An academic colloquium at Yale University is not someplace where farmers tend to hang out. Typically, a colloquium is a place where graduate students and professors attend presentations by visiting professors to discuss ongoing studies and theories.
However, in mid-September, two Lewistown farmers found themselves speaking in front of a crowd of East Coast intellectuals in New Haven, Conn.
Matt Howe of Lewistown and his father, David, run a farm that has been in the family for 131 years. They grow corn and soybeans and raise beef cattle. Basically, they fit the standard mold of Midwest farmers. On Sept. 19, the two men served as the speakers at one of the weekly sessions of the university's 11-week-long Agrarian Studies Program colloquium series and provided a firsthand account of how modern American farming works.
"It was a little bit intimidating at first because the people that were in attendance there — there were professors from universities around the nation and even the world," Matt Howe said. "There's a real concern with them about where their food is coming from today and who is growing their food."
Howe found out he had been selected to speak more than a year ago and over the course of a year he carefully documented his work as a farmer, from planting in the spring to harvest in the fall and beyond. He wrote an accompanying paper and submitted it to the university to distribute to potential colloquium attendees.
For Howe, it was an opportunity to use his experience to educate the future lawmakers and lobbyists, the ones who will be working on the farm bills that actually affect the livelihoods of people like Howe and his father. It was an opportunity to lobby on behalf of Midwest farmers.
Howe believes he and his father brought a perspective to the colloquium series that has been missing.
"They talked a lot in theory there, but we were the first ones who truly had to deal with it, that it truly affects. You can bring in professors from around the world to talk about it, but at the end of the day it's not their livelihood that is dependent on these bills that Congress passes."
Ryan Hall, the Agrarian Studies Program coordinator at Yale, echoed Howe's statement.
Hall described Yale's agrarian studies program as a working group made up of people who study things such as history, anthropology and sociology and who have a broad interest in rural life.
The colloquium series "brings in visiting scholars who talk about their academic work but who usually don't bring real-world experience in agriculture.
"It was probably one of my favorite visits we've ever had," Hall said of the Howes' presentation.
Hall was especially struck by a few topics the Howes discussed, such as how complex and complicated modern farming is and how much collaboration goes into a family farm.
Plus, with so much discussion he hears about the decline of the family farm, Hall said it was great to see farmers like the Howes, who are aware of the difficulties of family farming but are "also very optimistic about the future."
Howe said many questions they received touched on the hot topics concerning modern agriculture — including genetically modified crops, ethanol and the government's farm bills. He said there was a focus on how food is raised, what the future will look like and whether there is going to be enough food to feed a growing population 20 to 30 years down the road.
"I just wanted to make them know that we truly care about what we do, and Dad and I, we want to make sure that we're preserving the ground for the next generation," Howe said. "We want to make sure that not only ours but all farms are viable pieces of ground for our children and great-grandchildren." --KEN HARRIS, (Peoria) Journal Star