This summer we were given the opportunity to intern with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and throughout our experiences we have learned a lot about the agricultural industry and rural America. Today, agriculture plays a huge role in driving the rural economy and the American economy at large, but we realized it is also important to know how far we have come and what it took for us to get here. To get a better understanding, we took a field trip across the National Mall to Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History American Enterprise exhibit, which launched on July 1st. We were excited to learn more about the role the USDA plays in people’s lives and the immense amount of history we are a part of.
The exhibit encompassed the history of American businesses from corporate companies to small farms and everything in between. We were pleased to see how much the exhibit focused on the journey of American agriculture, from the mid-1700s to present day. We were able to interact with pieces of history that represented major successes as well as the setbacks that agriculture faced as we proceeded through a life-sized timeline of videos, pictures, historical trivia, and games.
Much of the exhibit focused on the ability of American ingenuity to triumph over struggles and obstacles across sectors and throughout history--American agriculture included. One of the major changes in agriculture that the exhibit documents is technological advancement, with exhibits and examples from every era of American history. In the 1700s nearly 80% of the population was farmers but by the 1900s the number was halved to just 40% of the population. Today, the percent of American farmers in our country has decreased to less than 2%, indicating the increasing efficiency of the agricultural industry. The efficiency increase can be credited in part to the tools and resources that have become available over the years. From horses to horse power; from Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and the McCormick binder to the Fordson tractor, the country has seen substantial technological change over a short period of time.
From 1800 to 1930 the U.S. faced nine different economic recessions, and during each of these difficult periods, people in both rural and urban areas depended on their neighbors. Farming families had to make crucial decisions about their farms and ranches. There were people, such as Portia Sperry, who developed small businesses to get their communities thriving again. In the 1930’s Sperry designed a children’s doll, recruited farm women to help make them, and then convinced Marshall Field to sell them. In a time of struggle, Sperry is just one of many Americans who turned to her community to build something positive. As one of the phrases on the wall said, “Farmers do a lot more than just drive tractors.”
We know from our time here at USDA that the past ingenuity and current innovations of farmers and ranchers allow the agricultural industry to remain central to America’s economic success and vitality. This exhibit showed the triumphs that we have had in the past and gives us confidence that agriculture and rural America will remain our nation's strong foundation well into the future.