David Vail: Cold War agricultural history
In this episode, we talk with Dr. David Vail, Associate Professor of History at the University of Nebraska at Kearney who specializes in environmental and agricultural history, history of science, technology, and medicine, and public history. In this interview, Dr. Vail talks about his book on the history of agricultural chemicals and dives into his new work looking at the interplay between culture, politics, and agriculture in the Great Plains during the Cold War era.
Special thanks to Margaret Huettl for providing a video land acknowledgement for this episode. To listen to the podcast version, visit: https://anchor.fm/gp-lectures
icon search Searchable Transcript
Toggle between list and paragraph view.
[00:00:00.993]Great Plains Anywhere.
[00:00:02.150]A Paul A. Olson lecture,
[00:00:03.770]from the Center for Great Plains Studies
[00:00:05.430]at the University of Nebraska.
[00:00:08.310]In this episode, we spoke with Dr. David Vail
[00:00:11.010]associate professor of history
[00:00:12.610]at the university of Nebraska at Kearney,
[00:00:15.160]who specializes in environmental and agricultural history.
[00:00:18.370]History of science, technology,
[00:00:20.950]and medicine and public history.
[00:00:23.370]In this interview, Dr. Veil talks about his book
[00:00:25.980]on the history of agricultural chemicals
[00:00:28.640]and dyes into his new work,
[00:00:30.240]looking at the interplay between culture, politics,
[00:00:33.520]and agriculture in the Great Plains during the Cold War era.
[00:00:38.290]On behalf of the Center for Great Plains Studies,
[00:00:40.450]I would like to begin by acknowledging that
[00:00:42.600]the University of Nebraska is a land grant institution
[00:00:46.300]with campuses and programs on the past present
[00:00:49.100]and future homelands of the Pawnee, Ponca, Oto-Missouria,
[00:00:53.150]Omaha, Lakota, Dakota, Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Kaw peoples
[00:00:58.840]as well as the relocated Ho-Chunk, lowa
[00:01:01.540]and Sac and Fox peoples.
[00:01:03.530]Please take a moment to consider the legacies
[00:01:05.740]of more than 150 years of displacement violence,
[00:01:10.120]settlement and survival that bring us here today.
[00:01:13.580]This acknowledgement and the centering of indigenous peoples
[00:01:16.570]is a start as we move forward together
[00:01:19.080]for the next 150 years.
[00:01:21.800]Well I'm David Vail and I teach history
[00:01:26.010]at the university of Nebraska at Kearney.
[00:01:27.480]I'm an associate professor there.
[00:01:29.640]I specialize in environmental history,
[00:01:33.690]agricultural history, science and medicine,
[00:01:35.690]although I also do a lot with the Great Plains.
[00:01:38.300]So I'm excited to be your head
[00:01:40.000]of the center for Great Plain Studies.
[00:01:44.890]In that book, what I'm trying to do is explore
[00:01:48.420]a lot of different intersections.
[00:01:51.040]Some of them, agricultural science,
[00:01:52.780]some of them technology, some of them sort of perceptions
[00:01:57.420]of region and regional influence.
[00:01:59.180]And so the overlays of environment, science,
[00:02:03.110]local knowledge and technological expertise.
[00:02:07.070]All of that's happening in the Great Plains
[00:02:09.400]when it comes to pesticides
[00:02:10.990]and agricultural aviation in particular after 1945.
[00:02:15.320]So that's part of what the book is trying
[00:02:17.110]to look at those intersections.
[00:02:19.960]What happens when pesticides come on the scene
[00:02:24.089]most historians and most people will,
[00:02:25.770]especially who are in agriculture, kind of know that,
[00:02:30.850]they took the line that Dow chemical
[00:02:32.500]and other chemical companies sort of set
[00:02:34.040]like if some works more, must be better.
[00:02:37.920]But in the Great Plains at least farmers
[00:02:42.410]and even the applicators themselves
[00:02:44.680]have real reservations early on about the potency,
[00:02:48.900]about the application effectiveness
[00:02:53.349]and then sort of like the rules of the game,
[00:02:55.450]and the game being aerial spraying in particular.
