Soy at the Smithsonian

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Soy checkoff brings a virtual farming experience to national museum visitors.

Contributed by Peter Liebhold, Chair, Division of Work and Industry and exhibition curator.

Next summer, visitors to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. will have something else to add to their list of things to see in addition to Dorothy’s ruby slippers. Beginning July 4, 2015, visitors will be invited to see if they have what it takes to be a farmer in an interactive experience called the Farming Challenge. Partly funded by the United States Soybean Board (USB), the Farming Challenge is part of the museum’s upcoming American Enterprise exhibition which will tell the nation’s business story, centering on themes of opportunity, innovation, competition and the search for common good in the American marketplace.

An artist's rendering of the Farming Challenge, a key part of the Smithsonian's American Enterprise exhibition set to open July 4, 2015.

An artist’s rendering of the Farming Challenge, a key part of the Smithsonian’s American Enterprise exhibition set to open July 4, 2015.

As part of the Farming Challenge interactive, visitors will enter a compartment designed to look and feel like the cab of a tractor, and then be asked to make some decisions. These questions and answers take visitors through the experience of being a farmer in the 21st century: weighing information from various sources to make smart decisions for their farms.

These complicated decisions focus on things like selecting a crop, battling weeds and pests, harvesting, acquiring new equipment, buying land, marketing the crop and much more.

As visitors play, uncontrollable variables like weather and political unrest in faraway countries affect outcomes. We hope this excercise will help visitors to understand that the cab of a tractor is like a CEO’s office. Farming today is as much about processing information and making fast decisions as about knowing when to plant.

“USB is serving as one of the major sponsors of the exhibition as part of our strategic objective to ensure that U.S. soybean farmers and their customers have the freedom and infrastructure to operate,” said Sharon Covert, an Illinois soybean farmer and former USB director. “One way to do this is by helping consumers learn more about today’s agriculture,” says Covert, who continues to serve as USB’s liaison to the project.

How the Farming Challenge Will Work

Entering a stylized tractor cab, visitors will see images on a projected screen and information on the yield monitor, hear current events over the radio and use a phone to call a friend. They will make two decisions – one environmental and one economic. Narration might be something like:

“Welcome to your soybean farm. Spring is upon us, and it’s time to plant for the new season. Before you put seeds in the ground, you need to decide what method you’ll use to plant. Will you use the no-till route or the traditional?”

Consulting different sources of information, the visitor makes a decision. The display then gives the result of that decision something like:

“You have decided to use the no-till planting method. That is good for the environment but it means you will have to knock down the weeds with spray instead of plowing. You will spend money on herbicides but not have to hire workers to cultivate your fields.”

Help Design the Farming Challenge

The Smithsonian crew needs your help. The Farming Challenge will have four crop scenarios: cotton, lettuce, dairy, and of course, soybeans. The curators want help identifying the major decision points and potential problems that farmers face that you think visitors need to consider. What are the information sources that you turn to for answers?

Let’s make this as realistic of a farm experience as possible! Send your ideas to agheritage@si.edu, indicating “Farming Challenge” in the subject line.