Lady Eve Balfour

January 29, 2012

Just in case you don’t like my food ethics icons, a former Ohio extension agent named Andy Kleinschmidt wrote a blog back in 2009 in which he listed the 10 most influential people in the history of farming and agriculture. We have a bit of overlap: Norman Borlaug, George Washington Carver. Kleinschmidt’s “other notables” list includes Temple Grandin. Of course, I’m focusing on ethics in a way that Kleinschmidt isn’t, so it would be surprising if the overlap was total. His #1 is Fritz Haber, who developed the Haber-Bosch process for making synthetic fertilizer out of nitrogen freely available in the atmosphere. I’m not ranking my food icons, and I’m going out on this particular round with someone who fails to get a mention from Kleinschmidt: Lady Eve Balfour.

I know a lot less about Lady Eve Balfour than I do about any of my other food ethics icons. I know that she founded the Soil Association in the UK and that she is a revered figure among sustainable agriculture types from the British Isles. I know that she was involved in “the Haughley experiment,” a multi-year test of organic farming methods and soil fertility that took place northeast of London between 1939 and 1987. I know that Haughley is pronounced “Horley”.  I know that Lady Eve was involved in forming the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). I know that she died in 1990.

I’ve read the speech she gave in 1977 called “The Living Soil”. It’s regarded by many as a manifesto for the alternative agriculture movement. You can read it yourself. It’s not that long. I haven’t read her book by the same title from 1943.

The notable thing about Balfour’s speech from my perspective is simply the way that she connects agricultural research with ethics. Here’s a quote:

There are two motivations behind an ecological approach–one is based on self interest, however enlightened, i.e. when consideration for other species is taught solely because on that depends The survival of our own.

The other motivation springs from a sense that the biota is a whole, of which we are a part, and that the other species which compose it and helped to create it; are entitled to existence in their own right. This is the wholeness approach and it is my hope and belief that this is what we, as a federation, stand for.

If I am right, this means that we cannot escape from the ethical and spiritual values of life for they are part of wholeness. To ignore them and their implications would be to pursue another form of fragmentation. Therefore, I hold that what we have to teach is the attitude defined by Aldo Leopold as ‘A Land Ethic’. This requires that we extend the concept of Community to include all the species of life with which we share the planet. We must foster a reverence for all life, even that which we are forced to control, and we must, as Leopold put it–‘Quit thinking about decent land use as solely an economic problem, but examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise’.

This is not, by the way, quite how Leopold put it, but never mind. Balfour is thought of as kind of nutty by some agricultural scientists because of her links to the Anthroposophical Society. Like Transcendentalism, I think that anthroposophy is more than a little too excessively magniloquent. But never mind. The point is a kind of intellectual discipline that comes from thinking of oneself working within a closed system. Farming has to proceed from the materials that can be generated within that system. Thinking that you can pull stuff out of thin air to increase soil fertility is a fool’s errand.

We can debate where the borders of that system really are, and we should. That would be a form of food ethics worthy of the name! If Lady Eve Balfour helps us get to that debate, she’s a food ethics icon in my book.

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


January 22, 2012

None of this political speculation on the race for the Republican nominee for us! I’m sure both of my regular readers could care less about Newt and Mitt (sounds like a comic strip, don’t it?). My readers woke up this morning wondering who the next food ethics icon would be. My tendency would be to find someone with three names so that I can follow up the pattern of three previous blogs on George Washington Carver, Liberty Hyde Bailey and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Let’s see: Mary Baker Eddy? William Dean Howells? Except that as far as I know, neither of them had much to say about food ethics.

So we turn to Xenophon, who lived from approximately 430 – 354 BC, according to Wikipedia. Xenophon was a Greek general who led a hair-raising retreat following the defeat of Cyrus the Younger. He then retired to a farm near Sparta where he wrote a series of books, including a recounting of the expedition in support of Cyrus called the Anabasis. A loose English translation of Anabasis would be “Going Up the Country”. This leads me to speculate that Xenophon was the inspiration for Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson, who penned the immortal words “Well I’m so tired of cryin’ but I’m out on the road again. (I’m on the road again).” But that’s probably another story entirely.

Xenophon also wrote the Oeconomicus, which is mostly devoted to a philosophical discussion of agriculture. It’s set up as a dialog between Socrates and Critobulus, which shifts to a dialog between Socrates and Ischomachus, who is portrayed by Xenophon as being widely known among Athenians as an expert farmer. Of late, people have mostly focused on some passages where Ischomachus tells Socrates about how he instructed his newly wedded wife (some 15-25 years younger) in the arts of household management. He comes off as your run-of-the-mill male-chauvinist pig in this literature, except that no one uses the expression “male-chauvinist pig” any more. But that’s probably another story, too.

