WASHBURN - The people of North Dakota have no prouder tradition to hand down from one generation to the next than farming, and a new display at the North Dakota Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center is helping to celebrate it.
The Centennial Farms display is located in the agrarian exhibit of the interpretive center, which can be found off U.S. Highway 83 just northwest of Washburn. Wendy Spencer, vice president of the Lewis & Clark Fort Mandan Foundation, said a farm is far more likely to stay in the same family than any other type of property.
"As with I'm sure everywhere else, farms either get handed down or the kids take over the farm or it gets bought by another relative," Spencer said.
The Centennial Farms program was originally started by the North Dakota Department of Agriculture in 1988. The Lewis & Clark Fort Mandan Foundation later took it over around 2008, although the ag department still plays a role in the Centennial Farms program because the ag commissioner, currently Doug Goehring, signs each centennial farm certificate before it's mailed to the family.
Spencer said there are currently between 800 and 900 farms in the database, but they believe there are hundreds more that are eligible. In addition, since the 1930s was a time when a lot of people lost their farms, and then families bought them once they were able to get their finances back in order, Spencer believes there will be another resurgence of centennial farms in the next 20 years.
People have to actively apply to register a centennial farm, but the process is easy, and the only requirement is that the same family own the farm for the past 100 years. They can either go to the center's website at (www.fortmandan.com) to find an application to print out and mail back, or call the center at 462-8535 or toll free at 1-877-462-8535 to ask for an application to be mailed to them or to see if another family member has already applied. There is no cost to become a centennial farm.
"It's just kind of a fun way to recognize the history of agriculture in our state," Spencer said. "Especially with it being so high on our revenues for the state of North Dakota."
The Centennial Farms display consists of a computerized touchscreen kiosk that has a database of the current centennial farms on file and can display not only information, but photographs as well, if they are available. There are multiple ways to search for a farm that include by family and by county. The kiosk display has been about three years in the making.
The display is part of the new agrarian wing at the interpretive center called Our Agrarian Heritage. The wing covers North Dakota farming from its inception, which was courtesy of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes, to homesteading and bonanza farms, as well as the era of Oscar H. Will, who had a seed business and was called North Dakota's pioneer seedman.
"Basically he distributed seeds across the country and you can still find quite a few Oscar H. Will varieties of seeds," Spencer said. "They can still be purchased, you can still grow them today."
The agrarian wing was installed in January and opened in February. Spencer said some of it is new to the center, while other things have been around for a while but had no exhibit space to be displayed in.
Along with a list of all the centennial farms currently entered into the kiosk, there is also a featured farm that changes regularly.
"We have the Dalrymple farm that's featured (currently), and mainly because it's one of the oldest farms in North Dakota, but it's also one of the largest farms in North Dakota. It was one of the largest farming operations, the biggest financial farm," Spencer said. "And then we also happen to have a photograph of the beginnings of the farm there, too. So this is one particular farm that we have quite a bit of information on."
That information includes where the land was purchased from, the price per acre, what original buildings are still up, and what the major crops are. Other information includes a list of owners through the years, when the farm was originally purchased, how many acres were part of that purchase, and how many acres the farm currently has.
"There are some farms that when you go ahead and look for them, we don't have a lot of information on them - just basically the name of the family, how long it's been in their family," Spencer said. "So some of them have a little less information."
Spencer said they get all the information for the farms from the applications submitted by the families. Since some of those applications are over 10 or 20 years old, there is more than a little missing information.
"A lot has happened in that time. Ownership has changed over, some people may have sold off the farm and it's no longer in the family anymore," Spencer said. "But basically once you have a centennial farm designation, they are designated a centennial farm for that time period, if you will. They're kind of a lifetime centennial farm. The same farm could be designated 100 years down the road with a new family as a centennial farm."
While the kiosk might be up and running, the program is far from finished. Spencer expects this to go on for many years to come. She said they already have a roughly two-year backlog of centennial farms that still need to be entered into the system, and, of course, more and more will be added in the future on top of that.
Although the program just entails the kiosk at the moment, Spencer said they have plans to expand it in the future.
"It's going to be more than just filling out the application and getting the designation," Spencer said. "What we really want to do is preserve the history of North Dakota, particularly the agricultural history. And so we're hoping to kind of turn it into a legacy project, where we're working with other institutions at this moment in time to form some partnerships to have students go out into the field and go talk to these farmers and find out more about their family history so we can add it to the kiosk and eventually get it on the website so people have an actual database to go to and search to learn more about agricultural history in North Dakota."
They would also like to get the database up on the website so it can be viewed by anyone. There are also thoughts of creating a college course based on the history of those farms.
Three years have already been put into the kiosk, and Spencer doesn't see the project slowing down anytime soon. She hopes in three to four more years a lot more of that history will make it into the kiosk or online.
Along with all the hard work of the staff at the center and ag department, Spencer credits North Dakota Farmers Union, North Dakota Department of Agriculture, North Dakota State University Extension Service, and Touchstone Energy Cooperatives for sponsoring the program and providing financial support to make it possible.
Spencer said the public has really enjoyed the display so far, and they've gotten a lot of positive feedback.
"They're just really excited that the foundation's taking this step to just preserve that history because it makes you feel like you're part of something a lot bigger, and I think that's what people like," Spencer said. "Because they can see their contributions to North Dakota and the history of agriculture here."
Kristin Natwick was leading a group of students from Rita Murphy Elementary School in Bismarck around the interpretive center, and the Centennial Farms display grew quite a crowd. Natwick credited the interactive nature of the kiosk with keeping the children's attention, and said it also feeds into their sense of family history.
"The kids are really interested in it because I think a lot of them have family members or grandparents that own farms or have lived on farms," Natwick said. "So to them I think it's of interest."
"It's such a big part of our culture and our background here, so I think they're really interested in it," she added.