and a $100,000 grant from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust, it will assemble an exhibit for the Wallace Exhibit Center that combines historical artifacts, interactive kiosks and computer-based educational opportunities that focus on significant events, technologies and social changes that occurred over the last century. Outside the exhibit center, a new “100-Year Crop Walk” will feature demonstration plots of prairie grasses, early corn varieties and modern crops, including soybeans, hybrid corn and biotech varieties.

The bricks that one day will form the Century Farms Heritage Circle outside the Wallace Exhibit Center will tell another chapter in the story of the enduring spirit behind American agriculture – one of toil and tribulation, triumph and tragedy, a subtle endorsement of one of the nation’s best working farm museum’s mission.

In many cases, the dates on bricks commemorating America’s century farms – farms that have been held in the same family for more than 100 years and have been recognized as century farms by a state certifying group – will show them to be enterprises of continued vitality. In others, they may be like headstones that commemorate the birth and death of a family farm. The 1980s, for example, were a brutal decade for the family farm, claiming more casualties than the Great Depression. Still other bricks may tell a story of farms that endured the Farm Crisis, but weren’t able to survive suburban sprawl.

“That, too, is part of the story,” said Mark Snell, director of development at Living History Farms.

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