Cultivating a National Identity
by the Summer 2017 Research Team
Since declaring independence, the founders and leaders of the United States have recognized the importance of agriculture and viewed it as central to preserving the ideals and values of a developing American way of life. An agrarian tradition shaped early American heritage, educational values, politics, and social life. The United States’ Constitution includes policies and stipulations meant to protect farmers and elevate their voices. Moreover, even as the United States evolved from a society of rural inhabitants to one with primarily an urban-industrial base, agriculture continued to play an essential role. Especially in Ohio, agriculture provides employment, defines the landscape, and fosters community. However, fewer and fewer farms small, family-run operations are able to keep up with technological advances as commercial farms grow across the nation. All of the major, large-scale changes in national agricultural communities have been exemplified in Wayne County, including educational, political, and communal endeavors.
Agriculture and Government
Since the late eighteenth century and until the present day, government influence in agriculture has increased. In turn, farmers have worked to preserve their agrarian industry and to instill a national identity. Until the Civil War, agriculture and politics only interacted indirectly when the government gave land to citizens and heads of households who were willing to farm.1 The divide between agriculture and politics lessened when President Abraham Lincoln created the Department of Agriculture in 1862, which signaled the beginning of a more direct relationship between agriculture and politics.2 Farmers themselves began to shape politics with the establishment of the Populist movement at the end of the nineteenth century.3 Their formation of grassroots organizations demonstrates dissatisfaction with economic problems and agricultural policy’s lack of ability to address these conditions. In the 1910s, farmers created local farm bureaus across the country to represent local concerns, including an Ohio Farm Bureau with an office in Wayne County and in 1919, the American Farm Bureau Federation was formed. Farm bureaus allowed American farmers to finally have a powerful voice in government on local, state, and national levels.
When economic hardships and environmental problems hurt farmers in the 1930s, the federal government passed New Deal legislation to reduce surpluses and support farmers. Overall, government influence has increased in agriculture, peaking in the 1930s. Since that time, federal regulation of agriculture has continued each decade to improve agricultural programs, like the food stamp program or the subsidies provided to supplement farmer incomes. Recently, farmers continue grassroots efforts to influence politics instead of relying on the federal government. Even though farmers view themselves as mostly independent from government influence, through aid and regulations, policy has shaped their identity by requiring dependence on government for land, money, and aid programs.
Farmers and other agricultural workers also often rely on non-political methods to influence the community’s concern about agriculture. Agricultural societies started forming in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in the United States as a way for farmers to share and discover new tools and techniques.4 This benefitted both the novice and the advanced farmers. This was especially true in Wayne County, an area that has always used agriculture to bring the community together. Founded in 1833 and re-established in 1849, the Wayne County Agricultural Society had the same goal as countless others—to promote the development of farms and the sharing of agricultural knowledge. With the existence of these agricultural societies came county fairs. County fairs were initially established to provide a resource for communal gathering while also serving as a way for local farmers to exhibit their work and get feedback for their own methods and practices. For these reasons, Wayne County established its own in 1850.5 Over the decades, the fair has evolved to support many different traditions, like the expected agricultural displays, as well as non-agricultural activities, which helps fund these events and bring in larger crowds and keep the fair going.6 One of the most recent innovations is the Wayne County Fair’s partnership and support of the forthcoming Buckeye Agricultural Museum and Education Center, a project forty years in the making.7 Throughout the United States, agricultural museums have become more prominent as a way to teach people about the development of American farms. These museums bring to light that most of the nation is still farmland and create a discussion about agriculture’s relevance in an age often thought of as urban.8
Agricultural Education through the OARDC & Field Extension
While county fairs taught agricultural education as a social function and a way to build community, agricultural education also served a pragmatic purpose—keeping up with America’s rapid technological changes. In response to the creation of a railway system, communication methods, and growing urbanization, American farmers realized they needed to adapt. Using an example from Ohio and surrounding territory, quicker distribution of products through establishment of railroads, such as the Wooster Railway that opening in 1852, meant farmers could make more money by increasing their crop yields. Yet, producing large amounts of the same crop (usually corn) led to soil depletion and decreased quality.9 The need for more nutrient dense soil led to the introduction of the fertilizer industry. However, because farmers in the 1850s or 60s were most likely uneducated and unlikely to change age-old farming techniques, there was a clear need