The Greeks are interesting because they developed a cluster of city-states, each of which institutionalized some form of political freedom and self-governance. They had to invent ways of talking to one another and deciding collectively what to do. They came to believe that some walks of life prepared a person well for the tasks of self-governance (which included self-defense), while others did not. Contemporary feminists (and I include myself here) fault them for thinking that women were unfit for these tasks, and Ischomachus’s instruction to his young wife is sometimes cited as exhibit A.

However, Ischomachus and Socrates both seem to agree that agriculture and farming are pretty central to the skills and talents of self-government, and since I live in world where I am surrounded by women farmers, I do not tend to read Xenophon’s praise of agriculture as particularly sexist. Some of it is dead obvious: “…where cultivation is inefficient, the garrisons are not maintained and the taxes cannot be paid.” But lots of it is rather subtle. A lot of it explores the links between self-discipline and the ability to inspire others. Other major portions are given over to explaining why “agriculture is the noblest of the arts because it is the easiest to learn.” This latter thought is connected to self discipline because a poor farmer can’t claim ignorance as an excuse, according to Xenophon, (eh, I mean Ischomachus). This leads him to the conclusion that “Husbandry is the clear accuser of the recreant soul.” That is, among farmers it’s pretty easy for us to separate the sheep and the goats, while among flute players or craftsman, one would need to have the arcane knowledge of the art to discern quality in its practitioner.

And speaking of arcane knowledge, there’s some pretty fascinating stuff implied by the way that Ischomachus convinces Socrates that agriculture is the easiest of the arts to learn: To wit, that Socrates (who was not a farmer) already knows everything about farming that allows Ischomachus to be the exemplary farmer that he is. Ischomachus convinces Socrates of this through a series of leading questions that exemplify Socrates’ own theory of knowledge and philosophy of education as it is presented in Plato’s Meno. But that’s probably another story entirely, and it wouldn’t make you a food ethics icon, in any case.

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

Ralph Waldo Emerson

January 15, 2012

Are farmers more virtuous than the rest of us? Is farm work character building? Does the small farm environment encourage the formation of positive character traits, at least in comparison to city life?

I’m not sure how either of my regular readers would answer today, but there was a time when affirmative responses to all of these questions would have been taken for granted. I suspect that even if many people would be skeptical or hesitant about it now, the thought that working on the farm is good for you in a spiritual sense still lurks in the unconscious. Getting a little vicarious virtue is part of the CSA way.

This idea shows up in a number of different cultural traditions, and it takes on different shadings and hues. I’ve noted before that people who attribute this idea to Thomas Jefferson generally don’t understand Jefferson, who was interested in a fairly specific sense of political loyalty when he wrote that “farmers make the best citizens.” I think that for Americans, the idea that farmers cultivate virtue at the same time that they cultivate their crops really starts to take hold later. It’s a theme that emerges in what some say is the first authentically American literary movement: Transcendentalism.

As for myself, I’ve always thought that there was something inherently bogus about this term “transcendentalism”. I could say more, but it would be boring, I assure you. So just go with the thought that the word is magniloquent and the whole movement panegyric (e.g. bogus) and we’ll get right to the point about farming and virtue. There’s no doubt that the doyen of Transcendentalism was Ralph Waldo Emerson and that Emerson did, indeed, think that farming was deeply connected to moral virtue. As for myself, I’m just happy to throw words like “doyen” and “panegyric” around on a grey January Sunday, if only to display my own personal magniloquence.

Emerson believed that human beings come into the world with a set of aptitudes and undeveloped abilities. To live well—to live a morally good life—is to realize those aptitudes as fully as possible. We do this through engagement with whatever environment we happen to find ourselves inhabiting. Emerson himself started out as a Congregationalist preacher, and he thought that writing poetry was his own personal path to self-realization. He came to believe that he had been mislead by living in a hothouse intellectual environment that was not actually all that well suited to expression of the most fundamental human capabilities.

So relatively late in his life, Emerson wrote an essay called “Farming” in which he praises the work that farmers do as more closely aligned to the capabilities that human beings have “by nature”. Think if it like this: A dog can be taught to walk on its hind legs by being placed in an environment where getting treats and avoiding beatings depends upon it. But herding sheep or tracking a pheasant would be a more natural expression of the natural capabilities inherent to the species Canis lupis. The species Homo sapien has different natural capabilities, but can similarly be placed in environments where survival depends upon doing tricks that are actually contrary to our natures.

