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On the Bright Side

April 29, 2014

Award-winning researcher discusses state's barns

An award-winning professor said Monday that driving around the countryside and looking at barns is a common assignment for students in her class.

Cynthia Falk, a professor in SUNY Oneonta’s Cooperstown Graduate Program, has been researching New York’s barns for more than two years and just received the college’s prestigious Susan Sutton Smith Prize for Academic Excellence for her work. On April 17, she delivered the annual Susan Sutton Smith Lecture at SUNY Oneonta, titled “Barns of New York.”

The topic, she said, was not high on her list of things to research. Instead, Falk said, the project began several years ago when officials at Cooperstown’s Farmer’s Museum contacted her and asked if she would be willing to study the topic. The organization needed an expert on the area to serve as a field guide for the ever-growing audience, including many second-home-owners, that’s interested in local barns, she said. 

Falk immediately began research, taking several lengthy trips across the state to study barns of all types. Students in her American Material Culture class, which studies all the “stuff” our society makes and uses, also took part in the research, participating in field studies, as well as anecdotal research in libraries. Falk said she and her students learned a great deal about the architecture of barns, but also about their huge historical and societal significance.

“Agriculture is a $5 billion industry in New York,” Falk said. “That image can be abstract until you start to see the places that make that possible, like farms, and the people who make it possible — the farmers.”

It was interesting to look back and see how farmers started with small farms and moved up to larger-scale farms and organic farming, Falk said, and how barns changed in response to these advances.

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