for more scientific research in agriculture and widespread education of farmers. The Ohio Agricultural Experiment Station (OAES) opened in 1882 as a part of The Ohio State University.10 The station had a monumental task at hand; it needed to conduct scientific research and educate students so that farming across Ohio would prosper and keep up with the industrial changes throughout the United States. Ten years after it was founded, the OAES moved to Wooster.11 It was at this station in Wooster that the United State’s first extension programs would develop through the OAES.12 Field extension brought research scientists and students out to farmers and workers throughout Ohio to teach them the advanced techniques and practices for varying kinds of farming. As the OAES began educating adult farmers, the need for greater agricultural education for rural youth became apparent. The organization of the first official 4-H clubs started right here in Ohio in the early 1900s in response to these needs.13 The OAES (renamed the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Station in the 1960s) continues to conduct research on worldwide agricultural issues such as food sustainability and environmental preservation.14
As agricultural education grows, scientists have turned their attention to more pressing matters of today like agricultural pollution. Towards the second half of the 20th century, America moved away from the days of small family farms into corporate-scale agriculture. Additionally, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals have become an integral part of agriculture.15 This allows for a huge surge in quality and productivity, opening up the path for commercial agriculture. However, towards the end of the last century, some Americans grew concerned with the detrimental effects of these agricultural practices on the environment and human’s health. The 1980s saw a radical environmental movement for sustainable agriculture, an alternative to traditional farming that prioritizes environment preservation and enhances the quality of life for farmers and the society. Intense discussion about sustainable agriculture the passing of several major federal acts regarding food production such as the Food Security Act National standard for organic foods established in 1990.16 Today, after only a few decades, organic products hold an important place in American food consumption. Wayne County, whose farmland makes up two-thirds of its total area, has certainly not stood on the sidelines.17 As a very early proponent of sustainable agriculture, Wayne County helped to lead Ohio’s organic foods production and local food movement. Sustainable agriculture marks an important turn in the agricultural landscape, shifting away from productivity and profit to environment and health issues.
Today’s farmers in Wayne County preserve historic agricultural traditions and promote the continuing importance of the agrarian value upon which America was founded. Agriculture is rooted in United States history and is essential to the national identity. The series of exhibits on this site are intended to educate readers on agriculture’s past and modern significance. While we understand the importance of agriculture, it is also imperative to ask ourselves: What are its problems? How does the growth of commercial agriculture impact the small family farm model? How important is it that the average American has working knowledge of the nation’s agricultural history? With a growing population and deteriorating environment quality, is sustainable agriculture going to be a viable option? There are no easy answers to these questions, and some may have hard truths. However, with the essential role agriculture has played in United States industry and identity since its founding, it is necessary to keep an ongoing dialogue about agriculture and its problems in order to make responsible decisions.
1 Robert Leslie Jones, History of Agriculture in Ohio in 1880 (Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press,1983): 321-322.
2 William Turner, Ohio Farm Bureau Story, 1919-1979, (Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, Inc., 1982), 9-12.
3 Ibid; Fred A. Shannon, The Farmer’s Last Frontier: Agriculture, 1860-1897, vol. 5, The Economic Hisotry of the United States (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., 1945), 294-338.
4 Leslie Prosterman, Ordinary Life, Festival Days: Aesthetics in the Midwestern County Fair (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995), 49
5 “County Fair Successful From Start, 100 Years Ago,” The Wooster Daily Record, September 6, 1949, 2, Wayne County Public Library.
6 Prosterman, Ordinary Life, Festival Days 64–65.
7 Paul Locher, “An Old Idea Gets New Life,” Daily Record; Wooster, Ohio, June 6, 2015, sec. A.
8 Debra A. Reid, Interpreting Agriculture at Museums and Historic Sites (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), 5-7.
9 Cumo and Whitmoyer, Seeds of Change, 2.
10 Ibid., 4.
11 R.E. Whitmoyer, A View From the Tower: A Collection of Historical Facts and Anecdotal Stories Covering the Early Years of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (Wooster, OH: OARDC, 1992), 8.
12 Ibid., 14-15.
13 “Twelve Days: 4-H Founder Helped Form Better Farmers for the Future,” From Woody’s Couch, December 13, 2013.
14 Cumo and Whitmoyer, Seeds of Change, 88, 126-28.
15 Gilbert C. Fite, American Farmers: The New Minority (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981), 120-136.
16 Kirschenmann, Fred. "A brief history of sustainable agriculture." The networker 9, no. 2 (2004): 9-2.
17 United States Department of Agriculture, “Table 8. Farms, Land in Farms, Value of Land and Buildings, and Land Use: 2012 and 2007,” accessed July 6, 2017, https://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/Full_Report/Volume_1,_Chapter_2_County_Level/Ohio/st39_2_008_008.pdf.