[00:02:58.080]So I tried to get into that as well before
[00:03:00.920]the Rachel Carson era and then post Rachel Carson era,
[00:03:04.720]which is 1962 is when silent spring comes out.
[00:03:11.680]I guess why I got interested in agricultural history
[00:03:14.410]to begin with, has partially to do with how I grew up,
[00:03:17.850]which I didn't grow up in the Great Plains Everyone.
[00:03:21.890]But I've come to love this place.
[00:03:23.960]And it's a really important place
[00:03:25.610]for a lot of different reasons.
[00:03:28.020]I grew up in Oregon, so the Pacific Northwest.
[00:03:30.930]And I grew up in, you know,
[00:03:34.120]somehow I would say sort of the in-between
[00:03:37.090]an urban sort of place and a rural place.
[00:03:40.650]Not quite suburbia, but it's sort of in-between.
[00:03:44.630]Thinking back now it's a good question, I guess,
[00:03:46.620]because so much of what we do as historians connect to where
[00:03:50.220]we are in terms of place, not just ideas,
[00:03:56.020]I think at least it has a lot to do my questions
[00:03:58.910]and my interests have a lot to do how I teach that
[00:04:02.370]and how I think about that has a lot to do with
[00:04:04.460]how I grew up, what I did, our journeys from place to place.
[00:04:09.660]And if that's true for me,
[00:04:10.680]I always tell my students that can be true for them too.
[00:04:14.070]Yeah, I guess, you know, environment
[00:04:15.740]and agriculture and the knowledge
[00:04:18.210]and technologies involved with that history.
[00:04:20.770]Those are all interconnected.
[00:04:21.960]It's not like one or the other.
[00:04:23.730]And so region comes into play and I think for me,
[00:04:28.140]the Great Plains is a really important place to seal
[00:04:31.210]that happening a lot as well.
[00:04:33.300]Part of what I love about the Great Plains
[00:04:35.410]and studying the history of agriculture and environment here
[00:04:40.020]is that there's a real, I think,
[00:04:43.870]important intersection of STEM and humanities
[00:04:46.480]that happens here a lot.
[00:04:49.690]And the institutions and organizations
[00:04:52.290]that I've been a part of including the center,
[00:04:53.970]but humanities in Nebraska is another one
[00:04:55.790]just thinking about it,
[00:04:57.580]that really make an effort to reveal that
[00:05:00.280]and to explore those relationships.
[00:05:02.830]And that's really important going forward
[00:05:04.540]with things like climate change.
[00:05:06.670]So what does it mean?
[00:05:08.560]One of the questions my work, not just chemical lands,
[00:05:11.240]but my new work that I'm pursuing now,
[00:05:14.808]what does it mean in terms of a production landscape
[00:05:19.770]and conservation and ideas about that?
[00:05:22.530]And then how do we address,
[00:05:25.190]how does the land use of the past
[00:05:28.830]and those relationships that I've been describing?
[00:05:31.680]How do those shape, where we go,
[00:05:34.200]when we talk about climate change?
[00:05:36.780]It's easy to look at a place like Yellowstone or Yosemite,
[00:05:41.010]or a lot of places in the national park system
[00:05:43.600]and say something like, "Yeah, I'm all in for preservation,
[00:05:47.320]or I'm all in for this sort of approach."
[00:05:51.020]But as much harder to like figure out and see
[00:05:55.340]what people think about conservation,
[00:05:58.570]how they use the land, what is,
[00:05:59.960]but then also we know through a lot of different ways
[00:06:04.790]that once you start using the land, it changes things.
[00:06:08.467]And part of chemical lands and this new work addresses that.
[00:06:12.580]Like you unleash chemicals onto the landscape
[00:06:17.440]for a certain purpose,
[00:06:18.760]you have a mindset and a mindfulness that's different
[00:06:22.520]than other parts of the country
[00:06:23.860]that's easier to sort of put in a corner.
