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Smithsonian To Feature Farms And Farmers In New Exhibit

Abbie Fentress Swanson
Harvest Public Media

Crops and cattle, soil and sweat. American agriculture has a proud history to share, a story to tell. But getting the attention of a tech-savvy nation that has mostly moved away from its farm roots has been difficult. Today, though, there is a glimmer of hope for farm fans. The plow, truth be told, looks a little lonely.

On a Monday at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, the crowds are pushing and shoving their way toward exhibits like the original star spangled banner and Dorothy’s ruby slippers. But only a few people cast a glance, let alone stop to learn more at a John Deere wooden and steel plow that dates back to 1838.

Even though it’s right at the front door. But museum curator Peter Liebhold sees promise in the plow.

"With the steel share, it's really kind of a nifty piece," he says.

Liebhold is no farm boy. In his glasses and giant walrus mustache, he truly looks like the part of the urban museum curator. But lately he’s been out in the field – literally – spending days with farmers in their barns and tractor cabs.

"This is why you never want to invite a curator onto your property," he says. "I was out in Illinois and Jim Rapp -- a big corn and bean farmer -- was showing me around. We went into his machine shed and there on the walls of the machine shed was this sign."

The sign, which says “No-Till Saves Soil” in big red block letters and has a picture of a banned plow on it, doesn’t look extraordinary. It’s a little grimy and probably something a lot of farmers have in their sheds.

"And you can see it’s clearly been up forever. And ‘No till’ is a really important concept and very difficult," Liebhold says.

Now, the sign is under lock and key here in a back room at the Smithsonian, destined to be part of a new permanent exhibition in 2015.

The 8,000-square-foot “American Enterprise” exhibition will explore agriculture’s connection to finance, science and retail. Liebhold hopes it will bring some much-needed love to farming.

"Today there are relatively few people in agriculture," he says. "Less than two percent of the population is agriculture. A lot of people live in cities and their sense of food is going to the refrigerator or to a restaurant. But they’re interested."

If you walk through the museum, you’ll find only small glimpses of farming – like a mural display of immigrant farmworkers planting crops in a 19th century California town. There used to be an Agriculture Hall, but it was removed in 2006 because it was tatty and worn out, Liebhold says.

"A group of farmers from Illinois came to us and they pointed out the fact that there was no Ag Hall and they thought that mistake should be rectified and we agreed with them," he says.

And guess who they’re asking for help? Farmers from rural communities across the country.

Liebhold wants to bring their passion for agriculture and food production inside the museum walls through stories, photos and ephemera he’s hoping they’ll submit online.

"And for us this is a grand experiment. We’re not sure if it’s really going to work. It’s outside of our comfort zone, but it’s something that we should do," says Liebhold.

The Smithsonian may be the biggest museum trying to put a fresh spin on farming. But it’s not the only one. The National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame in Bonner Springs, Kan. has way more than 8000 square feet devoted to farming.

Its sprawling grounds even include a recreated 1919 farm town. Engineer Bruce Kent shows off some of it in his golf cart.

"History’s important and a lot of people tend to forget it," he says. "This is our Kansas farmhouse. Everything in here is original."

The National Ag Hall of Fame also has interactive exhibits on modern hog farming, beekeeping and how E 85 ethanol is made from corn.

Lifting the curtain back on food production and marketing to families seems to be working, says CathiHahner, the museum’s executive director. Attendance is up. And she’s hopeful of a side benefit in the Smithsonian’s exhibit.

"Well obviously the Smithsonian is the mother of all museums. So the fact that they are starting to talk about agriculture and that will start bringing people's awareness," she says. "And they might then as they visit other places and that think ag museums might not be boring -- that they are science and technology as well as history and so hopefully that will increase visitation for ag museums across the country."

Besides museums like the Smithsonian showing interest in agriculture, she says the Peterson Brothers' parody videos about farming are making agriculture cool.

"They're three clean-cut young Kansas farm boys who are promoting ag through their own video parodies set to songs like “I’m sexy and I know it”. But their version’s called “I’m farming and I grow it," she says.

"What they've done with their parodies and that have really brought some excitement to agriculture and thinking about the young farmer a little differently today."

Whether it’s music videos about farming, crowd-sourced artifacts or peeling back the onion on modern food production, both the National Ag Hall of Fame and the Smithsonian are hoping to hit the sweet spot that will really get visitors to stop this time and check out the plow.

Here is the latest from the Peterson brothers, "From the Land of Kansas (YMCA parody):"

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