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It's not just about the past

Ag Hall of Fame takes bold steps toward education and the future

The National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame, founded in 1960 when the 86th Congress enacted Public Law 86-680, just might be the best-kept secret in the Kansas City area. But if Tim Daugherty, who took over as CEO of the center earlier this year, has his way, it won't be a secret much longer.

"We want people to know we're out here," Daugherty said. "I think they'll be surprised when they see what we have to offer."

What visitors won't see is a dusty, dilapidated old barn filled with a few rusty, broken-down farm implements that look as if they'd been abandoned decades ago. What they will see is a well-kept complex of 17 buildings that includes the Agricultural Hall of Fame, the Farmers Memorial, the Museum of Farming, and Farm Town USA, an 1890s vintage rural community with a barn, silo, one-room school, blacksmith shop, general store, and farm house.

The complex is on a 167-acre spread nestled in rolling farmland near Bonner Springs, Kan. Museums filled with tractors of all sizes dot the complex, revealing virtually every kind of farm implement ever made and artifacts from the early 1800s to the present, most still operable. There's an 1880's era depot and a 50-year-old miniature locomotive that pulls a train around a half-mile-long track circling a small lake.

For old-timers a visit to the center is an adventure in nostalgia. For their grandchildren or great-grandchildren, it's an education, a rollback in history to an era they will never experience.

As Daugherty points out, "The Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame is for the child who believes bread comes from the grocery store and the woman who remembers an old threshing machine on her grandmother's farm."

Farmers and people associated with agricultural organizations visit the center regularly, as do school groups on field trips. And some visitors who've never lived on a farm visit just because they're curious.

The Ag Center and Hall of Fame is a non-profit operation supported by contributions; everything at the center, including many of the buildings, was donated by individuals and corporations. No federal, state or local tax-based funding is provided to the Ag Center. The first donated artifact was a single-share horse-drawn plow used by President Harry S. Truman when he was growing up on a Missouri farm.

The founders outlined the mission in terms of three purposes: Honor those who have made major contributions to agriculture, provide a museum of artifacts depicting life in agriculture, and educate society regarding agricultural issues.

The past is very much in evidence in the museums and the Hall of Fame, which honors inventors, legislators, journalists, scientists, and others, such as John Deere, Eli Whitney, and Cyrus McCormick, who were important to the development of agriculture as an industry. But the center is taking on a new focus, educating the public about how agriculture has changed and what to expect in the future. Gone is the day of the 160-acre family farm, increasingly replaced by the 1,000- to 2,000-acre or even larger farm.

"To financially survive on a 160-acre farm today, a farmer would have to have outside income, a regular day job, and do his farming after he gets home in the evening," Daugherty said. "We call that a 'hobby farm.'"

Daugherty grew up on a farm. A graduate of the University of Missouri with a degree in agricultural economics, he worked with Farmland Industries for 20 years before taking over as CEO of the Ag Center. He has witnessed the changing face of agriculture personally.

"Each generation is getting farther away from what farming is all about, so it's becoming more important for the public to understand the source of its food," Daugherty said. "Few people understand or appreciate agriculture as the dynamic, pervasive force that shaped the nation's past and will shape the world's future. New marketing opportunities and technologies must be balanced with the protection of natural resources, social and ethical issues, and food safety. A knowledgeable public is an important component when new technologies are introduced into the food system - the public can serve as endorser or promoter of new technologies if they understand the risks/rewards involved and the overall big picture. An uninformed public can become a hindrance to the adoption of technologies because of a sense of fear."

He added that it's his job to help people understand what is happening now and what they can expect.

"There's a lot of emotion attached to the old days, and our job becomes a balancing act: honor the past but look to the future," Daugherty said.

Some displays and educational programs will be transitioned to illustrate present and future agricultural issues. Topics will include biotechnology, alternative energy, and food safety. A major emphasis will be on interactive programs and displays.

The first steps toward implementing this new direction have already started, Daugherty said. The Hall of Fame, honoring 38 members, has been relocated into the lobby of the theater in the main building and will be updated. That move opened up space in the building's east wing for new displays focusing on the future. One new display, about the important role bees play in modern agriculture, opened last spring.

The National Agriculture Center and Hall of Fame was the dream of Howard A. Cowden, former president and CEO of the Consumers Cooperative Association of Kansas City. That dream was supported by heads of farm organizations, educators, government officials, farm editors, and industrial leaders from throughout the country.

Bob Carlson, of Lenexa, Kan., is the chair of the 10-member board of directors, and Joel Ebbertt, of Parkville, Mo., is president. The board of governors includes 55 representatives from all areas of the country.

More information about the Ag Center can be found on the Ag Center's website www.aghalloffame.com. The Ag Center is totally funded by contributions from individuals, families, and corporations. If you would consider making a contribution, you can call the Ag Center direct at 913 721-1075, go to the website www.aghalloffame.com, or send an e-mail to info@aghalloffame.com.

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