[00:06:27.880]By the way, like one of the criticisms that Ag pilots
[00:06:31.500]and farmers had early on against Rachel Carson
[00:06:33.810]was not that she was raising mornings necessarily
[00:06:37.530]about the chemicals they were using,
[00:06:39.660]it was more about, they thought that what they were doing
[00:06:44.130]was not like what the Southern pilots were doing.
[00:06:46.900]Which that's the main case that
[00:06:48.330]she's using in the silent spring
[00:06:50.380]which is obvious why she would.
[00:06:53.730]But anyway, so that's very complicated
[00:06:58.750]and those relationships are complex
[00:07:00.620]and the attitudes and mentalities aren't cut.
[00:07:03.290]That's A, but then B there's an issue
[00:07:05.930]with where do we go from here,
[00:07:08.810]what happens when the land is permanently changed?
[00:07:11.050]So the chemicals permanently change what this land can do
[00:07:14.410]in the Great Plains, and what it can't.
[00:07:16.700]And it also creates new dangers that go well beyond
[00:07:21.710]the target fields or the intentions of the sprayers
[00:07:25.720]or the users, or the farmers or ranchers.
[00:07:28.980]And regardless of their political mindset
[00:07:31.740]about those things, that's still the reality.
[00:07:35.600]Those are the ecological realities.
[00:07:37.510]And so I guess my hope is that my work
[00:07:42.110]can contribute to where we go from here,
[00:07:45.340]acknowledging the realities of those things,
[00:07:48.170]but also, how can we prepare
[00:07:50.470]for a climate change world that we're at?
[00:07:52.720]I believe at least we're currently living in.
[00:07:55.800]The title of my new book is,
[00:07:57.287]"Vulnerable Harvest Risk and Resiliency
[00:07:59.580]in the Cold War Great Plains."
[00:08:01.570]And so it's part of it is emerging from, I guess,
[00:08:08.200]all this stuff I had to kind of leave out of chemical lands.
[00:08:11.540]This is always the problem with historians
[00:08:14.270]that I think we all face.
[00:08:15.740]Like you have all this material that you just can't
[00:08:21.000]for a lot of different reasons put in the book
[00:08:23.390]that you're currently writing.
[00:08:24.910]But then I, you know,
[00:08:26.233]I don't know about all of you, but like, for me,
[00:08:28.420]I'll get super distracted about the stuff
[00:08:31.480]I can't put in the current work.
[00:08:33.800]And so I need some sort of release valve for that.
[00:08:36.660]So I just put it to the side and think,
[00:08:38.627]"Okay, this doesn't quite fit and that's okay, A and B."
[00:08:43.550]I will hopefully get back to it
[00:08:45.140]or that will become a new project.
[00:08:47.260]And so that's kind of what happened.
[00:08:52.030]The book tries to get at the Cold War Great Plans.
[00:08:56.010]I think that that is a new angle that a lot of historians
[00:09:00.200]of the Cold War sort of haven't looked at yet,
[00:09:03.170]and the Great Plains plays a huge role in Cold War history,
[00:09:06.900]and it hasn't really been addressed
[00:09:08.610]at least in my view, the region as it should.
[00:09:12.480]Some have sort of around like civil defense
[00:09:15.400]and missile silos and all of that,
[00:09:17.820]which everyone who lives in Nebraska
[00:09:19.850]knows about this probably.
[00:09:21.880]But I wanna see the region play a more prominent role
[00:09:25.960]in the Cold War history that we know that we don't.
[00:09:28.690]And again, at least in my work
[00:09:31.620]and the groups that I'm dealing with,
[00:09:35.084]are openly talking about fears of climate change.
[00:09:39.090]They're not quite using that term.
[00:09:42.250]But they're really worried about it.
[00:09:43.750]And they're really worried about it
[00:09:45.040]for a lot of reasons, some of that are similar,
[00:09:48.060]and some that are distinct to the Cold War.
[00:09:50.450]Like for example, in order to win the Cold War,
[00:09:53.750]we can't have weather and climate, and those
[00:09:58.260]sorts of environmental relationships be unpredictable.
