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NewsTribune photo/Genna Ord Sharon Covert poses for a portrait at her farm in rural Tiskilwa. Curators of the American Experience exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute visited Sharon and her husband Jim’s farm in 2010.
Submitted photo Red Burma Shave-style signs were donated to National Museum of American History by Princeton farmer Jim Rapp. These are two of several signs given to the Smithsonian Institute. This series of signs, when all put together, say “Gasoline prices are way too high/Foreign oil is the reason why/Use ethanol made from corn/It’s renewable energy, American born.”
TISKILWA — Agriculture has been a part of American history since Native Americans first taught settlers how to plant corn during the 17th century. Since then, the United States has had a rich history in agriculture, but a Tiskilwa farmer who visited Washington D.C., found hardly a trace of it at the National Museum of American History.
Sharon Covert visited the Smithsonian Institute in December 2008, eager to see how the museum related agriculture history to its impact on American life. All she found in relation to agriculture was a courtroom model of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and a wooden handled John Deere plow blade hanging in a display case. Much of the museum’s agriculture icons, which included non-interactive old tractors in a dimly lit room according to Covert, had been removed after extensive renovation at National Museum of American History.
Covert wrote an email to Smithsonian officials a month after her visit. She did not hear from them for a long time, she said.
“I question how you an tell American’s story without this critical aspect of our history and the recognition of agriculture as it is critical to the well-being of our nation,” Covert’s email said. “Our world is certainly changing, but we are still fed by farmers who work many hours to provide a safe and affordable food supply.” Covert, who serves as customer focus action team chairman for the United Soybean Board, eventually heard back from the museum. Since then, she said, the Smithsonian has partnered with the USB and other agricultural industry partners to include agriculture in the museum in an exhibit called “American Enterprise.”
She said the exhibit will try to capture the integrations of agriculture with business and technology and how the two have effected the agriculture industry. The exhibit will be the first of its kind to explain how agriculture fits in with American business through the years. It is set to open in May 2015.
According to the director of the museum, John Gray, during Thomas Jefferson’s time, 96 percent of Americans were farmers, and today that number is less than two.
“Despite this drop, productivity has skyrocketed and agriculture has evolved into a technology-driven profession, with the cab of a tractor akin to to a traditional CEO’s office,” Gray said.
In conjunction with the exhibit, the museum has launched the Agricultural Innovation and Heritage Archive, which seeks to “preserve America’s agricultural heritage and build a collection that reflects modern agricultural practices.”
Museum curators are seeking stories about farmers, photographs and ephemera to record and preserve the experience of farming since World War II. Covert said when the museum looked through their archive, they found they have little agricultural icons since before the war to present time.
“There’ve been huge changes in agriculture since that time,” Covert said. “(The Smithsonian) is very interested in saving this part of U.S. agriculture history.” One Princeton farmer has helped with the “American Enterprise” collection by donating several “Burma Shave” type signs about ethanol and no till farming. “Farmers are a small percentage of the whole populous,” Jim Rapp said. “There’s a whole lot of stories to be told about agriculture. It’s a big project.”
Covert brought several Smithsonian representatives to Rapp’s farmland. One of those was Peter Liebhold, curator and chairman of the Division of Work and Industry, who became increasingly interested in the signs Rapp had hanging in his shop.
“American agriculture has gone through a tremendous transformation in the last seven decades, becoming a high-tech industry, deeply affecting not just farmers themselves but every American and the American experience in general,” said Liebhold, in a press release.
The museum is asking for participation from those who have been involved in agriculture to upload their stories at americanenterprise. si.edu.
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