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Agriculture in Illinois: Stories of Place and the People

A Road Scholar Program by Ben Halpern

During the farm crisis of the 1980s, photographer and oral historian Ben Halpern documented changes that occurred in central Illinois’s Grand Prairie region as small, agriculturally diverse, owner-occupied farms disappeared and as cash grain farmers created new landscapes and a new kind of farm life.

Thirty years later, starting in 2015, Ben revisited some of those farms, took more photographs, and recorded oral interviews with family members. He shared his research with accomplished agricultural historian Debra Reid, who provided contextual analysis. The findings, collected by Halpern and interpreted by both Reid and Halpern, indicate that the altered landscape tells only part of the story.

Fewer people live on the land, and cash-grain and confinement operations dominate, but other farmers who are dedicated to raising both grain and vegetable crops and practice diversified stock-crop agriculture remain, and organic agriculture also plays a significant role. Farmers of all types care about keeping their farms operational and families intact despite a competitive business environment.

Mr. Halpern will present their research from a humanistic perspective, describing how the knowledge that Illinois farmers have accumulated through experience and shared across generations influences their decisions about what to grow and how to grow it as they weigh many options and respond to many pressures. Audiences will learn about a variety of factors that shape the rationales behind agricultural producers’ decisions and actions.

The presentation will incorporate photographs taken by Ben Halpern and excerpts from his oral history interviews, as well as other artifacts. It will offer examples of ways in which the stories of farms and farmers can be documented, as well as opportunities for residents of rural communities to share their own stories. It is suitable for people of all levels of familiarity with agriculture (including none at all).

This event is Free and Open to the public. For more information, please contact Alyson Thompson at alysonthompson2@gmail.com.