Milky Way tour; at local farmers' markets I see families who have lived on land here for generations selling products side by side with retirees taking up a farming career as a sort of hobby; and Brooklyn expats have headed here to open restaurants featuring local products. A particularly exciting part to me is the decision many talented young people are making about staying in or coming to the area to try and make their way.
As I thought about it, I realized that local museums in rural communities have a great deal to learn from this local food movement (and from farmers in general, I'll say). Here's a couple lessons I think we should be taking to heart:
- Tradition and new ideas can co-exist. Anyone who farms has to learn from those who farmed before them. But at the same time, combining that traditional knowledge with new ideas can creatively combust into something new. Local history museums are too tied to the idea that tradition--that whatever works--or doesn't work-- is the only approach. Above, Shannon Mason and her mother Gail Danforth of Danforth family farm come from a tradition that not only won their family an award at the Chicago World's Fair, but also now have adapted and also produce yogurt and kefir.
- Young people have ideas and are willing to work hard to make them happen. This seems almost silly to state, but I can think of so many historical societies who are reluctant to engage with young people in substantive ways. And, for those rural museums looking for staff, it's not about the money. No one becomes a farmer for the money, they become farmers because they like the work and can make a difference. If you're on a museum search committee, seek out those young people (with or without master's degrees) who have a passion--and make the commitment to let them work hard, make change and make a difference.
- Spread independent decision-making. As far as I can tell, farmers make independent decisions all day long, every day. Does every decision at your museum have to be made by committee? It's not only a time-suck but also an energy and enthusiasm sucker. Museums need to rethink how we connect with--not just audiences--but how we begin to connect with those young people that are shaping our communities now and in the future, Sharing decisions is a big part of that.
- But network. There's strength in numbers. Whether it's farm tours or connecting with New York City chefs, farmers of all sizes and types know that connections and working together can only benefit them. Stop being territorial, museums!
- Direct interaction matters. Whether you're from a large dairy farm speaking to New York City school groups or a small purveyor of pickles chatting with me at farmers' market, you know that direct, enthusiastic interactions make a difference. I've wondered why my local history museum isn't out every week at farmers market for instance, meeting and greeting.
- Consider your organizational and personal values. I've written about values before but continue to believe it's something that museums and historical organizations don't spend enough time on. We talk one kind of values but sometimes practice another; or we're reluctant to surface long-held values in the service of change and new ideas. There are values embedded in every strawberry, green bean or even burdock root I buy at a farmers' market--and often those values are stated clearly. Can you think of a museum's whose values are stated up front? (I suspect there are some, but none come immediately to mind).
- And, duh, stories matter I put this post up earlier today, after noodling on it for a day or so in my head, sent it out into the world, and this evening, Diana Limbach Lempel, a friend and colleague who thinks intensively about placemaking, reminded me in a tweet of something I should have of course, included. She tweeted, "I'd say that buy local/local food often is doing local history's work to tell place-based stories meaningfully." She's absolutely right. Just take a look at some of my local farm stories at Catskill Family Creameries, Spring Lake Farm and many others at Pure Catskills. And then consider how boring another spinning demonstration is.
I don't mean to romanticize the new farmers in my county; or to neglect those longer-standing family farms whose work continues to feed us all. There will be failed farming experiments out of the ones I've mentioned, I have no doubt; but those failures are all part of a creative learning process. But I do want to encourage rural museums and historical societies to consider what they can learn from their local farmers to change the ways in which we work.
Top photo: Treadwell, NY view; Center: Danforth family from Cowbella; Farmers' market haul, 2014; Bottom, Michelle Gagner's family on the farm, circa 1910, via Delaware County NY History and Genealogy.