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Farming the Plains


If you’re a regular listener to Plains Folk, then you know you’re dealing with a farm boy. I’m the guy who buys out other heirs and nurtures hopes of seeing the family farm (dating from 1874) into its seventh generation. I will need more than my biblical three-score-and-ten to do that, so wish me luck.


If you are a regular listener, then, too, you know I am a thoroughgoing academic and make no bones about it. The history of agriculture and the history of the Great Plains are my wheelhouses. I come by these interests honestly.


Thus I was commissioned to write, for a major publisher, a state-of-the-discipline essay as a chapter for a reference work in American agricultural history. I just finished it, and over the next couple of weeks, will abstract some of my thoughts from the essay, “Agriculture of the Great Plains,” 8000 words. (Don’t worry, you won’t get all of them!)


To begin with, I am old, and I think in terms of the long game. So the piece starts out by invoking the classic works of the field all published in 1931: The Populist Revolt, by John D. Hicks, who tells the story of the Farmers Alliance and the Populist  Party of the 1890s, which gets me agitated; The Great Plains, by Walter Prescott Webb, who establishes the importance of the level, treeless, semiarid environment for agriculture and everything else on the plains; and The Day of the Cattleman, by Ernest Staples Osgood, the classic treatment of the open-range cattle industry.


Sometimes my students get a little restive when I make them read these hopelessly out-of-date books, but when they roll their eyes, that is my opportunity to educate them about what we call epistemology--one of those wonky terms of the trade, meaning, simply enough, how we know what we know. Knowing where our knowledge comes from, how it has evolved, is essential for understanding what we are trying to do as historians. Or as farmers, I would argue.


1931, though, is only yesterday in the eye of God (cue Psalm 90) or that of the serious historian, and that brings me to another of our wonky terms, this one borrowed from the French Annales historians: the longue durée, or to put it in farmboy terms, the long haul, over time. This means recognizing American Indians as the first, and continuing, farmers of the plains.


In much of the region we rely on archeology to fill in our knowledge about the village farming peoples of the distant past. For Kansas and the central plains--in fact the very vicinity of my own family farm interests--we have the excavations and ruminations of Waldo Wedel. Wedel was a Mennonite farmboy himself, and so it is fitting that he is the one who has stretched our knowledge of Great Plains agriculture back to the 1500s and beyond.


On the northern plains we are fortunate to have the remembrances of the Hidatsa farmer Maxidiwiac, Buffalo Bird Woman, who told what she knew about traditional Hidatsa agriculture to the clergyman-anthropologist Gilbert Wilson. This text, Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden, is our greatest written source about Indian agriculture on the prairies.


Maxidiwiac schools us in some important insights that guided her life and inform ours: that agriculture need not be the male-dominant occupation that we Euro-Americans make it out to be; that the practice of agriculture should involve the family and community and look out for the wellbeing of all; and that it is both a necessity and a privilege to live a life attuned to the seasons and the soil.

-Tom Isern

Prairie Public Broadcasting provides quality radio, television, and public media services that educate, involve, and inspire the people of the prairie region.
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