[00:10:01.950]We need them more predictable.
[00:10:03.280]So how do we track that?
[00:10:04.940]And what does it mean if it's adding new risk to our fields?
[00:10:08.440]Because food is part of the weapons
[00:10:10.630]of the Cold War in this moment.
[00:10:14.240]So yes, they have a kind of a different mindset maybe
[00:10:18.540]about why they're asking the same questions
[00:10:20.570]we're asking now about and worried about now
[00:10:23.440]in terms of climate change.
[00:10:24.650]But they're asking them.
[00:10:25.590]And I think that's important.
[00:10:27.240]Part of it is thinking about risk and resiliency,
[00:10:30.450]those concepts that are emerging in a certain form,
[00:10:35.040]in terms of environment and agriculture
[00:10:38.360]and agricultural science in the late forties,
[00:10:42.130]throughout the fifties and the 1960s.
[00:10:45.920]And they're sort of pairing with an idea
[00:10:50.020]about climate change and the ultimately
[00:10:53.630]the green revolution of food production.
[00:10:56.200]And so what we're really talking
[00:10:57.750]about too, is food security.
[00:10:59.650]Which is another part of what the new book
[00:11:01.650]is trying to get at.
[00:11:03.290]A lot of scholars have looked at
[00:11:05.200]the history of food security
[00:11:06.380]from what I would argue as that kind of a top-down
[00:11:08.760]or foreign policy sort of specific.
[00:11:11.250]Which would make sense.
[00:11:12.970]But very few have looked at like what contributions
[00:11:17.210]and influence does a region have up.
[00:11:20.650]And so the book is trying to get at that too,
[00:11:24.090]because a lot of these conversations
[00:11:25.960]and debates happening at the council level,
[00:11:29.650]ultimately filter or trickle up
[00:11:31.550]to food security policy abroad.
[00:11:35.450]And so, that's part of what the book is trying to do.
[00:11:39.040]The other part is sort of looking at abundance, scarcity,
[00:11:42.950]food security, and what does that all mean,
[00:11:46.590]and sort of this context, and in this region.
[00:11:49.600]Reviewing conversations that all of these
[00:11:52.640]different interest groups are having
[00:11:55.500]in a meeting, an annual meeting that I don't know,
[00:11:58.410]I mean, with everything currently going on right now,
[00:12:02.480]you would not expect that.
[00:12:03.700]You would not expect them to have these,
[00:12:06.040]like these very dynamic conversations.
[00:12:10.120]And what I like about the era is that
[00:12:12.790]all of that's recorded.
[00:12:15.400]So in a typical history conference,
[00:12:17.080]you do not have someone transcribing the presentations
[00:12:21.350]and the audience response now.
[00:12:24.330]But then they did.
[00:12:26.500]And so I have like the official presentations
[00:12:30.150]and the audience response.
[00:12:32.250]And like unexpected critiques from different interest groups
[00:12:36.480]that you would think would be aligned
[00:12:38.310]with a certain point or, actually they're not.
[00:12:42.290]All of that to say, what happens when ideas
[00:12:45.020]about environmental conservation or agricultural land use
[00:12:49.170]in these kinds of contexts when we're talk about risk
[00:12:52.050]and how do we make the land resilient
[00:12:54.346]and for human, for what.
[00:12:58.300]What happens when like typical or,
[00:13:04.340]sort of common ideas about politics and the political view
[00:13:09.720]of environment and agricultural production,
[00:13:11.750]what happens when those things cross political lines?
[00:13:17.037]And that they can.
[00:13:19.160]And for me, that helps sort of,
[00:13:23.880]that's a tent peg almost of like,
[00:13:26.390]well, if they can, in this era,
[00:13:28.730]when we know different things about this era,
[00:13:30.680]like McCarthy is in, for example,
[00:13:32.450]or how powerful a Cold War culture in the United States
[00:13:36.930]was about continuity and community,
[00:13:40.360]but yet you have these groups sort of arguing
[00:13:43.400]that you would think would be on the same side,
[00:13:44.860]but they're not.
