An Additional Appearance by Our Favorite Satellite

August 2, 2013

We have finally made it to August. In Michigan, that means tomatoes. I realize that some of you may have been enjoying tomatoes for several weeks now, but give me a large break. It’s not only Michigan, where we never get tomatoes much before the last week of July, it’s been kind of a cold and wet summer. It’s still a little too early to tell how all that’s going to affect our tomatoes. Probably not for the better, but I’m still hopeful. We have a few little boys from last week’s CSA share sitting downstairs on the counter right now, trying their hardest to get just a little bit redder. You can hear them working diligently if you are quiet, squirming and a puffing almost inaudibly in that winning way typical of domesticated garden plants.

Diane and I went out to the farm on Friday night for the Thornapple CSA Blue Moon Party. I must say that it was pretty rowdy event, reaching a peak when core group member Ryan Apple (no relation to Appleschram) and Farmer Paul (no relation to Paul Thompson) broke out in a stirring fiddle toon. Or maybe it was a stirring fiddle tune. In any case a wonderful time was had by all and you can gaze at pictures on the Thornapple CSA Facebook page.

There is, in astrological fact, a bit of confusion about the blue moon. I suspect that it is closely tied to the confusion that prevented us from making an appropriately forthright statement about climate ethics a couple of weeks back. Thanks to John Zilmer for straightening that one out for the legions of readers that flock to the blog’s website on a regular basis. Or maybe they flock only once in a blue moon.

The confusion arises in virtue of the fact that a so-called “blue” moon is in fact an intercalary lunar phase—an extra cycle above and beyond the twelve normal (e.g. non-blue) moons that occur during a typical year. Those of us who are deeply schooled in metaphysics know that there is, strictly speaking, never a typical year. There are only years whose atypical nature goes unnoticed by the shuffling hoards. But that’s probably altogether much too depressing for an August blog, so forget that I brought it up. Unfortunately for those who like to keep their peas and their mashed potatoes from touching one another, our calendar (that would be the one by which we reckon that today is, indeed, the 2nd of August, 2015) is solar, rather than lunar. And there are about 12.37 lunations in every solar calendar. Which makes seven blue moons in every Metonic cycle.

I bet five dollars to a donut that you did not expect to encounter the word “lunation” when you opened up the Thornapple blog. This would be a good name for spells experienced by Larry Talbot (as memorably portrayed by Lon Chaney Jr.) whenever the moon was full. Remember, “I saw Lon Chaney walkin’ wi’ da Queen. Dah dah dah. I saw Lon Chaney JUNIOR walkin’ wi’ da Queen. They were doing the werewolves of London,”? Well it’s actually supposed to be the third lunation in a seasonal cycle with four instead of three moons that counts as the blue moon. But that’s just a little too complex for us lameheads to grasp, so we typically just call the second full moon in a month the blue one, which is what we did last Friday night, when the second full moon showed up on July 31st while we were out singing songs and cooking wienies at Appleschram orchard with Ryan Apple and Farmer Paul.

An intercalary chapter is a little extra insertion that does not advance the plot. Not that we would stoop to such nonsense in the Thornapple Blog! John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is loaded with intercalary chapters, providing American high school students of a certain era to become familiar with a crazy word that might show up on a pop quiz. Knowing this, we were not surprised when an intercalary lunation showed up last Friday. We didn’t see any werewolves, though.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State Univesity


Emissions &

July 26, 2015

So I’m afraid that this is one of those weeks when I’m going to send you backwards to catch up. Like to last week when I couldn’t get started because the whole thing was just too confusing, or to a few weeks ago when we were all giving out a big shout-out to Pope Francis. But while it would be wholly within the spirit of the Thornapple Blog to go around in circles two or three times before moving on to the subject at hand, this week I’ll just point out quietly that I do in fact regard these two context-setting-blogs as important provisos for what comes next. So if you were about to quote me out of context on Fox News or some other outlet like The Review of Metaphysics, just be advised that you have been warned in advance!

What I thought I was going to get around to last week was a conversation I had had about the surprising number of people who say confusing, head twisting things about climate change, and then end up with an amazing simple statement like “The biggest thing that you could do to address climate change is to give up eating meat.” There is a rationale behind this recommendation, as a rather surprising amount of the methane currently being emitted into the atmosphere comes from ruminants. And if it’s not crystal clear yet, I’ll go on to concede that, indeed, cattle are ruminants. Of course, not all the meat you might eat is beef, so you might be wondering whether there’s a bit of overgeneralization going on, so I’ll further ‘splain that a surprising amount of our industrial agriculture production (which uses a not massive [hence not surprising] but still significant portion of our fossil fuel) is for animal feeds.

