Project Manager - ICF International
How did you become interested in Agricultural History?
I have always been interested in food systems, and when I started my Masters in Community Development and Applied Economics at the University of Vermont, I wanted to study Vermont agriculture, albeit from the social science perspective. I teamed up with my advisor Bob Parsons, a noted dairy economist, and he told me that he had wanted to document the history and emergence of organic dairying for several years, for as to his knowledge, it had never really been done. I did some digging on the subject and soon decided to take on this project as my thesis, mentored by Prof. Parsons and Prof. Dona Brown, who helped enhance my historical research skills.
Over the course of nearly two years, I interviewed over 50 farmers and organic advocates from across the country, and I quickly learned that what had been casually noted in published sources--that organic dairying was created by corporations, or that it didn't exist before the early 1990s--was simply not true. I became fascinated with the stories of farmers I spoke with, men and women who transitioned to organic production decades ago because it was a practical solution to the problems they faced, because it was a way to keep their farms and their cows healthy. Our article demonstrates how individual actions on local farms can expand and create powerful movements and lasting change. It was also interesting to see how sustainable agriculture was adopted by mainstream farmers who were not stereotypical "hippies" but who adopted sustainable (or what we can now call "organic") methods because it simply made sense to them.
Our article will be published in the Journal in February, and I am immensely proud that the stories of these farmers will finally be heard. I discussed my findings last year in Banff and plan to present some follow-up research (on the organic dairy market in the 1990s) at this year's meeting in Provo.
What are you working on currently?
I am currently working on a review of Kendra Smith-Howard’s new book Pure and Modern Milk: An Environmental History since 1900. It is fascinating to read about the transformation that milk—nature’s purest product—has undergone over the past 150 years, and how our perceptions of what milk is and should be—nutritious, clean, safe, a food made by mothers for their babies—has also evolved. Reading the agricultural and environmental history of milk helps me understand food policy and rural issues in Vermont, from something as mundane as why the state’s dairy farms have grain silos, to valuable historical context for the current heated debate over raw milk.
What is next for the Society?
I am excited that the Society is reaching out to students of food systems, not only because it is a growing field, but because most food systems programs rarely go into any depth on the historical context that is vital for understanding the present state of U.S. agriculture. As someone so rightly noted at the Banff conference, agricultural history gives context to Michael Pollan’s work. I am certain that the passionate undergraduate and graduate students of food systems at programs from Maine to California would greatly benefit from the lessons of agricultural history! I truly appreciate how the Society and Agricultural History explain and give context to our current food system and how by becoming part of this field, I have a more profound understanding of the challenges that face agriculture today.