Sharon Covert takes a look at the American Enterprise website for the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. This website is open to farmers to share their agriculture stories to become part of the new exhibit at the Washington museum. Smithsonian curators also are looking for farming artifacts that tell a story or depict an event.
Sharon Covert takes a look at the American Enterprise website for the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. This website is open to farmers to share their agriculture stories to become part of the new exhibit at the Washington museum. Smithsonian curators also are looking for farming artifacts that tell a story or depict an event.

TISKILWA, Ill. — A new exhibit highlighting agricultural innovations will be established at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

The 8,000-square-foot American Enterprise exhibition will focus on the role of business and innovation in the U.S. from the mid-1700s to now.

The exhibit will tell America’s story by focusing on five areas: agriculture, consumer finance, information technology/communication, manufacturing and retail/service.

Expected to open in May 2015, the project budget is $20 million. Gifts of $1 million from the United Soybean Board and $2 million from Monsanto Co. have been given to support the development of the new exhibit.

Sharon Covert, chair of the USB Customer Focus Action Team, has been working with the Smithsonian for several years on the development of an exhibit that features the importance of the agriculture industry to the development of the nation.

“I went to visit the museum in 2008 to see what they had done with agriculture after it had been renovated,” she said. “The only ag items there were John Deere’s original plow and a mockup of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin model that was used to defend his patent in court.”

“I wondered how can you tell the history of America without talking about the contributions of agriculture to our society?” Covert asked. “Farmers provide an ample and safe supply of food for America, and people are interested in how food is produced, so I thought the museum needed to tell this story.”

In January 2009, Covert wrote a letter to the Smithsonian expressing her concerns about the lack of agriculture exhibits. Although she did not receive a response from the museum for quite some time, she eventually did receive a letter inviting her to come and visit the museum.

“While I was in Washington for a meeting, I asked a couple of other farmers to go with me, and we met with several Smithsonian curators,” she said.

The farmers explained to the curators how they felt about the importance of agriculture to the nation and that this story was missing at the museum.

“They agreed that the exhibit did not give agriculture the recognition it deserved,” Covert said.

In the fall of 2011, Smithsonian curators visited Illinois to obtain a firsthand view of today’s agricultural industry. The visit included time at Jim and Sharon Covert’s farm, where they grow corn and soybeans, near Tiskilwa.

“We also went to ADM, Caterpillar and a pork farm because I wanted them to understand the relationship between animal agriculture and row crops,” Sharon Covert said. “We also visited Monsanto so they could learn about biotechnology and what it has meant for the agricultural industry.”

Additional stops included the Farm Progress Show and a land auction.

“I thought it was important to give them a real background about rural life and agriculture,” Covert said.

To help develop the new exhibit at the Smithsonian, the curators are asking farmers to contribute their stories and artifacts to help preserve the history of agriculture, as well as feature modern ag practices.

The Agricultural Innovation and Heritage Archive is now active, and farmers who would like to contribute a story can go to http://americanenterprise.si.edu.

“Farmers can tell their story that should be remembered,” Covert said. “They are looking for artifacts that tell a story or depict an event. The better the artifacts they get, the better the exhibit.”

One example of a farmer’s contribution is from Jim Rapp, who farms near Princeton.

“When the curators visited Illinois, we went to Jim’s farm because he was combining corn that day,” Covert said. “While we were standing in his machine shed talking, they noticed Jim’s signs hanging on the wall, and they asked if he would like to donate them to the new exhibit.”

One sign, which promotes soil preservation via the use of no-till, was developed by the Bureau County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Rapp also is donating a series of Burma-Shave-type signs that focus on the use of ethanol. Those signs were designed by the Illinois Corn Marketing Board.

“The agricultural story is an important story to tell because people want to know about food,” Covert said.

The USB is sponsoring the American Enterprise exhibit, she said, because the farmers know the importance of providing accurate information about their industry.

“Consumers need to know about the past, present and future of this industry and what we do and why,” she said.

Covert has been involved with soybean promotion for quite some time. She served as a member of the Illinois Soybean Program Operating Board for six years and as chairman of that group for one of those years.

When an opening became available on the USB, Covert was nominated by the Illinois group. The Bureau County farmer was appointed to the USB by the U.S. secretary of agriculture and will complete her ninth and final year on the board this year.

“Serving on USB has been a great experience, and I hope I have helped improve the profitability of U.S. soybean farmers,” she said.

In the past, Covert has been involved with international marketing.

“Last year, when it was so dry, a man from China who represents one of the largest importers of U.S. soybeans came to visit our farm,” she said. “He wanted to see for himself the problems we were having instead of just hearing about it.”

The U.S. exports about 60 percent of its soybean production, and 50 to 60 percent of that goes to China, Covert said.

“We need to listen to our customers so we can provide the soybeans they want, the way they want them,” she added.

“The American Enterprise area will also include a theater area where there will be plays about agriculture,” Covert said. “Or there might be demonstrations about agriculture so visitors can understand what happens in this industry.”

There also is a possibility that the Smithsonian will develop a traveling exhibit.

“This exhibit will tell the story of how we produce food,” Covert said.

Admission to the Smithsonian is free. The museum is located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W. and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

For about the National Museum of American History, visit http://americanhistory.si.edu.