So with those concessions off my chest, let me be slightly serious here for a bit and say why this is confusing to me. In the spirit of calling out the overgeneralization alluded to above, I could start by noting that ‘meat’ is kind of ambiguous in this context. Does it include fish? Does it include eggs? And most importantly due to the fact that we are (recall) mainly talkin’ bout cows when the word ‘methane’ comes up in conversation—does it include milk, cheese, yogurt and other assorted dairy products? If you are going to be consistent in applying your dietary climate ethic, you should include all of those things. We are, in fact, talking vegan, here.

I’ll hasten to add two things. First, far be it from me to insist on consistency in matters of diet. I’ve sworn that particular philosopher’s vice off long, long ago. And second, if you are in fact inclined to go vegan, by all means, do it. At least give it a try. The last thing I sat down to do this morning was to try and dissuade any of those heroic vegans out there of their dietary regimen. I was just trying to point out the bigger picture behind a superficially simple recommendation.

But more significantly, let me focus like a laserbeam on the methane thing. Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas, which means that it aggravates the nasty processes that are causing all the problems we associate with that bland term “climate change”. But this methane does not “stay up there” all that long, and as I see it (this is my blog, you know) the much larger problem is the longevity of carbon dioxide emissions. When we burn stuff like coal, gasoline or jet fuel, most of that stuff is going to be around for thousands of years. Even our grandchildren’s grandchildren won’t be able to do much about it. If we stopped raising cows, close to 90% of the methane might be gone in 20 years. Heck, even I might live to see that!

In short, pushing really hard to figure out some way to stop burning stuff when you go from place to place, when you need to heat or cool your house, and when you need electricity to make toast—that would be the most important thing that you could do to address climate change. This thing about saving the world with better eating is overselling a moderately good idea that should probably be considered solely on its own merits.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Climate Ethics

July 19, 2015

Are you confused about the climate ethics of your diet?

Me, too.

I don’t doubt that humans are having a significant impact on global climate systems, but I have some limited sympathy with the climate-change skeptics. It’s going a bit too far when you claim that this is all something that Al Gore (remember him?) made up right after he invented the Internet. And it’s also going a bit too far to claim that the steady rise in average temperature, the fluctuations in climate systems, the melting glaciers and the increasing number of extreme weather events have absolutely no connection to the fact that human beings having been pumping ever increasing amounts of methane, carbon dioxide and possibly some other stuff I’ve never heard of into the atmosphere. So hold on, Bessie, I’m not going anywhere near that far when I admit to being a bit confused.

Not to say that there isn’t something confusing here. I can hardly blame the so-called average person for not thinking too hard about stuff. Not thinking about stuff too hard is one of the perennial themes of the Thornapple Blog, after all. Have you seen those hilarious U-Tube videos where Jimmy Kimmel goes around asking all these people who are cutting down on gluten what it is that they think they are cutting down on? They don’t have a clue. So we could hardly blame folks who are skeptical about climate change who also have no clue what it is they are skeptical about. Confusing, isn’t it?

So if you are just either incensed or skeptical about climate change from the get-go with absolutely nothing further to base your respective attitude on, it would follow that you would not have much to go on when it comes to whether or not you should change your diet to save the world from sea-level rise, constant monsoons, desertification, and stoppage of the thermohaline circulation! Just getting through that sentence alone is pretty confusing, isn’t it?

Well, that’s about where I find myself.

So I sat down this morning to throw out a few musings on the subject, but by now I’m just so confused I don’t even know where to start.

So I’m just going to put the whole thing off until next week.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Enter Title Here

July 12, 2015

I might as well start out today by just admitting up front that it’s not really proving to be particularly conducive to blogging. I mean, what is this blogging thing, anyway? (Sounds like the start of a Seinfeld monologue, doesn’t it?). There was a particular idea to it back in the stone age years of cyberspace. It was “Hey! Break free of the constraints laid on us by editors who filter out what we want to read. Go on line yourself. Post anything you want—recipes, how your day went, garden tips, your reaction to current events, your last trip to the bathroom, your sex life (that one was especially popular)—and then see who turns up to read it. Freedom from the tiresome judgment laid on us writers by the gatekeepers to publication. Freedom from the whole process of submitting your writing to someone who then, of necessity, must judge it. A direct line to readers.”

