Food Producers: Popular Perceptions and Food Security from Reconstruction to the Farm Crisis

Theresa McCulla, Smithsonian National Museum of American History (@theresamccu)

Debra A. Reid, Henry Ford Museum (@agrihist)

David Vail, University of Nebraska at Kearney (@DavidVailPhD)

(@aghistorysoc)

Black and white picture of a child with a large bunch of a green vegetable. Black and white picture of three women cutting sugar cane.

Child in a School Vegetable Garden, Richmond Hill, Georgia, circa 1940, holding a “big bunch,” described as a “popular green vegetable in the south.” From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of Ford Motor Company.

This session will take place at the 2020 OAH Annual Meeting | Conference on American History in Washington, D.C. Read the full abstract and speaker information here.

Food Producers, a session at the 2020 OAH Annual Meeting | Conference on American History in Washington, D.C., contrasts popular perceptions of foods with the contested nature of food access over 100 years, from the 1870s to the 1970s. 

Panelists intend their papers to inform OAH attendees who research, write about, and teach food history, or who care about issues of food security broadly defined. Two papers, by Theresa McCulla and Debra Reid, address the process by which physically demanding farm work became increasingly romanticized and workers became devalued. This had consequences for people at both ends of the food spectrum - agricultural laborers and consumers. Two papers, by Margaret Weber and David Vail, address the ways that special interest groups (agribusiness, family farm, community boosters, and environmentalists) debated production agriculture rather than embracing it.

Women cutting sugar cane, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Photographed by William Henry Jackson. Negative made about 1890; print made in 1912. Published by Detroit Publishing Co., Detroit, Michigan. From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

The “Food Producers” panel seeks to deliver context that helps attendees see the multiple agendas that created a food production system that seeks inexpensive food over healthy food, and that values chemical-dependent production over alternative, organic approaches. The papers indicate that, far from fait accompli, producers strategized, leveraged, negotiated, protested, and organized to pursue alternatives. Often but not always, class and political influence prevailed. Presenters show how popular culture and policy aligned to devalue laborers and traditional agricultural practices (seed saving and organic production as two examples). Ultimately, as farm populations plummeted from more than half of the U.S. population in the 1870s to less than 10 percent by the 1980s, consumer goals for inexpensive foods gained precedent, chemical-dependent agriculture became essential to cheap food production, and laborers and alternative producers lost leverage and became marginalized in policy formation.

Chair Anne Effland will provide some additional context by bringing the discussion forward beyond the 1980s to reflect the influence that debate since the Farm Crisis has had on developments in food systems and food and farm policy. Discussions after these papers can extend the reach of the messages to take into account farmers as environmental activists, gentrification of “slow food,” and ongoing debates about food deserts and food security in a nation with an agricultural system based on inexpensive foods.

Posted: February 18, 2020
Tagged: Conference, Previews