Perspective: A Time For History-Across All Fields

April 3, 2013 06:00 AM
John Phipps

In all the realm of academic learning, perhaps the one discipline most ignored by farmers is history. In this issue of Top Producer, where we look back at a mere 30 years, I count numerous surprising recollections that are a testament to my own tendency to disregard the importance of accurate records and serious reflection on our past.

We are a relatively undocumented profession. Can you name an ag historian? As a result we rely upon our favorite chronicle: memory. Study after study shows this to be perhaps the worst source of history, as we refine and amend memories each time they are recalled.

This might be why our idea of history often devolves into nostalgia. Much of our sense of who we are and how we got here is shaped by how we want the past to be perceived. In a sense, we constantly rewrite our history to suit our needs.

In an accident of boredom, I have found a new respect for good historical information. On my weekly commutes from my Illinois farm to South Bend, Ind., for the U.S. Farm Report taping, I have in desperation resorted to history courses on audio CDs to fill in the three-hour blocks of interstate driving.

The Great Courses from The Teaching Company have proven to be just that. If you Google them you’ll see a wide array of subject matter, but for driving I have found history to be the ideal accompaniment. I began with war history—Revolutionary, Civil, WWI.I expanded to medieval, English, ancient, colonial and numerous other offerings such that I am now a colossal bore on more than 38 topics.

"The human aspects of history, rather than simple chronologies, tend to shade our belief systems more than we think."

Rhyme Reflection. I have developed a new respect for how knowledge of our past, even the distant past, can be helpful in dealing with our present, as well as helping to predict our future. While history might not repeat itself, it might, as Mark Twain put it, "rhyme" from time to time. Many situations I have thought unique to the present are eerily similar to the past.

The surprising prosperity of the last few years for grain farmers has similarities to the fabled 1910-14 period of parity fame. Crop failures in Ukraine and a domestic boom led to windfall profits for American farmers. As an extreme example, farms were paid for with one crop. Indeed, it is curious that it has been almost a century since farmers have enjoyed the level of success of the first two decades of the twentieth century.

More importantly, good history brings to light the power and persistence of cultural influence on farmers themselves. To better understand our values, we need to know more about our preceding generations and what they considered just or harmful. With our continuing structure of family businesses, farms are unusual in modern commerce in their abilities to transmit values through the years.

For that reason, examining the origins of our agricultural traditions can be enlightening. As  Americans, one example would be the history of immigrant inflows. The Napoleonic Code and the United Kingdom’s Corn Laws influence modern debate on the rights of tenants and landowners because of their impact on those who left Europe as a consequence.

A New Chapter. The human aspects of history, rather than simple chronologies, tend to shade our belief systems more than we think. Within these moral frameworks, we construct economic models to fit. Unless we appreciate how these values arose, we might not be able to cope with economics that seem to violate them.

We have not arrived at this moment in time accidentally, despite the seeming randomness of events. Looking back a mere 30 years, which coincides with my career, is a valuable exercise in self-knowledge. Consider how we have shifted from tradition as a guiding principle to economics.
The last 30 years also demonstrate a narrowing of differences between farmers and non-farmers, which perhaps calls into question our unique relationship with government.

Studying our history might also temper our judgment by reminding us our action will be similarly scrutinized by future generations. We have the opportunity to write an honorable, perhaps even notable, chapter in the ongoing story of agriculture. I find myself wanting it to be a good read for those who follow.

John Phipps is a farmer from Chrisman, Ill. He is the TV host of "U.S. Farm Report." Contact him at For local station listings, log on to

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