And for readers, what? Aside from the occasional titillation I think it was a mix of business-as-usual chit-chat, on the one hand, and an exploratory sense of the new, on the other. The first had fit nicely with food themes (the recipes and gardening tips) while the latter led to some interesting experiments in semi-intentional online community. That’s way too serious for a Sunday Thornapple blog, so just forgetaboutit right out of the gate. I suppose one of the more interesting parts of that would be the Wiki-wiki thing: the Internet + search as the real-world incarnation of Borges library of babel. It turns out that Borges was right. There is a ton of crap to find on the Internet, and all those little blog episodes thoughtfully entered by the random person occasionally turn up just what you are looking for, if you have the patience and luck to find them.

The fact that it only took a year or two for Internet devotees to tire of parsing the gibberish in search of occasional wisdom is the main reason why I make a distinction between the eventual reign of babel and chit chat, which continues to be useful. Those food-tips and discourses on the food system have continued, as I noted in a more ominous tone the week before last. And we might note in passing the oft noted tendency for “comments” to devolve rapidly into rants (at least when they are not dominated by robot posts advertising shoes or dental services in the Netherlands). The comment sections of most serious blogs are pretty heavily edited by human beings these days. But when you need some help making pound cake or you are trying to find out what to do with that Russian kale, well in those cases the blogosphere remains helpful.

I must confess that I didn’t really pay any attention to bloggers during the stone age. I suppose I should confess that I don’t pay all that much attention to bloggers now. Back when I started writing this blog in 2009, I might spend an hour on Sunday poking around the Internet reading blogs on philosophy or food issues. I rarely do that today. I’ll just end by saying that I don’t care all that much for Russian kale, either. I know, I know. It’s blasphemous for a food blogger to admit such a thing. But there you have it.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Not Knockwurst

July 5, 2015

Topic for an American holiday weekend: How did the Vienna sausage come to be associated with a person who performs dangerous or showy stunts? Or, for that matter, with a general exclamation of excitement or appreciation? The Vienna sausage I’m talking about is, of course, better known as a wiener, which, I’ve explained with extreme patience on at least one prior occasion, a common German idiom for a food item known to be associated with a particular city or region. Perhaps it would be patronizing to go on and explain that, of course, we speakers of Americanized English do not typically use the word ‘wiener’ to describe someone who is performing a dangerous or showy stunt, though it would not, in fact, be inappropriate to describe such a person with the comment, “What a wiener!” To do that would sound a note of disapproval not necessarily connoted by describing the said performer as a “hot dog.”

In short, “wiener,” bad. “Hot dog,” good, or at least neutral.

This general lack of parallelism between the usage of ‘wiener’ and ‘hot dog’ would be even more sharply observed in the case of celebratory exclamation. No self-respecting red-blooded American boy would, upon sight or anticipation of some stimulating and broadly pleasant opportunity cry out “Wiener!” in breathless expectation of exceptional delights to come. In deference to my own limited outlook, I will not comment as to whether a self-respecting, or for that matter red-blooded, American girl might ever make such an interjection. The mind spins in contemplation of such a possibility. But, to foreclose entirely the reader’s opportunity for imaginative completion of the thought being developed here, we know exactly what is meant when someone (male or female) yells “Hot dog!” on the occasion of some joyous or otherwise festive occasion. Imagine, if you will, the Minnesota Twins’ fan after Torii Hunter has connected with a 99-mile-an-hour fastball and sent the spheroid rollicking over the left field fence. Or that member of the gluten-free infused beet generation upon being presented with steaming plate of kale sautéed in peanut oil and sesame seeds. “Hot dog!” either might scream.

In short, “Hot dog!” good; “Wiener!” incoherent, confusing and possibly a little disturbing.

And so to return to our framing question, how did these peculiarities of usage come about? Being neither a linguist nor dispositionally inclined toward actual research, I usually just make up the answers to such questions when writing the Thornapple Blog (or at least I hope my readers can tell when of a Sunday I become consumed with such insouciance). But wouldn’t anyone, or at least any non-vegetarian, on being presented with a steaming Vienna sausage in a bun with mustard, relish and onions be driven by underlying biological drives to shout “Hot dog!” And given this propensity, wouldn’t it be natural to go on and associate that usage with a spectacular and ostentatious display of daring-do? And isn’t that why God gave us vegetarian hot dogs, in the first place? I think so, at least.

