Scholastic Explorer

Oral History of the Skagit River
by Karen Fitzgerald

My experience of the Skagit River has convinced me that an oral history of farming in Pleasant Plains, where Iím from in Illinois, would be valuable not only for historical reasons, but also because it could elucidate the problems of modern farming. Perhaps it might even suggest a new approach to farming that would be more in harmony with the environment, as well as more profitable. Local farmers appear to be surviving to a large degree on government subsidies, which require that they grow corn, soybeans, or wheat; this lack of biodiversity — not to mention chemical fertilizers and pesticides ó can hardly be good for the soil or the ecosystem.

Furthermore, I think it would benefit young people of the community to learn what the farming life was like for their elders in earlier times. They might gain more respect for them, as well as for the land and nature. They could also help devise solutions to real problems, instead of the hypothetical problems typical of schoolwork. In my experience, such abstract work tends to bore students and renders them unmotivated.

The project has five main components.

1. Learn as much as possible about farmers and farming in the area from the 19th century on through newspaper and magazine clippings as well as Internet and library research. Include research on the Native American who originally lived here and how they interacted with the first settlers.

2. Compile a list of people to be interviewed, including studentsí own relatives, names culled from research, talking to Brandt Fertilizer Company, farmers at the local diner coffee klatch, etc, and then set up interviews. Students should draw up interview questions, with teacherís approval. The interviews could take place at the school in the classroom or in the subjectís home and recorded on tape. At least two students should be designated to take notes and type them up separately, and then compare and combine. Make a point of tape-recording the farmers talking in the diner in early morning, for historical record.

3. Pinpoint any pollution problems in the community and surrounding areas from agricultural chemicals. Do research on the environmental studies that have been done in the area. Contact the EPA and State Museum to determine what kind of measurements might be might be taken in local streams, soil, etc. Investigate the utility of bird count as an indicator of the health of the ecosystem.

4. Do research on possible alternative crops that might thrive in Sangamon Valley soil and climate conditions, without the addition of chemical pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers; research should include whether there is a large enough market for the crops to be economically viable for local farmers to grow. As part of their research, students might also test growing various crops.

5. At the end of the year, the students should write a report on their conclusions after they have read all the interview notes and examined all environmental and horticultural data. They should include their own suggestions for possible solutions or future directions.

Each class should add to the previous yearís compilations, achieving ever-greater clarity on the issues and appropriate solutions as time goes on. This project would be the ultimate in multidisciplinary study, and I think it is something that could energize the entire student body.