“Cities make men talkative and entertaining,” wrote Emerson, “but they make them artificial.” Emerson’s journals are full of entries where the farm life is praised for it’s “adaptive fit” with the traits that human beings have “by nature.” Emerson’s most adept student Henry David Thoreau doubted this, by the way. Thoreau had more practical experience with farmers than his mentor, and he saw that they could become mean and penurious. His time at Walden Pond should be read as an experiment intended to test Emerson’s theory about human nature. As for myself, I think Thoreau surpassed his teacher, who ever remained imprisoned in magniloquence.

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

Liberty Hyde Bailey

January 8, 2012

Last year we did Norman Borlaug, winner of the World Food Prize and I think unarguably the most famous agricultural scientist of his time. Not that there are that many famous agricultural scientists. There’s Luther Burbank, who has a potato named after him. And there’s Justus von Liebig, the German chemist who pioneered the idea that plants depend on nitrogen, phosphorus  and potassium. Liebig formulated the “law of the minimum,” which stipulates that a plant’s growth rate depends on which of these three nutrients is the limiting factor. We could include Humphry Davy, too. Both Davy and Liebig were bigtime scientific figures who made important contributions to fields other than agriculture. If we really stretch it, we might include Jethro Tull, though my guess is that, like me, if you know who Tull is, it probably has more to do with the flute playing of Ian Anderson than the cultivation of Onobrychis.

The most famous agricultural scientist of his time was probably Liberty Hyde Bailey, except that his time overlaps pretty much with Burbank’s and it’s hard to top having a potato named after you when it comes to the longevity of one’s fame. But we’ll go with Bailey because he is a native son of Michigan, born in South Haven in 1858. Bailey attended the Michigan Agricultural College, which has a street named after it in East Lansing. He was also on the faculty. There’s a building named after him on the MSU Campus today, and MSU has a special program for agriculture undergraduates named The Bailey Scholars Program. It’s not a potato, I’ll admit, but it’s got to count for something.

Bailey did a lot of things in his long life—he died in 1954. There’s a famous photograph in which he is standing next to a pile of books that he wrote, and the pile is taller than he is. A lot of what he did was pretty mainstream technical agricultural science, and I’m in no position to evaluate how influential that work is today. Bailey left M.A.C. (now MSU) to join the faculty at Cornell University, where he was the first Dean at the first formally organized College of Agriculture in the United States. He was also a public figure. He was well-known for advocating outdoor nature studies as a component of every child’s education. He felt that getting kids outside and engaging all their senses would stimulate their interest in learning. Learning would occur in a context where the knowledge imparted is immediately relevant, rather than abstract.

This reputation may have been the initial basis of his relationship with Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s autobiography also celebrates the importance of physical activity in the out of doors as crucial to character formation. It makes a person decisive—important if you plan to carry a big stick. Bailey chaired a government committee for Roosevelt called the Country Life Commission. Their report, written primarily by Bailey and published in 1911, explained why the decline of family-household farms was creating a crisis in rural America. It was partly economic: fewer viable farms led to unviable schools and business communities. But Bailey also believed that this crisis was spiritual, that the experience of growing up on and managing diversified farms created a population more geared to the practice of citizenship, and more attuned to the precarious balance between common purpose and individual self-interest.

A bit later in his career, Bailey published a series for the Methodist Church called “The Holy Earth”. Here Bailey argued that we need to recognize a moral obligation to “the land”. That is, we need to see land as more than just a resource, but as a locus of responsibility. This idea had a profound influence on Aldo Leopold. Today, Leopold is much more likely to get credit for the idea that ecosystems have moral significance than Bailey. For Bailey, all this fit with a more technically oriented agricultural research framework that was intended to create a “permanent agriculture”. Bailey saw that the farming methods of his day were depleting soils, and that emerging financial practices were creating economic vulnerabilities. Bailey’s “permanent agriculture” is pretty clearly a precursor of what we call “sustainable agriculture,” today.

I find Bailey pretty interesting for so many reasons. How did a set of ideas that were so mainstream in the early decades of the 20th-century get pushed so far to the margins by its closing decades? Are there lessons that advocates of local foods, better health and community development could learn from studying Bailey’s writings, or perhaps more relevantly, the fate of Bailey’s writings? Did Bailey have a philosophically viable way of interconnecting his work on farming methods, rural communities and the development of moral character? Could we learn from that? And I get my hackles up when young punks (maybe like myself when I was James McWilliams’ tender age) seem to think that they invented the food movement, that it came out of nowhere.

