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Farming the National Mall: Smithsonian Showcases Agricultural Innovation

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is introducing visitors to the ingenuity of America’s farmers and ranchers through new interactive exhibits and programming that showcase innovation in agriculture. On July 1, the museum welcomed the public to the American Enterprise exhibit at the ground level of its new Innovation Wing in the Mars Hall of American Business.

Visitors get to see firsthand how innovation has driven American business as they walk through the four eras of enterprise: the Merchant Era (1770s–1850s), the Corporate Era (1860s–1930s), the Consumer Era (1940s– 1970s) and the Global Era (1980s–2010s). The exhibit shows the breadth of the American business story, and agriculture takes a leading role as one of the “five pillars” of enterprise, alongside consumer finance, information technology/communication, manufacturing and retail service.

At the center of the new exhibit, a 1918 Fordson tractor – the exhibit’s largest artifact – shows the shift to modern farming practices and production that cleared the path for American agriculture to become a leader in the global marketplace. From Eli Whitney’s cotton gin to a prototype of an experimental gene gun, the agricultural items on display demonstrate how farmers have long been in the business of making their practices more environmentally friendly and efficient.

But Smithsonian’s new exhibit does more than show museum-goers evidence of the strides farmers and ranchers have made, it gives them a chance to take on real business decisions in the new Wallace H. Coulter Exchange. At the Farming Challenge, visitors of all ages can take the wheel in an interactive tractor cab where they quickly learn that, much like corporate CEOs, farmers face tough decisions each day that can make or break their businesses. From choosing how to irrigate their crops to investing in new equipment, visitors will see the consequences of their choices and learn if they have what it takes to farm in today’s economy.

The Smithsonian is also putting faces to the American Enterprise story through a special biography wall that includes interactive kiosks to highlight stories of business leaders and visionaries – from agricultural innovators like Norman Borlaug and Barbara McClintock to well-known food industry names like Henry Heinz to family farming businesses like Hartman Farms of Parma, Idaho. These stories whet the appetite for visitors looking to learn even more about how business and modern agriculture have evolved. The museum continues to build its online archive as well, and will preserve and share the story of farming and ranching across the U.S. through its Agricultural Innovation and Heritage Archive.

Finally, the museum’s new first floor will also play center stage for the Smithsonian’s Food History Project. Cooking demonstrations, talks and tastings will take place at the Wallace H. Coulter Performance Plaza to highlight innovation on the plate. American farmers and ranchers will have a special opportunity to join in the conversation each month at the museum’s “Ask a Farmer” program. Every third Wednesday of the month, beginning this month, farmers will share their stories, the challenges they face and the role innovation plays on their farms.

The new American Enterprise exhibit has not only chronicled the story of innovation in agriculture, it’s bridging the gap for consumers far removed from the farm. Smithsonian is opening the door for farmers and ranchers to keep telling their stories for generations to come.

Kari Barbic is a media specialist for the American Farm Bureau Federation.

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