Pig Tales

April 10, 2011

Laurie Thorp was at the Thompson household last Sunday explaining “Why my bacon is better than your bacon,” or more to the point, some of the things that are going on at MSU’s student organic farm. The event was part of the “Diane Presents…” forum that she has been organizing as an adjunct to the Thornapple CSA. As I’m sure both loyal readers of this blog know, the CSA idea goes beyond just having tasty and healthful foods to munch on in the summer months. Part of the philosophy is making a commitment to a farm that puts you in solidarity with the farmer, and part of that is learning more about what’s what in the food system.

I know, I know. Last week I denied that this blog has anything at all to do with what’s what, but as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” And so I persevere.

The “CSA way” involves participating in discussions about the food system, and in that vein, Diane tries to organize such discussions now and then. Often these happen around food or work days out at Appleschram Orchard where our veggies are grown, but she also has this idea of staging events where leading lights from the MSU food world will sit around and chew the fat with Thornapple members and, indeed, anybody willing to show up. This series was launched last fall with an appearance from an internationally known food ethicist, raconteur, savant extraordinaire and all around bon vivant (that would, of course, have been me). My stunning and amazing performance was followed up by last Sunday’s evening with Laurie, who runs the Residential Initiative  in the Study of the Environment (RISE) at MSU and is also one of driving forces behind MSU’s Student Organic Farm.

I’m working up to some pontification on student farm programs, having visited farms at the University of Georgia and at Green Mountain College in Poultney, VT since the first of the year. But you’ll have to hold your breath on that, because I’m still stewing about whether and what I might have to say about it. For now, I’ll hold tight to Laurie’s visit to the Thornapple Food Salon. Except that this blog is the first time anyone’s mentioned something like a Thornapple Food Salon, and I’ve been sternly instructed that my role as designated Thornapple blogger gives me absolutely no authority to say anything official or to represent any of my half baked ideas as having issued from the Thornapple core group. So I take it back. There is no Thornapple Food Salon, but members are always invited to a “Diane Presents…” I have no idea when the next one will be. Once every six months seems to be the norm.

Laurie was talking about the Student Organic Farm’s pig project. This is, as any sustainable agriculture effort should be, an experiment in multi-functionality. It is on the one hand an attempt to see how pasture raised pigs might be incorporated into the production system of a small organic farm. I’d like to wax eloquent about how difficult it is to make research like that conform to the norms of replication and statistical significance that have come to dominate agricultural science. In the old days of Land Grant universities, this kind of “demonstration project” was commonplace, but in the days of “the big play”, it happens pretty infrequently. I’d like to wax eloquent about this, but I’m sure neither of my regular readers knows or cares about big plays in the Land Grant system, so I’ll just shut up.

On the other hand, and this is important to Laurie, the pig project is research in educational methods and curriculum. Here’s how I understand the thesis. In the modern gigantihaulicalextravaganzistic university, students are quite detached and isolated. Contact with nature (and this would include pigs) has a restorative function that enlivens the imagination and makes the full gamut of one’s educational experience come alive. As a philosophy professor, I’m inclined to mention that this is actually not so much of a new idea, having been expounded by the noted French philosopher and educational theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his seminal book Emile: or On Education (which you can read on line). But since I’m sure that neither of my regular readers knows or cares about French Romanticism or its role in the gigantihaulicalextravaganzistic university, I’ll shut up about that, too.

In fact, I think I’ll just shut up, period. It’s supposed to be 80° here in Michigan this Sunday, and I’ve spent too much of the day in front of a computer already. Sorry you missed “Diane Presents an Evening with Laurie Thorp,” if you did. I guess you’ll just have to wait for the movie.

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