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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.