[00:13:46.760]What does that all mean for us?
[00:13:48.110]I think that helps us see a path forward
[00:13:51.450]that isn't so binary.
[00:13:54.450]That's just sort of thinking about that right now.
[00:13:58.720]So that's another part of what I hope my book does.
[00:14:02.890]Is that it shows examples of how complex,
[00:14:09.670]and also these communities could be in a productive way.
[00:14:14.840]That it's not just a given that
[00:14:16.900]if you hold this political view,
[00:14:19.440]therefore you will do this, this, and this.
[00:14:25.840]The ongoing debates about what land means
[00:14:29.330]and how land is used and how does one preserve that,
[00:14:34.680]comes sort of this middle ground
[00:14:37.510]from these people who have very different experiences
[00:14:41.180]with land use or how they're thinking about it.
[00:14:45.260]But they kind of come to the same conclusion.
[00:14:47.220]And so I think that's a really valuable thing to read about,
[00:14:51.120]to think about for today.
[00:14:53.180]So we're talking a lot about human risk and resiliency
[00:14:56.080]and cultural views of that,
[00:14:57.640]and that's all interesting and important.
[00:14:59.200]But what about non-humans in the Great Plains?
[00:15:03.680]And so I hope this book can explore how the plants
[00:15:09.900]or we'll just say non-humans,
[00:15:11.550]because I also like nauseous weeds
[00:15:13.070]and I don't care who knows it.
[00:15:14.730]Okay, so, but in all seriousness,
[00:15:18.140]how does risk and resiliency exist in the non-human world?
[00:15:22.040]So how do plants perceive risk to themselves?
[00:15:26.340]And then how do they build a resiliency against that?
[00:15:32.300]And that's happening in the fields
[00:15:34.600]with the human counterparts,
[00:15:36.290]also thinking about the same thing.
[00:15:40.810]And oftentimes like, just with chemicals, for example,
[00:15:44.700]the chemicals are sort of a human technological response
[00:15:50.100]to risk for a certain resiliency conclusion.
[00:15:54.640]The plants like nauseous weeds in particular
[00:15:56.860]just to say as an example.
[00:15:58.770]But like they respond to that technology
[00:16:04.250]by employing their own risk analysis and creating
[00:16:08.160]and adapting to a resiliency to that same technology.
[00:16:12.100]So if that makes sense.
[00:16:15.930]So I wanna bring that into the book as well.
[00:16:19.940]And I think that's also hopefully a useful
[00:16:23.180]part of the story that I'm telling.
[00:16:25.830]One other thing I would say is that,
[00:16:30.790]the intersections of like Cold War politics
[00:16:33.230]and how that manifests in the landscape here in like fields
[00:16:39.880]here in the Great Plains in the region,
[00:16:43.340]the politics looks differently when you take away
[00:16:48.960]the arguments about policy
[00:16:53.909]or foreign engagement or whatever,
[00:16:56.870]like the things that we're most familiar with ideas
[00:16:59.620]and histories, we're kind of more familiar
[00:17:02.130]within the Cold War.
[00:17:03.090]Like how does that manifest in the field itself?
[00:17:05.440]Well, I think it manifests.
[00:17:07.210]So resiliency is what we're talking about
[00:17:10.270]not a conflation, but kind of an intersection maybe
[00:17:13.320]of environment, agricultural science,
[00:17:16.510]what farmers are trying to produce in this era.
[00:17:20.570]And like a landscape recovery for them means
[00:17:25.770]something different than what it means
[00:17:27.840]for a scientist or an ecologist.
[00:17:30.650]If people can talk about it in similar
[00:17:32.620]but not the same ways, then that also gives us a place
[00:17:36.907]to find a common space to go forward.
[00:17:42.580]The use of pesticides and new ways to deploy them,
[00:17:46.650]also requires a whole bunch of new things
[00:17:49.900]that create more of a dependency to those technologies.
