A Hazy Shade of Winter

February 26, 2012

If you are one of the two regular readers of the Thornapple Blog, you may have noticed that the “Recent Posts” column on the left hand side of the page scrolls down through the last ten items that I’ve posted. If you are reading this particular post during the week of Feb. 26, 2012 (e.g. the week it was published), then the item on the bottom of the “Recent Posts” list is “That’s It for 2011”. That particular post was actually written on December 25, which last time I checked was Christmas Day. It was so perfunctory (the moo-ving link notwithstanding) that I’m not even going to embed a link to it in this week’s blog. The only reason I’m mentioning it is that this progress of past blogs down the “Recent Posts” list has become a weird way of marking time for me. In one sense, it will not really be “That’s It for 2011” until next week, when my last blog of 2011 slides into the oblivion of the Archives, (where if you really want to find that moo-ving link, you can still click on December 2011).

Of course, if you happen to be reading the last February blog for 2012 at some later time, all these references to the Recent Posts column on the left hand side of the page will be completely meaningless to you. The only thing I can be relatively sure about it is that if you happen to be reading this blog right now, you are right here with my train of thought (however muddled that might be) as opposed to ignoring it, forgetting it or remaining completely unaware of it. Funny how that goes.

Which brings me to this week’s song lyric:

Time, time, time…

See what’s become of me.

While I looked around

for my possibilities,

I was so hard to please

This was penned by Paul Simon as a relatively young man, well before he married Princess Leia or went off to Africa and popularized world-music, and long, long before his peculiar combination of ego and chutzpah started to curdle in the cauldron of advancing years.

Not that this has all that much to do with food, except that I’m struck enough by the perishing nature of the eating experience, not to mention the farming experience, to keep bringing this up, time and time (and time and time) again. I did a goofy version of it reflecting on what it feels like to sit on Grand River and drink coffee when all the MSU students are coming back for classes, and I got rather serious about it a couple of weeks later after seeing the Richard Serra exhibit in Bilbao. And here I am again, well into 2012 and only now waving goodbye to 2011. It’s kind of like that last burp from a cheese enchilada with extra onions—the one that shows up hours later and reminds you how good they tasted.

Food is time. Time passing, time that is what we are. A food ethic that denies this to push hard on getting the environmental impacts right, or even one that is so focused on fair trade and just wages is getting a bit ahead of itself. And when you get ahead of yourself, well, where are you?

Elsewhere, I suppose.

Sure, food security is about ensuring that everyone has access to the food they need to survive, but the time that hungry people spend eating, not to mention procuring and preparing, is what makes up their lives. That has to be quality time in any adequate food ethic. So next time I reference Guy Lombardo (like a did last October), give me a break.

It seems to be one thing that I just can’t allow to slide forever into the Archives.

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


Feb. 19, 2012

Both of my regular readers know that I’m hooked up with eggs, and as such I feel obligated to write about them every now and then. It’s actually been about six months since I filled everyone in on the straight poop from the eggworld. And when we say “poop” in the eggworld, I can assure you, we know what we are talking about. I’ve introduced myself to ag audiences over the years by saying that I have pretty limited personal background in food farming. The only thing I did before becoming a perfessor was to work for two summers on one of the early big egg farms down in southwest Missouri. I follow this up by saying “I won’t say what I did, but I worked with a shovel and it was good preparation for my career in agricultural ethics.”

This is always the occasion for an outburst of hilarity. I realize that if by chance I happen to have picked up a less agriculturally-informed or less-scatologically-inclined reader today, this may strike you as neither funny nor particularly meaningful. If so, don’t worry about it. Nothing in the rest of the Thornapple Blog depends on being down with barnyard humor.

So back to the eggworld. When last we visited this exalted clime I was pointing out that the Humane Society of the United States and the United Egg Producers had reached an agreement on “enriched colony housing”. One of the wonderful things about the internet is that instead of having to explain this to you again, I can just post a link to my blog last July. Then you can go look it up yourself and I can steam blithely along into mounting fog of the blogosphere. This is also the point in the blog where I usually insert some totally off-topic comment about the fact that although my word processor dictionary doesn’t recognize a perfectly good word like “permaculture”, it does recognize “blogosphere”, or I go off quoting some obscure song lyric like “Corporation tee-shirt, stupid bloody Tuesday man, you been a naughty boy, you let your face grow long” in the vain hope that one of my readers will make the connection to what I’m blogging about and post a comment about how clever that was. Never happens.

