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Published December 06, 2011, 08:15 PM

A good start

North Dakota Century Farms soon will have a new platform and a new exhibit, at the start of an agricultural tradition that goes back 1,000 years or more.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — North Dakota Century Farms soon will have a new platform and a new exhibit, at the start of an agricultural tradition that goes back 1,000 years or more.

David Borlaug, a former agricultural newspaper publisher, is president of the Lewis & Clark Fort Mandan Foundation at Washburn, N.D., where a new exhibit on Centennial farms is planned.

“Historically, Washburn is a wonderful place for this,” Borlaug says. “You could argue we’re the birthplace of agriculture for native peoples, along the Missouri River — the

Mandan-Hidatsa. That’s a good start.”

The center is in the midst of a 9,000-square-foot expansion will include a 175-seat events center, a library, a production studio for film and internet work, more bathrooms, and expansive deck overlooking the Missouri River. and expansion, which will take place in 2012.

Ag part of

cultural fabric

A Centennial Farms kiosk exhibit will be an added focus at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, part of a $1 million remake or upgrade of the exhibit. An agrarian part of the exhibit expansion will account for more than a fourth of the interpretive center.

Agriculture will be woven into the entire history of the state.

As envisioned, the Centennial Farms exhibit will include a kiosk with a computer screen, allowing visitors to go to any of North Dakota’s 53 counties, and instant access to a listing of Centennial farms.

“Initially, we’ll have a handful of what we call featured farms,” Borlaug says, but each farm will have data access, but more of that will reside on a website.

“That’s where you’ll get into the modern component, because you’ll find out that what started as this quarter-section now is a 5,000-acre farm with ‘X’ number of employees, family members and what-have-you,” Borlaug says. Not all of this is decided, but the vision is that — somewhat akin to a Facebook entry — the families associated with a farm could send information which could help edit and control the content.

The foundation has a goal of initially raising $300,000 to $500,000 to cover the cost of new agricultural-related exhibits and to launch a website supporting them, and then is looking at an annual operating budget of about $100,000, including a full-time Centennial Farms director.

The Centennial Farms program date to the 1980s and up this point has involved a certificate, a farm sign, and that’s it.

Farms database

There are 900 of the farms already in the database, Borlaug notes. Farms that ever achieved the status will keep it, even though the farm may later fall out of family hands, Borlaug says. Some rare gray area cases, such as a farm that fell out of one family’s hands during the Depression, must be sorted out.

“It’s as much about the present and the future Centennial farms as it is about the past,” Borlaug says. He says it’s a celebration that the farms are viable and vibrant, 100 years after they were started — still going strong.

“You obviously aren’t going to view 900 farms,” Borlaug says, noting that the ultimate goal is to develop a website to offer the depth of detail, with complete history, farm by farm. That website would include photographs, information. A video might include “95-year-old ‘Great Uncle Fred,’ who can talk about his parents as homesteaders — that’s what excites me,” Borlaug says.

Extension Service local agents will be the “frontline” to answer questions on whether a farm qualifies as a Centennial Farm, and offer advice on how to verify that. A farm must be 100 years continuously in the same family, although that “doesn’t have to be completely linear.”

It’s expected the North Dakota commissioner of agriculture will continue to sign the certificates. Three years ago, the program was turned over to the foundation for administration. The program was started by then-North Dakota Commissioner of Agriculture Kent Jones in the 1980s and took off in conjunction with the state’s centennial celebration in 1989. There haven’t been any new placard signs for years, but Borlaug wants to bring that back. He says the North Dakota Farmers Union is the founding sponsor for the project, with a six-figure initial donation.

“One of the first orders of business, we hope early next year, is to start delivering new North Dakota Centennial Farms signs that people could put out on their driveways,” he says.

Going deeper

The Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center’s agricultural component will go back to address the native people as farmers, the role of President Thomas Jeffersonian agrarian idealism in launching the Lewis & Clark expedition, and the homestead era, and that will be folded into the interpretive center’s message, in a way providing a new kind of agricultural interpretation for tourists.

The center has hired a Chicago design firm to reconfigure the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center. There will be a new entry, with more dramatic storytelling. Pastoral walls will change to dark rich colors, with big banner displays “blasting” a dramatic presentation. Exhibits are in the final design and fabrication stage. Installation will come in January, with a “soft opening” in the spring for school tours and a grand opening in the first weekend of June, coinciding with the 15th anniversary of the opening of the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center. In fall, there will be another grand opening of the physical expansion.

The cast of characters includes Lewis and Clark, but also Prince Alexander Phillip Maximilian, the German explorer/naturalist; Karl Bodmer, Indian portraitist; Chief Four Bears (Mah-to-toh-pe); and Oscar H. Will, the Bismarck, N.D., seedsman and nurseryman who, through friendships with Native Americans, is perhaps best known for introducing the Great Northern dry bean in the late 1800s.

The “Our Agrarian Heritage” section is in its own wing.

“We stress that it’s a thousand-year history of agriculture on the Plains, and then — now more recently, a 125-year history of the homesteaders that followed,” Borlaug says. “But we connect that.”

The exhibit topics range from rural electrification to the Will legacy, to a section featuring former North Dakota Gov. Art Link, who insisted on strong reclamation efforts in the wake of coal mining. There will be interpretation on Bonanza-style farms, focusing on the Dalrymple farms near Casselton, N.D.

While the state is fascinated with oil development now, agriculture is what defined the people of the prairie, Borlaug says.

“It was that idealism that drove us to the homestead act and settled North Dakota in the first place. Yes, we’re moving farther and farther away from that model, and the business of agriculture is big business, but we should always hearken back to what started it all in the first place,” he says,

One highlight shows native seeds developed by Will, who propagated what became known as the Great Northern dry bean. As the story goes, Son of a Star, the Hidatsa Indian walked into Will’s office in the late 1880s and gave him a leather pouch filled with beans. Will spent five years propagating them, leading to the beans that are used in bean soup and nourish people around the world.

“It all started with an Indian making a gift in downtown Bismarck in Dakota Territory,” Borlaug says. “We like to say that 200 years ago the Mandan Indians fed Lewis & Clark. Today, North Dakota farmers are feeding the world.”

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