[00:17:56.489]The more they use those and certain advantages economically
[00:18:00.400]and otherwise, but then they also have to know more
[00:18:03.670]they're on the hook for more legally,
[00:18:06.290]and that just builds and builds.
[00:18:08.150]So my point, I guess is that the technologies
[00:18:11.000]like pesticides go out and they do their own thing.
[00:18:13.240]They change the land,
[00:18:14.580]they change what the land can do and what it can't,
[00:18:17.560]they change human mentalities about the poison.
[00:18:20.960]What's poisonous, what's not,
[00:18:22.310]what's risky, what's not.
[00:18:23.870]How that all fits together is based on
[00:18:27.940]what the pesticides are doing.
[00:18:30.460]At least as much as what the human pilots or the farmers
[00:18:34.820]or whomever want them to achieve.
[00:18:39.010]And so I try to look at that in that book,
[00:18:41.790]but also in my new book,
[00:18:43.230]sort of those relationships that are ongoing.
[00:18:46.140]And this is why something
[00:18:47.850]like climate change is complicated.
[00:18:50.950]Intentions, realities, all of those things come into play
[00:18:55.150]and within an ecological relationships and a larger world,
[00:18:59.550]that kind of does its own thing.
[00:19:01.510]And the results are the results.
[00:19:04.300]And so you, and the science is the science and it's ongoing.
[00:19:11.520]I think at least you have to follow where it takes you,
[00:19:14.040]not where you necessarily wanted to go.
[00:19:18.530]And so too with this history.
[00:19:19.920]But it's just fascinating to see just
[00:19:22.440]how potent pesticides are from 1945 on,
[00:19:26.850]not just in the ways we kind of think about,
[00:19:30.260]but unexpected ways.
[00:19:32.090]And it creates new uncertainty.
[00:19:34.930]So it resolves certain risks and uncertainties,
[00:19:37.750]but then introduces a whole new set of them going forward.
[00:19:43.250]And another important point to make about this,
[00:19:46.270]because now you got me back on chemicals again,
[00:19:49.715]but the other point to this, I guess,
[00:19:51.820]is that as they restricted and ultimately made DDT illegal,
[00:19:59.270]new toxic, more toxic alternatives emerge.
[00:20:03.490]So that's like part of being environmental strain
[00:20:06.180]and an agricultural strain that's really important.
[00:20:09.080]I think is exploring unintentional
[00:20:12.870]and unexpected consequences.
[00:20:15.390]So making DDT illegal, resolved certain risks and problems
[00:20:21.850]that DDT presented in ecosystems and other things.
[00:20:26.941]But then it also unintentionally released or encouraged
[00:20:31.030]the release of new toxic, more potent alternatives,
[00:20:35.860]and created a politics that became
[00:20:38.350]much more polarized around this.
[00:20:41.710]The unexpected part,
[00:20:43.760]the unintentional parts are also important.
[00:20:50.180]Well, I just think that the people on the Plans
[00:20:52.600]are no longer history of how the land was used and abused,
[00:20:59.910]is much more diverse and complicated.
[00:21:03.270]And then you see traveling already.
[00:21:06.992]And so explore Nebraska is for the Great Plains
[00:21:12.380]off of the interstates, certainly,
[00:21:14.570]but also, yeah, the diversity of what you see
[00:21:18.690]isn't necessarily represented if you just
[00:21:21.820]go by in your car.
[00:21:23.850]I just always like to say,
[00:21:25.040]thank you for all that you do at the center here.
[00:21:29.280]It's really important work,
[00:21:30.860]everyone should know the work
[00:21:33.530]and I highly encourage everyone to support it.
[00:21:37.030]I'm really thankful to be part of a larger system
[00:21:39.470]that encourages this type of work.
[00:21:41.390]So thank you.
[00:21:43.120]We'd like to thank Dr. Veil for speaking with us today.
[00:21:46.130]Find all of our short Great Plains talks and interviews
[00:21:49.350]as videos and podcasts at go.unl.edu/gplectures.
Log in to post comments