So back to eggworld. The follow-up is that HSUS and UEP are having trouble getting Congress to take up this proposal. This may surprise you. One might think that when two groups formerly on such opposite sides of an issue come together on a proposal for action, our government would oblige them. On the other hand, this IS our government, so it may not surprise you to learn that it now looks unlikely that any action will be taken at all. The proposal is being opposed by the major beef and pork commodity organizations. My inside sources say that they are opposing it because they hate Wayne Pacelle, who is the President of the Humane Society of the United States, and they don’t want to give him any props to boost his street cred with the pro-animal homies. If this fails to strike you as either funny or meaningful, don’t worry about it. I don’t understand what I just said, either.

Of course, I don’t have very good inside sources outside the eggworld, so this is the point in the blog where I provide a link to last year’s blog where I explain that not everything you read here is necessarily true. It’s also the point where I go postal explaining my inside connection to the eggworld, but since I’ve already given you links where you can figure that out if you’re so inclined, I’m not going to do that. It could be that the mainstream animal producers are opposing this bit of legislation regulating eggs because they think it establishes a precedent for Federal regulation of farm animal welfare. If so, their action implies that they oppose regulation of farm animal welfare. I explained a rationale for being leery of a regulatory approach way back in one of those blogs I’ve already linked to, but if you’re confused, here it is again. But the argument there would not apply to producer groups that are actually asking for regulation, which is what the eggmen are doing. And some of you may have heard the stories by Dan Charles on National Public Radio. If not here (again) are some links. You wouldn’t want to be clueless in eggworld.

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


February 12, 2012

I had a great idea for this week’s blog. I was going to start out talking about the local food conference that was held at Pattengill Middle School here in Lansing over the weekend. It was called “Everybody Eats: Cultivating Food and Democracy”. I was going to stress the keynote presentations by Katherine Kelly, founder and executive director of Cultivate Kansas City and Malik Yakini, executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. My plan was to summarize some of the cool things that are happening in Kansas City and Detroit around the local food economy. Both communities have had unexpected success with community development initiatives that encompass the entire food system, from producing crops and animals on the farm to community gardens and locally oriented distribution through unique restaurants and, in the case of Kansas City, a small grocery chain named Ball’s Foods that has used its local connections to hold off Wal-Mart and Kroger. In Detroit, the emphasis has been on restructuring activity in local neighborhoods to improve both access to food and the quality of a resident’s diet. In both KC and Detroit, these developments have had the dual consequence of creating employment possibilities and also enhancing the livability of urban neighborhoods.

My plan was to continue in this vein by writing a little bit about Portland, OR, where I’m spending some large chunks of the year during my sabbatical from teaching at Michigan State University. Some time back Portland was a defunct manufacturing center reeling from the decline of its deep-water port. Seems they don’t call it Portland for naught. But Portland has resisted the worst of the economic decline that has visited Michigan cities throughout the first decade of the 3rd millennium by focusing intently on being a better place to live. Some of this involves limiting sprawl and investing in public transportation, but I’m particularly impressed at the way Portland has managed to cultivate a large number of neighborhoods each with walking-distance local economy with everything you need for daily life: a drugstore, a cleaner, even little clothing shops. But especially attractive bars and eateries and human-scale markets selling Oregon’s wonderful wines and fresh meat and produce. Like Ralph’s Pretty-Good Grocery where “If you can’t get it at Ralph’s, you can probably get along without it”. The upshot is a sense of Gemütlichkeit that actually has economic value.