In short, “hot dog,” good; “wiener,” irrelevant to any July 4th weekend celebration.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University


June 28, 2015

Is there anything less enduring than a meal? Whether cobbled together from leftovers and scraps in the refrigerator or the result of detailed planning and careful preparation, that last meal you ate, well, it’s gone. And really, folks, is there anything less memorable? I mean sure there are going to be a few exceptions in your life. The octopus in its own ink I ate in Bilbao has stuck with me, but mainly, if I’m honest about it, the visual effect of that inky black plate being set before me, that’s what I remember. And there were plenty of reinforcing threads around that particular meal, too: joking with Peter Sandøe, thinking about the octopus itself, not to mention just trying to stay awake until 11:00pm to start dinner. But I mention such peripherals only to underline the sensation of memory. Most meals won’t surrender themselves to that kind of recall.

There are also those dishes from one’s childhood or from some especially precious habitus. We remember them fondly. Except that I’m going to say, in fact we don’t. What we remember is something else—a generalized feeling of well-being, perhaps, but probably a generalized feeling of well-being that we recall from some previous episode of thinking about those times, those people. We may associate a smell, a taste or the picture of some especially scarlet tomato sauce with those memories, but I’m going to insist that we’re not really remembering any particular tomato sauce at all. It’s something with a real referent, to be sure, but what we’re remembering is a collage, an assemblage of emotion colored images that we have, in fact, projected and constituted in a performance of nostalgia.

Not that there’s something wrong with that. These kind of false memories can play a role in “essentializing” ideas of Motherhood and femininity, to be sure. When that happens, stereotyped roles can get constructed that can, in turn, be deployed in oppressing real people—strangers and family members alike—who inhabit our orbits of daily practice. Not a good thing. But surely everyone lives in a memory palace that is largely tissued of bricolage and partial lapses, bearing little actual verisimilitude to our respective pasts. The fault lies not in the way we re-member the past, but in the way we (sometimes) project those constructed memorials on the present. And that’s not what I sat down to write about today.

No, I was stirred by the ephemerality itself, and then I got carried away trying to evoke it. Of course there’s another sense in which our past meals are anything but transient. Those fats, carbs and proteins become a part of us in a very literal sense. And if they happen to be carrying a few toxins along as hitchhikers, well, those pesky little badboys become a part of us, too. We are what we ate, and we may yet pay for it. Yet I’ll insist it’s that the temporary and evanescent dimension of eating that we should lift up in food ethics. We should remember how far we are from the eternal verities that are more typically celebrated by the moral sages of yore.

George Steiner says that most people who write have a hankering for immortality lurking somewhere hidden in their subconscious, and I can’t say he’s wrong. He wrote that a few years before blogging became commonplace, and he even anticipated the way that the Internet might undo the potential for anyone to hanker for immortality without simultaneously feeling a keen sense of embarrassment. Yet if food is the quintessence of transience, what can we say of food writing? And if food writing lives only for the Wednesday “Food” section, what can we say of a food blog?

And yet, and yet, there are so, so many of them! What are we trying to memorialize?

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University.

Letter from Rome

June 21, 2015

In case you missed it, the major food ethics newsflash for last week came out of Rome. Pope Francis issued an encyclical entitled Laudato Si’. At first I thought it was from a crowd chant heard when the Allman Brothers Band played stadium gigs in Italy: Alberino fustigazione, laudato, si! [Tr: Whipping post, louder, yes!], but it turns out that the Allman Brothers never played any stadium gigs in Italy, so I had to go back to square one on the Pope’s encyclical. I must confess that I still haven’t read it, but I did find a link to an English translation, which I am offering right here.

Eventually the hysterical reaction from the right wing press told me that the Pope had done one of two things. He had either suggested that it was time to start looking after Sister Earth, or he had made disparaging remarks about NASCAR. The fact that he decided to name himself after Saint Francis of Assisi is a pretty good hint that it is probably the former, so that’s what I’m going with this Sunday.

Of course both of my regular readers know that I am being coy. While not stooping to the point of having done actual research on Pope Francis’s encyclical, I have been following the buzz on the International Society for Environmental Ethics List Serve. If you are one of the Thornapple Blog readers who does not know what a “list serve” is (and believe me, you would not be the only one), I’m just going to suggest that you Google it. I’ve already fulfilled my quota of tangential misdirection for the week, and it is really time to get on with the main point.

Folks on the ISEE list are generally favorable. They approve of the fact that the Pope has said that humanity has a responsibility to halt the harm that it has been doing to the global ecosystem by releasing a toxic cocktail of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, and even to undertake measures that would repair some of the damage. The amount of kneejerk outrage spewing from the climate sceptics on this is really kind of depressing, but frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. I’m not going to be lured into that quagmire.

