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Harvesting the Past

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Title: Twenty-Fifth Biennial Report of the Kansas State Board of Agriculture

Date: 1926

Discovered: at Prospero’s Books, 1800 West 39th Street

Representative quotes: “An average yield of 123,000,000 bushels per year clearly entitles Kansas to be ranked as the premier wheat state of the world.” (page vii)

“The teacher should keep a classroom weight chart on the wall and record the weight of each student once a month.” (page 85)


Everything is coming up Kansas in this illuminating volume, one of many such farm reports for sale at Prospero's if you venture into the bookstore's basement. Everything, that is, but the Kansas wheat crop, which in 1925 yielded half of what it did in '24. But fear not — 1926 was a bumper year by comparison, one that blessed the state's farmers with high bushel prices and the distinction of being what the Kansas Board of Agriculture called "one of the leading producers of human necessities in the Union."

Back then, there were still family farmers who could take pride in that assessment and in their heritage. The Ag Board authors of this report write of a world that's hard to reconcile with the horizon-straddling hog farms of today. By '26, the yeoman Kansan had brought forth "a garden from a desert," planting sorghum, clover and winter wheat from Russia — a remarkable achievement given that, as the authors point out, Americans just a few generations before had believed crossing the plains would be possible only with camels. Now, paved roads and electricity were spreading across the state, and people had at last vanquished their wiliest enemy, the prairie dog. ("For his extermination, we are chiefly indebted to Lantz and Scheffer, formerly with the Kansas College and later with the United States Biological Survey.")

Much like today, Kansans still held to tradition in the face of change. For all their concern over wheat smut and the European corn borer, what truly worried the Ag Board types was "the encroachment of power machines upon the historical sphere of the horse." The authors add, wrongly, "Present conditions seem to warrant the belief that maximum of reduction in horse flesh has been reached." They also take pains to flatter their subjects, commending the prairie farmer for possessing "a spirit of adventure, unshakable faith, an eagerness to try new methods, high intelligence, perseverance and unremitting industry."

Of course, the gray blight of the coming Dust Bowl looms over every cheery prediction, as does the brute reality of the mortgages that this Ag Board recommends farmers take out. There's also something touching about the hope that horses might remain the chief "power machine" of farming. It's almost as if they suspect that mechanization, corporatization and the economics of scale would, in seven decades, leave these spirited, intelligent and industrious folks toiling not on the land but in a Wal-Mart somewhere.

Highlight

There's much that we wish we could warn them about, but the report isn't without its lessons for us. For example, Edgar Mendenhall, head of the Department of Rural Education, came up with a list of "desirable and undesirable traits" to be considered when selecting members of the Kansas School Board. Notice that the traits selected below would disqualify not just today's board but also this nation's previous president:

Desirable

• Is fair-minded.

• Is reasonably successful in conducting his own business.

• Is progressive — believes in the possibility and need of improvement in all lines of human endeavor.

• Has a fair education — a common-school education or equivalent desirable

• Reads a standard farm paper and one or more magazines of recognized worth. Is generally well-informed.

• Regards himself as representing the interest of the entire community and not a faction.

• Is interested in people outside his own family or in other communities.

Undesirable

• Is governed by prejudice, is "hard headed."

• Is noticeably unsuccessful in conducting his own business.

• Wishes to keep things as they are or to return to past conditions. Is conservative or reactionary.

• Educational qualifications are insufficient.

• Does not read as indicated. Is not well-informed.

• Is controlled by a group or a faction in his community.

• Is noticeably self-centered. Shows little interest in people outside his own family and community. Fails to realize that the educational interests of all schools are linked with each other and with the interests of the state and nation.

A quandary: Mendenhall recommends progressivism way back in 1926. Does that make an insistence upon progressivism today some kind of reactionary conservatism? And does that, in turn, qualify today's anti-science school board members as progressives who have dared to break with the traditions of the Enlightenment?

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