But although Bailey is clearly a food ethics icon, he’s also problematic. He was a racist, for one thing, and his writings include occasional sentences and paragraphs that are shocking to modern readers. His emphasis on family farms has been taken over by social conservatives who see him not only as an articulate defender of the traditional family, and but also as an opponent of women’s rights and gay rights. And in fact, I don’t doubt that they are partially right, the fact that Bailey was the first administrator to appoint women faculty at Cornell notwithstanding. Which brings me to another thing that I find interesting about Liberty Hyde Bailey’s legacy: I want to know whether present day food advocates can simply ignore the unpleasant side of Bailey, or whether there are reasons to think through the underpinnings and implications of a commitment to Country Life ideals more critically? And finally, is it really wise to have a significant undergraduate program at MSU named after Bailey, given these problems? Maybe it’s less troubling to hitch your reputation to a potato, after all.

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



George Washington Carver

January 1, 2012

According to tradition, January is food icons month.

Well, we did it last year. I started out 2011 by posting a blog on Norman Borlaug, the Nobel prize winning agricultural scientist I got to know personally when I was on the faculty at Texas A&M University. This precipitated an e-mail from Terry Link who sent an article by Vandana Shiva, and though I’ve never met her, I was compelled to respond. Somewhere in there I had written a blog on Temple Grandin, who I met when she was a student in Stan Curtis’s lab back at the University of Illinois. So I found myself with three blogs about individuals who have had profound effects on food issues in our time, and it just seemed like Bob’s your uncle to finish out the month with blogs on Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry.

I got a lot of positive feedback on those blogs, more than on any others I’ve written in the two years that I’ve been at this fool’s errand. So I tried a follow up with mini-icons in September: Mark Bittman, Joan Dye Gussow, Bernard Rollin and James McWilliams. The mini-icons were people of lesser stature and lesser renown, (though that may not be true for Bittman). I don’t think these were so successful, and no one bothered to make a comment (other than McWilliams himself, who was incensed). But I’m going to give it another go this month. If doing something once doesn’t establish a tradition, I don’t know what does.

My idea this time around is to do some food icons from the past. I’m going to start with George Washington Carver. As anyone who clicked on the James McWilliams button above knows, I grew up way back in the middle of the last century, and in my world, Carver was famous. I’m blogging about him today because I don’t think he’s all that well known anymore. To test that out, I ran a Google search and discovered a blog posted only yesterday. Carver is there said to have invented crop rotation, which goes back at least to the 15th century. While my first thought was that maybe Carver is on the radar after all, this rather gross error made me a bit skeptical. All in all, it was a strange post in an extremely bizarre blog that seems to have been created in the last couple of days of 2011. The blog already has both dozens of lengthy posts on random subjects and numerous illogical links to external websites.  Highly robotic. And there was an unabashedly robot blog for “George Washington Carver products” which is actually a redirect site that points you to a bunch of crap advocated by a guy named “Herman”. There were a couple of blogs that looked pretty school-project-like, even though they actually had some decent content. Everything else recent was mentioning something named after Carver and not the man himself. So in conclusion, I take my hypothesis as proved. There’s a good Wikipedia article on Carver. It’s not like he’s disappeared from history. But if you don’t set out looking for Carver, he’s not very likely to come up.

I was always alert to Carver because my Grandma Thompson took me to his boyhood home down in Southwest Missouri when I was just a kid. Carver was born on a slave plantation, and back in the 1950’s there was still a large tree on the site in Diamond Grove where someone had been hung by the thumbs during George’s years there. I don’t recall the details and this may be one of those things in the Thornapple Blog that is not strictly true. The site was the first U.S. National Monument dedicated to a black man. Although this story about being hung by the thumbs undoubtedly made me much more aware of George Washington Carver than other white kids from Denver, I don’t think anyone growing up in my era would have failed to know who he was. We learned about him because he came up from slavery to become a “great scientist” and because he was black.

Carver died in 1943. Wikipedia says he spent his last two decades mostly being a celebrity and promoting the cause of racial harmony. By the 1960s, the relentless promotion of Carver as a model African-American probably led many blacks to take a jaundiced view of him. Carver wasn’t really a “great scientist” in the way that we use that term today. He never earned a doctorate, did not publish findings in scientific journals, and cannot, in truth, be credited with commercially successful technical innovations. It would be pretty easy to conclude that his fame was at best patronizing by well-meaning whites. At worst, Carver was a “Tom” being fêted for his compliant and subservient manner.

What Carver actually did during his productive years was to develop and publicize ways that poor farmers could accomplish a lot of practical tasks using natural materials ready to hand on their farms, avoiding the need to purchase goods from commercial suppliers. He and others also helped establish peanut farming across the South as a more sustainable crop that could replace the cotton agriculture that was both depleting soils and requiring ever greater amounts of insecticide. By my standards, that makes him a food ethics icon.

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