I was going to call the blog “Elsewhere” because that’s where all this stuff seems to be happening. I was going to make a contrast between this model of urban development and the one to which our Mayor Virg Bernaro and Lansing developers seem to be held in thrall. That one emulates Donald Trump, with casinos and flash seasoned by boutique shops that sell chic wares made in China and bearing European labels. It reduces development to jobs, and neglects the difference between a job and an opportunity to grow the economy through self-reliance and personal initiative. It seems that KC now has something like 37 farms operating within the city limits. I had some second thoughts about this, because I don’t want to sell what’s actually happening in Lansing short. Diane estimates that about 300 people turned out for “Everybody Eats,” and that the excitement was palpable.

But I flew into Lansing last Wednesday from Portland by way of La Jolla, CA and Missoula, MT. Missoula and La Jolla are also places where things are happening, though La Jolla is hardly a model for anyplace else. I was immediately enmeshed in a ton of commitments and responsibilities associated with my job at MSU, and by Friday night, I just need to kick back and chill for a while. So I didn’t actually go to the conference, and I didn’t actually hear Katherine Kelly or Malik Yakini give their talks.

It seems I was elsewhere.

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

Farming: Not So Easy

February 5, 2012

It seems that during food icons month I managed to refer to Lady Eve Balfour as “nutty”, Xenophon as “sexist”, Ralph Waldo Emerson as “bogus”, Liberty Hyde Bailey as “racist” and George Washington Carver as a “Tom” who wasn’t actually a great scientist. My intention was to single out each of these individuals, to celebrate their accomplishments and suggest that people engaged in the food movement should learn more about them. All of which apparently goes to show, with friends like me, you won’t really need enemies. Go back and check it out, if you don’t believe me.

January was also a month with a few genuine comments that appeared amongst the robotic link-seekers. True to form, I’ve “approved” them all, and also according to my pattern, I’ve closed comments so that I don’t have to spend hours sorting through all the automata noting, “we like to honor websites we like…” or touting the new Zune. Those of you who don’t blog or manage websites would be truly amazed at how much white noise there is on the web. But I’ve complained enough about robots before. Go back and check it out, if you don’t believe me.

And speaking of which, it seems my blundering attempt to celebrate food icons has generated some hard feelings over in Van Buren County. Rather than drag regular readers of the Thornapple Blog into it, I’ll just provide this link, and then I’ll apologize to those who took umbrage at my choice of words. (If any of them find their way over to this corner of the World Wide Web, that is.) And then I’ll move right along to another puzzling leftover from food icons month: Xenophon’s claim that the principles of good farming are just so dead obvious that anyone can do it. Amazingly, no one called me out on this, though there is a fascinating new comment on “Blind Owl” Wilson’s influences (which apparently did not include the Anabasis, as I speculated). Go back and check it out, if you don’t believe me.

For readers outside the mid-Michigan area, the Thornapple CSA has a relatively unusual structure for community-supported agriculture. We’re based on the subscribers, not the farm. So far, we’ve had to go out and recruit a new farmer every year. We’ve found that it’s not easy to find one with Ischomachus’ level of knowledge, and as a result, one of the experimental components of the Thornapple CSA involves being willing to work with learning farmers, or at least farmers who are learning organic and sustainable methods. This means that sometimes the Brussels sprouts get covered with aphids, or that we fail to get out in the field on the first dry weekend in May, or that weeds overtake our carrots. Contrary to the Xenophon quotation I provided, I think these occurrences are less evidence of a recreant soul than a lack of sound farming knowledge on our part. Pull your copy of the Oeconomicus (in the original Greek) off the shelf and check it out, if you don’t believe me.

Maybe this is obvious enough, but it’s worth saying anyway. In Xenophon’s day (which is to say 2500 years ago) everybody knew something about farming, even urbanites like the urbane Socrates, who was able to answer all of Ischomachus’s questions on good framing correctly and with little coaching. Urbane urbanite that I am, I could not have done so. Fortunately for the Thornapple CSA, we do not rely on our blogger for farming knowledge. Our core group (that apple thing, again—check it out if you don’t believe me) has recruited a farmer for the summer of 2012 who will, I am sure, rival Ischomachus with her ability to astound and amaze us with the arcanae of sustainable horticulture. Melissa Hornaday will be meeting Thornapple members at an event Diane is organizing for Feb. 12. Come on over next week and check it out if you don’t believe me.

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