Proposal for Beets & Bison

Proposal to North Dakota Humanities Council for
"Beets and Bison: Commodity Cultures of the Northern Plains"

This project applies the concept of commodity cultures to the recent history of the northern plains, with sugar beet farmers and buffalo farmers as the subjects of study. It relies on a variety of documents, but the main body of evidence is oral histories and related documents generated by field research. The working hypothesis is that people producing a particular commodity possess certain cultural traits–expertise, values, habits, and stories–that constitute a commodity culture. A further expectation is that the commodity culture of beets is different from that of buffalo. This line of research is closely related both to my broader program of research in agricultural history and to my teaching assignments. It promises new understandings of the regional culture of North Dakotans by focusing on their work and how it permeates their lives. The study will be of keen interest to people who raise beets or buffalo, but because of this more general issue–the relationship of work to culture–it speaks to all of us.

Activities Planned

The general plan is to do research on two groups of people on the northern plains, groups defined by their participation in the production of two commodities–sugar beets and bison. Why beets and bison? Because preliminary research and interviews have indicated that beet farmers and bison producers are self-consciously distinctive groups each with an apparent common culture. Further, their respective cultures appear to be distinctly different one from the other (so distinct that in preliminary conversations I have referred to the one as "Lutheran capitalism" and to the other as "prairie pastoralism"). More specifically, I have made arrangements to study members of the Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative (headquarters Wahpeton) and the North American Bison Cooperative (headquarters New Rockford).

The initial goal is descriptive–to tell what these commodity cultures are like by studying the texts generated through research and then discerning the themes that hold them together. The work is inductive, attempting to see the world the way the members of the cultures do, looking for patterns rather than pushing hypotheses. This done, comparisons between cultures become possible. Finally, I will consider where these findings situate the respective commodity cultures in the evolving society of the northern plains.

Here are the logical steps for my research.

  1. Review secondary literature on sugar beet culture and buffalo culture.

    The obvious first step in research is to gain grounding in the secondary literature of the topic in general. Although as an agricultural historian I have general knowledge of the history of sugar production and the resurgence of buffalo culture on the Great Plains, I do not claim exhaustive knowledge of these developments. So I will search for and review the literature. This is library work using conventional finding aids and data bases. The review of literature will provide two types of grounding: first, factual knowledge about the regional history of sugar beet farming and buffalo raising; and second, interpretive insights–knowledge of how both scholars and the public have interpreted the significance of these events.

  2. Conduct documentary research on the local commodity culture.

    The second step is to study available local, written sources. These will be fairly abundant inasmuch as both these commodity cultures have organized producer-owned cooperatives, resulting in organizational documents and newspaper coverage. Although a variety of written sources may surface, then, there are two main groups I anticipate using: documents, manuscript and published, generated by the cooperatives; and newspaper coverage of the cooperatives and of commodity production in general. This will advance the research in two ways: by providing a baseline of factual knowledge about the commodity and its local culture, and by illuminating the official mythology of the commodity culture as expressed through its cooperative. Study of the official narratives, governing documents, and even graphic symbols should reveal how the culture wishes to present itself.

  3. Conduct joint interviews with beet farming and buffalo raising families.

    Envisioned here is an interview involving core family members as a couple or a family group. It may be husband and wife, or it involve more than one generation. The standard wisdom among practitioners of oral history is that informants should be interviewed individually. This is partly for technical reasons–sorting out voices on tape and all that–but mainly because informants influence one another. That, however, is exactly why in the study of family farms, I conduct family interviews. Such interviews not only provide factual information about the history of the operation but also provide these additional insights to a perceptive interviewer: a consensus family history–how the family chooses to present itself; and a sense of family organization–who speaks and who defers on certain topics, who holds authority to arbitrate discrepancies in the family narrative.

    The joint interview generates, obviously, a transcript, a verbatim text for study. It also generates a second text–the interviewer's own notes, which document the dynamics of the household and suggest lines for further inquiry.

    The joint interview dwells on commodity production and its influence on the family's life, but it also deals with subjects not apparently related to beets or buffalo. The aim is to obtain a broad view of family history and life.

