The Family Farm in History


While family farming has been a central part of life in Knox County for nearly two centuries, the nature of farming and its relationship to the community has changed. The events surrounding the family farm crisis of the 1970s and 1980s vividly demonstrates the dynamic character of family farm life. In this assignment we will begin to trace long and short-term changes in family farming in order to place our understanding of contemporary agriculture in historical perspective.

We will use newspapers as our primary resource. As we have already discovered, today's local paper provides valuable information on agriculture and rural life. Reading papers from Knox County's past can provide comparable historic detail.

The Public Library of Mount Vernon and Knox County (201 North Mulberry Street, Mount Vernon; phone 392-8671) maintains a microfilm collection of county newspapers extending back to the 1850s. You will divide up into pairs, with each team taking responsibility for examining a sample of newspapers from a particular historic period. We will determine as a class what periods to examine and how to sample newspapers from each period.

Your task will be to identify newspaper materials relevant to family farming and community life (articles, advertisements, photographs, etc.). Make xerox copies of any materials you consider important to understanding farm life, being sure to get complete references for each item. You will then write up a report summarizing your findings, with the primary materials you've collected included as an appendix. Each team should write a single report.

In writing your report, consider these questions:

1. What newspapers did you review and in what time period? What strategy did you use to sample issues of the papers? How effective was this sampling strategy?

2. To what extent do the papers you reviewed focus on local news and features? How rich was the material on local farm life?

3. What is the image of agriculture portrayed in these papers? Where do the images come from, and how are they portrayed?

4. What are the sources of agricultural information and knowledge? Who speaks for agriculture?

5. What continuities and changes (e.g., economic, political, social, cultural) do you find when comparing the historic presentation of agriculture with what you know about family farming in Knox County today?

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