I will point out that not everyone on the ISEE list is wholly positive about the Pope. There are a few who are kind of grudging about their approval of the Laudato Si’ encyclical mainly because, well, after all, he is the Pope, and they are just kind of down on things religious, being (as many are) formally trained philosophers and all. There are some who object to his association of “the Earth” with a gendered term (e.g. ‘sister’), seeing it is more than a bit passé and even sexist coming from a man in his position. And there were longer rants about his refusal to endorse the idea that human population growth was a driving source of the problem. I point out these objections in the spirit of reportage. I have no more intention of engaging these points than those of the nutcases.

Readers of the Thornapple Blog may be asking themselves, “But what does this have to do with food ethics?” But here I will note that based on what I have read (and again I’ll confess in all seriousness to have read only some excerpts), this is clearly what the Pope gets right. There have already been serious consequences from greenhouse gas pollution for world agriculture. They range from loss of farmland due to sea level rise to flooding and drought associated with the increased volatility brought on by change in some of the basic atmospheric processes that make up the global climate system. As the Pope notes, the people being affected by this are not people who have gotten fat eating steak and driving SUVs (to mention two things that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions), nor are they people who can afford to undertake the measures that would offset the devastating impact on their local farming environment.

The Pope is pretty clear that we should think of ethics as involving duties to Nature herself (apologies to my feminist readers for following the Pope’s language use here), but he is also clear that duties to Nature align nicely with more traditional Christian social teachings about duties to the poor.

Now if I could just figure out what ‘encyclical’ means.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University


Book Tour

June 14, 2015

I spent most of last week on a mini book tour to promote my new book From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone. It was fun and pretty well received at all four of the West Coast locations. In Berkeley, CA a skeptical gentleman asked me to talk a bit about the case for eating organic food. My answer omitted something that was extremely important for several other people in the audience: You should look for foods that have not been sprayed with chemicals because of the risk they pose for agricultural workers. Less concerned about their own health and safety, at least two people in a rather small audience took me to task for not making this seemingly obvious ethical point.

I must say that my first reaction was to push back. Agricultural pesticides are regulated under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, or as we farm insiders like to call it FIFRA. (Try saying “fifra” out loud. It’s fun!) It may seem like this list of poisons—to which we could add herbicides—are going to be inherently dangerous. Linguistically they all seem to be in the same family with homicide.

I periodically find myself applying something called Naftin™ to the fungus on my feet, so I guess I should confess that I’m not totally down on fungicides, at least. But maybe that has relatively little to do with food ethics.

The thought that was actually running through my head was an unverified story I heard a few years back: that some larger organic growers were bringing back the short hoe, known among migrant workers as el cortito. Here’s a quote from a PBS webpage for The Fight in the Fields:

In the late 1960s and 1970s, el cortito was the most potent symbol of all that was wrong with farmwork in California: The tool was unnecessary, and farmers in most other states had long switched to longer hoes. Growers argued that without the control the short hoe offered, thinning and weeding would be mishandled, crop losses would mount, and some farmers would go bankrupt. As he prepared to take on California farmers, Jourdane quizzed many physicians—including Cesar Chavez’s back specialist—who said that without a doubt, the hoe was responsible for the debilitating back pain experienced by many of their farmworker patients.

Let me repeat the word “unverified”. The quote above explains why a grower might want to do this, but I have no hard evidence that it’s being done. Carefully regulated use of the more benign pesticides can save some of the “stoop labor” involved in farming, and I rather think that there are a at least a few cases where concern for the interests of farmworkers would run counter to the intuitions of my critics.

Then I reminded myself that the larger history of pesticide regulation has involved both manufacturers and industrial farmers relying on the difficulty of proving that exposure to agricultural chemicals harms farmworkers to resist “careful regulation.” And I remembered Angus Wright’s classic book The Death of Ramon Gonzalez. Wright recounts an episode of pesticide abuse accompanied by utter disregard for the health and safety of farmworkers. So I decided to bite my tongue and simply agree with the sentiments being expressed by the audience.

I’m glad I did.  The book tour comes to mid-Michigan on June 22. Look for me at Schuler Books in Okemos at the Meridian Mall around 7:00 pm.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Elegant Economies

June 7, 2015

The 19th century author Elizabeth Gaskel advises that “almost everyone has his own individual small economies—careful habits of saving fractions of pennies in some one particular direction—any disturbance of which him more than spending schillings or pounds on some more real extravagance.” She goes on to illustrate the point with examples, one of which falls squarely in the domain of food ethics.