  4. Conduct individual interviews with beet farmers and buffalo raisers.

    Following the group interview, I conduct interviews with individuals–not necessarily with all family members, but certainly with the one principally responsible for commodity production and with at least one other family member. Individual interviewing might also extend to employees of the family or to others important to its work and life.

    Individual interviews accomplish two things. They gather additional personal knowledge, more details than might be shared in the group setting. They also explore individual perceptions, intentions, expertise, and values.

    The individual interviews incorporate some specific techniques that provide key comparable documentation. The yearly round, for instance. I ask the person to reconstruct the annual calendar. When does the year begin? What are the regular activities? When are the pressure times, when the relaxed times? Gender and generational differences often are evident in the yearly round.

    Another research technique is the tour of the farm. This not only reflects on values (What should be shown?) but also is a great opportunity to assess technical expertise. A beet farmer in this situation may expound on tillage, a buffalo raiser on rotational grazing. Key questions are, is there a specialized body of knowledge that distinguishes this commodity culture? And how is that knowledge generated and transmitted?

  5. Observe production (and possibly other activities) in the field.

    The yearly round identifies certain activities–production-related or not–that hold importance to the commodity culture. In order to understand these things better, I observe them in the field. The range of such activities is broad, and selection by the researcher is somewhat arbitrary, but it is grounded in the previous stages of research. Examples of activities to be observed might include loan negotiation at a local bank; lifting beets; attendance at a cooperative annual meeting; or moving livestock among pastures.

  6. Examine family documents.

    Farming families are likely to hold various types of documents offering insight into their histories and lives, including photograph albums, business records, correspondence, even family histories. These will be consulted where found and where families are comfortable sharing them.

Relation to Other Scholarship

A historian, I expect to ground this work first and last in the literature of agricultural history. It relates most specifically to studies by Smithsonian historian Pete Daniel on the commodity cultures of the American South. It was Daniel who proposed that we understand Southern agriculture by getting inside the commodity cultures of tobacco, rice, and cotton. He also made explicit the relation of his work to my own on the culture of wheat harvesting on the Great Plains. The idea of understanding people by understanding their work is essentially Marxist (as certain colleagues make sport to remind me), but I tend to dwell on other intellectual kinships, including the idea of successive frontiers as propounded by American historian F.J. Turner; staples theory, as expounded in Canada the economic historian Harold Innis and extended to something like commodity cultures by S.D. Clark; the exhaustive description of the French Annales historians; and the ideas of world historian William McNeill as to the importance of narrative in defining identity.

Although the general premises and methods comprised by "Beets and Bison" are not new to me, they do mark the beginning of a new line of long-range work. It was Howard Lamar of Harvard University (author of Dakota Territory) who suggested I submit a proposal for a volume in "Frontiers of the American West," the anchor book series in Western Americana. I expect "Beets and Bison" to help me refine methods and ideas by which I can wed the old concept of successive frontiers to the newer concept of commodity cultures–a key to the future book.

In addition, I expect to make use of material and insights from this project both in my college course, "The North American Plains," and in a new course on international themes in agricultural history.

Contribution to Understanding of Our Cultural Heritage

When we speak of "cultural heritage" most of us think either of high culture (art, literature, the crown jewels of our intellectual life) or of culture in a more anthropological sense, likely ethnographic (verbal traditions, folkways, ethnic material culture). What this project contributes to the discussion of our cultural heritage on the northern plains is the contention that our work is important to us. A beet allotment can be a pivotal factor determining the course of a family's history. Raising buffalo can become the central attribute by which a producer defines himself. We are, all of us, enriched by becoming aware of the richness of commodity cultures about us. Commodity cultures are not the only way to organize our view of regional society, or even necessarily the most telling way of doing so, but they are an essential component in the regional composite.

Appeal to General Audience

To begin with, there is an obvious public audience for this work among producers of beets and buffalo. They will be intensely interested in it. This might be called a specialized general audience. More generally, audiences throughout North Dakota will be interested in "Beets and Bison" for three reasons. The first is just intrinsic interest–looking inside a culture, becoming aware of the cultural riches and human ingenuity all around us. The second reason is that by examining beets and buffalo, any of us can be moved to think about how we are defined by our own work. Third, I encourage people to think about what these commodity cultures mean to our region. What sort of regional society are we building of these parts? Is it civil? Is it resilient? Is it good? How do the pieces fit?