Making knowledge about agriculture.

This week I am putting together a conference paper, and in the process am wrestling with some big questions in the dissertation. How do local people, county leaders, land-grant specialists, and USDA officials collaborate to create agricultural knowledge? How does the knowledge that each of these groups creates differ? How do these different people make use of that knowledge, and put it to work? And how does it circulate and change across these different levels of administration, expertise, and practice?

These are difficult questions to answer, and the issue of scale — the fact that agricultural research and change happens not just at the federal and state levels, but at the county and locality and farm levels as well — makes them even more complicated. How do you trace an idea or a fact or a practice or a technique through this knowledge-making system? What documents should you look at to do so?

New York State College of Agriculture Extension Service, 4-H Club Records, #21-24-692, Box 111, Folder 50. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

My dissertation pivots on the notion that one set of documents you can utilize to gain insight into these matters are extension records, in particular those relating to 4-H club work. The Cooperative Extension Service, created by an act of Congress in 1914, was in many ways the capstone to the Morrill Act of 1862, which granted federal land (or scrip for land) to the states to establish colleges for the agricultural and mechanic arts. This was the first step in a process whereby federal monies were made available to encourage the doing and sharing of scientific agricultural research. (Other important milestones included establishing the Experiment Stations and the 1890 Institutions.) The creation of the Extension Service was a response to continued poor conditions in the countryside, and a sense among many that the fruits of scientific research weren’t really being disseminated widely enough. The 1914 act called for face-to-face and in-person contact, demonstrations, and object lessons in both agriculture and home economics to supplement the printed material coming out of the Colleges and Experiment Stations. It was directed at people not enrolled or resident in the colleges; in a real sense, it was about bringing the university to the people. As such, it entailed involving local people in the process of knowledge-creation — through demonstrations and experiments on their farms, using their labor and their land and their experience — and knowledge-circulation.

As is probably clear, I come at this topic with a belief that the county, local, and even farm levels matter in answering these questions about agricultural knowledge-making: that what rural people do to get a living from the land, and how they respond to extension efforts to modify, guide, reshape, or even drastically change the means by which they do so, is integral to understanding agricultural research programs and their effects. That what we generally think of as a top-down process of transmission — of knowledge, of information, of methods, of tools and seeds and livestock and other artifacts — from urban or land-grant-college/experiment-station center to rural periphery, from expert to layperson, from scientist to farmer, is in reality far more complicated. The language of these bills — with its repeated references to distribution and diffusion — implies a one-way movement of ideas; yet it is more accurate to say that ideas circulated, were appropriated by different groups, were reproduced in new ways. Dissemination, I think, offers a good metaphor: scattering seeds widely, which then take on lives of their own. The seed metaphor helps us further: the seeds mature differently, depending on where they are planted. Place and locality matter. Likewise with ideas, practices, techniques.

I’ve been thinking about these questions through the lens of an image I came across in the Cornell Archives that illustrates a 4-H “chain of knowledge” linking the land-grant-college specialist, the 4-H agent, the local leader, and the club member. Though this schematic is obviously quite simplified, I think it represents a good tool to think with. The chain is not a straight line, but a loop: knowledge can flow in both directions. The chain is comprised of more local- and county-level links than it is of state- and federal-level ones (in fact, in this representation, the federal level is completely absent): knowledge circulation happens on a highly localized scale. Furthermore, the chain puts the land-grant specialist in direct contact with the club member, linking individuals across several scales and kinds of knowledge. This indeed happens in the context of club congresses, camps, fairs, and other gatherings that bring youth and experts into personal contact, supplementing the more distant contact of, say, a club member reading an extension circular authored by a specialist. Finally, the links in the chain are not static: people can (and often do) pass through several of them, becoming different nodes in the network at different points in time. 4-H club members who grow up to be club leaders, or extension agents, or land-grant-college professors, or USDA officials represent one way of traversing this network, following people as well as ideas and practices.

Which brings me to another point: organisms and artifacts move through this network as well. Pigs, ears of corn, vegetables, canned goods, dresses, poultry, eggs… The products of 4-H club work also circulate. And they circulate through two overlapping and mutually constitutive systems: the knowledge system of the land-grant complex, and the economic system of markets in agricultural and domestic products. Production for home use and for sale: this is central to the 4-H idea from the beginning, and this economic or market orientation sets 4-H apart from other youth movements coming out of the Progressive Era. These markets are also critical in making agricultural knowledge, something I’m hoping to talk about in this paper as well.

Catch me next week, and I’ll probably have a better-theorized way of explaining all of this, but these are the ideas I’m grappling with right now. For the moment: back to making knowledge (on a different level) about agriculture.

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2 thoughts on “Making knowledge about agriculture.

  1. Language like this helps even a parent better comprehend what a child really may be up to intellectually, and that improvement also provides a better view into the child’s heart.

  2. As I woke up to the concept of local food recently I have gotten more and more involved. Not only am I blogging for the Collaborative for 21st Century Appalachia whose mission is to help small farmers and help improve agritourism as well as make consumers more aware of the local farm products, but I am involved with our town building a local food market (not to be confused with the farmer’s market which sells many products from other states). Many consumers want more nutritious food and support an EASY way to get it.

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