Small pieces of butter grieve others. They cannot attend to conversation, because of the annoyance occasioned by the habit which some people have of invariably taking more butter than they want. Have you not seen the anxious look (almost mesmeric) which such persons fix on the article? They would feel it a relief if they might bury it out of their sight, by popping it into their own mouths, and swallowing down; and they are really made happy if the person on whose plate it lies unused, suddenly breaks off a piece of toast (which he does not want at all) and eats up his butter. They think that this is not waste.

I may be repeating myself to note how my mother used a similar ethic of limiting waste to encourage me in the practice of eating everything on my plate. I confess to losing track of what I have and have not already said in the Thornapple blog, but I take comfort from the vanishingly small probability that anyone who against all odds finds themselves perusing the words formed by the electrons bouncing about on their screen this week would have read the blog some time ago. In any case, cleaning your plate was a fairly widespread application of the “waste not, want not” adage at one time. Maybe it still is. These days, of course, there’s often so much on the plate that popping that extra bit of buttered toast into one’s mouth in order to effect an elegant economy may be one of the things that’s contributing to our tendencies toward diabetes and heart disease.

Which is not to say that there’s nothing worth talking about from an ethics perspective when it comes to food waste. Here is a link to the Food Ethics Council on food waste. They begin with a quote to the effect that food currently wasted in the USA and UK could “lift 233 million people out of hunger.” But amazingly, they are almost as twisted and noncommittal as we are here at the Thornapple blog. They note (correctly, I think) that simply economizing on waste won’t actually feed the hungry. Attempts to economize on food waste must be accompanied by other efforts deliberately designed to address food security among impoverished and marginalized peoples.

I wonder if they had been reading Cranford?

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University


May 31, 2015

In the spirit of our penchant for obvious and not-so-timely reminders, we note that May is asparagus month. Fresh, asparagus is a favorite for most true foodies, and by “fresh” I mean picked this morning or at least yesterday. That makes asparagus an inherently local food as well. We’ve been in asparagus season here in Michigan for the last three or four weeks, and with a bit of luck we will have two or three weeks more. So reminding people that this is the time of the year to be on the lookout for asparagus may not be entirely futile.

The first pick-up for Thornapple CSA will be on Wednesday of this week, but I must advise expectant members against looking for asparagus in the first weekly share. You don’t just plant asparagus in January or February with the idea that you will be eating it in May. Asparagus needs a good 3-4 years to be in harvestable condition, and some say you should really not expect much for seven years. 35 years ago when I came to Texas A&M as a newly minted faculty member, lots of us thought of the place as a temporary stop on the way to a position at a more attractive place. My colleague Dick Becka used to say, “Living in College Station is not so bad; it’s the thought of dying here.” Some of the newcomers came around to the idea that A&M was actually a pretty good place to work, while others resigned themselves to the limited mobility of the increasingly tight job market for university faculty. We would recognize this transition in an individual’s attitude by noting whether or not they were planting asparagus in their backyard garden. Anyone who puts out asparagus expects to be around for a while.

As a result, asparagus DOES NOT appear on the list of vegetables that you can expect to get from your participation in the Thornapple CSA. We did put out some asparagus at Appleschram a couple of years back as an experiment, but it hasn’t really taken. One problem is that it’s hard to keep people out of it while it get’s established. Casual visitors easily convince themselves that they have stumbled on an unknown treasure trove. They yield to the temptation to help themselves to a few stalks, thinking that it couldn’t possibly hurt anything.

This is an instance of a collective action dilemma—a problem theorized in the 1960s by Mancur Olson. I met Mancur Olson once in the hall at 1616 “P” Street in Washington, DC. It probably would have been less than a year before he died, but I suppose that this is too much a tangent even for the Thornapple blog. A more accessible version of the problem was formulated by Garrison Keillor for one of his A Prairie Home Companion monologues. It’s called “The Living Flag”, and it was popular enough that it was one of the stories celebrated in the 25th anniversary collection. But that’s all I’m going to say here. If you want to hear how Keillor explains collective action dilemmas, you can go to this link.

The long and short of it is that we are at least a year or two behind in getting asparagus established for distribution in Thornapple shares. This will not, however, deter our farmers Paul and Chelsea from providing a sumptuous helping of salad greens, and maybe some kale and radishes. Yum. In the meantime, look for asparagus on the menu at any appropriately hip or “local” eatery, or find some at the produce section in your local market. It may not have been picked yesterday, but it will still be pretty damn good.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University