Visiting a Family Farm


Conducting fieldwork with local farmers is the central task of this course. Here you will become directly acqainted with the richness and complexities of family farming in community life. This assignment constitutes your initial fieldwork experience on a family farm.

Each student will visit a family farm for the day. Once again, you'll team up in pairs, with one pair visiting a farm. In order to facilitate your entry into the field, I've already contacted each of the farm families you'll be visiting by phone. At that time I briefly described the project and obtained their willingness to participate. Each family now expects a student call to arrange the details of your visit.

One member of your research team should call your assigned family immediately. In the course of your conversation you should (1) introduce yourself and your partner, (2) discuss what you might do during your visit, (3) arrange a specific time and date to visit, and (4) get detailed directions to the farm.

As we've already discussed in class, introductions require some thought prior to making the call. You'll want to give your name, of course, and identify yourself as a Kenyon student participating in the Family Farm project. You might remind them that Howard Sacks called a few weeks ago about the visit.

Determining what will happen during your visit is a matter for mutual negotiation. They'll undoubtedly ask what you would like to do, and you should have some answers ready. You'll want to get a sense of their farming operation, touring buildings and getting the lay of the land. You'll also want to learn about the farm's history and that of the family. You'll engage in conversation stimulated by the tour, but you'll likely want to sit down and talk, too. You might mention that you're interested in old photographs of life on the farm or other items that evoke farm history. Try, too, to meet as much of the family as you can, including any children. Beyond that, let them know if there is something in particular that interests you. You should also encourage them to suggest activities that they think will give you a better understanding about family farm life. After all, they know more about farming than you do.

Offer to help out with any chores to be done. This is one way of giving something to the family in return for their time. Just as importantly, doing some farm work gives you an understanding of farm life that you cannot get from simply talking about farm life. Working together on a task can be a great way to stimulate conversation and establish rapport. But remember--SAFETY FIRST!! Don't do anything that you feel may jeopardize your wellbeing. Nobody wants an injured Kenyon student.

In my phone conversations I suggested Saturday, September 17 as a possible date for your visits; in most cases, that date seemed fine at the time. You'll need to get some idea of how long you might visit. Some families might expect to have you for the day, while in other cases a shorter visit might be in order. In any event, don't make specific plans for the period immediately following the anticipated end of your visit. Once folks get talking, visits can take longer than expected. Local hospitality is generous in these parts. If you make friends, you may be invited to stay for supper.

Dress to fit the occassion and local tastes. If you anticipate tramping through fields or milking cows, casual clothes and sensible shoes are appropriate. It might be prudent to throw an extra clean shirt in the car, just in case. At the same time, don't try to dress like a farmer; there is nothing as ludicrous as an outsider trying to pass as a local. Local tastes are conservative, so leave provocative fashion (political, cultural, sexual) on campus. Remember, you are an invited guest in their home, so their values apply.

What are you trying to accomplish in this visit? In general, your approach should be exploratory. Your goal is to learn as much as you can about the character of family farming as your hosts understand it, rather than to carefully examine a particular theme or hypothesis. Once we have gained a general sense of family farming in community life through reading and initial fieldwork, we can revisit these and other farms with more specific tasks in mind.

The key to a successful visit is keen observation. Everything you experience will contribute to your understanding of the family farm--sights, sounds, smells, as well as conversation. Reading the program of the Michigan Folklife Festival will help sensitize you to themes and experiences you might explore.

Your visit is also an excercise in research methodology. Pay close attention to the flow of your visit. How easily do you establish rapport with each person you meet? What techniques stimulate or retard conversation? Are their awkward moments, and how might they be avoided in the future?

Finally, use this visit as an opportunity to present the project to the community and identify other farmers we might contact. If your experience has been positive, ask your hosts at the end of the visit if they can think of other families in the area who might want to participate. Do you think it would be worthwhile to continue working with this family? If so, be sure to ask if it would be all right to visit again sometime.

As soon after your visit is over, discuss issues of substance and methodology with your partner. Write your field notes immediately, in order not to lose the rich details of your experience. Finally, take a moment to send a card thanking your hosts for their hospitality.

E-mail The Family Farm Project