Late Frost?

March 25, 2012

Thornapple CSA members who have been in the neighborhood of the Thompson homestead after dark may have noticed a glow coming from the basement. It’s not Paul down there, putting together model airplanes, nor is it Diane doing a late load of clothes. We’re starting seeds in the basement and we’ve got an elaborate set-up of grow-lights so that Thornapple CSA members will be assured of getting their summer veggies at the earliest possible moment. Of course, given the way things have been over the last ten days or so, you may wonder why we are bothering to start seeds in the basement. Get those boys outside like everyone else in town.

Although the date at the top of the page says “March 25”, the weather in mid-Michigan has been distinctly un-lamblike. Not that it’s lionlike, either, unless one is referring to Leo, the astrological sign for early August, rather than the feline that March is generally said to come in like. Everyone is talking about this weather, but contrary to the saying, there may be few people doing something about it. That would be farmers out there getting their crops in early.

Of course, there are also farmers sittin’ there on the porch whittlin’ sticks, shaking their heads over all this commotion in the fields. They know that 4 out of every 5 turns of weather like we’ve been having here in late March, early April brings another killing frost. Or even sooner (like tomorrow). So they’re biding their sweet time. Maybe they have some seeds in the basement, too.

Then there are the tree farmers, and we’ve got a lot of ‘em here in Michigan. The apple trees, peach trees and cherry trees (not to mention the blueberries) all tend to make up their own mind about such matters. And these girls are blooming. There was a bit on the news about early cherry blossoms in Washington DC. These blushing beauties have put kind of a dent in the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, which wasn’t scheduled to begin until today. Next Tuesday is the centennial anniversary of Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo’s gift of two trees to the city of Washington.

I can attest that the cherry trees in Portland, OR (where I’ve been spending some sabbatical time) have been blooming for over two weeks. As for our own Michigan cherries, well the Traverse City Convention and Visitors Bureau says they bloom “as early as May 5,” so maybe we’ve got a while to catch our breath. We Midwesterners don’t have cherry festivals when the trees are merely blooming, by the way. We wait till they fruit. We know where the business end of the cherry tree is.

Well, the TCCVB notwithstanding, the trees have a mind of their own. They get out the buds and hit the road for spring whenever there is a reasonably long spell of warm weather. And as the main thrust of this blog indicates, that would be now. For this year, at least, there’s not much that a tree farmer can do about the weather. They’ll just have to wait and see about that late frost, and maybe use this warm spell to catch up on their whittlin’. They’re thinking about it, to be sure, wondering if the horticulture folks down at Michigan State have got any ideas about frost hardy trees. And maybe if these early springs really are a permanent fixture, they’ll get down off the porch next year and put down some fertilizer.

Now in the spirit of genuine edification, I should probably remind both of my readers that not everything you read in the Thornapple blog is strictly true. Whether there’s another frost coming or not, this is actually a pretty good time to do more than think about the annual pruning. So there’s probably not all that much whittlin’ going on among the tree farmers, but it makes a good story. We call this “adaptation”. File this blog under “climate ethics.”

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

No Check-Ins @ Energy Bar

March 18, 2012

Last Wednesday I checked in for a mocha at The Energy Bar down on the corner of Market and Park St. in SW Portland. I had been there once for some fresh carrot juice and I noticed the neon sign in the window advertising espresso drinks. There’s a Starbucks right across the street, and I had originally been gravitating in that direction looking for something to stimulate the brain-cells after my tuna sandwich. But when I noticed the sign at The Energy Bar, I thought “Why not?” I am all down with that local thing, after all. And Starbucks, well, that’s Starbucks.

When I say that I checked in at The Energy Bar I mean that I opened an app on my smart phone called Yelp!, did a quick search for “energy bar” and then hit the “Check-In” button. Not being as young as people like James McWilliams, I am not particularly hip with apps, but my daughter had suggested Yelp! back when I saw her last January. You can use Yelp! for a number of different things. For one, you can “Search Nearby”, and Yelp! will use the GPS on your smartphone to bring up a list of restaurants, pubs or coffee shops that are in your general proximity. These establishments are tied to “ratings” and reviews that are contributed by subscribers to Yelp!, and I have found that consulting these ratings and reviews can be somewhat helpful in finding a place to eat or drink when you are on unfamiliar turf. Not to mention the fact that your phone will also bring up a Google map showing you how to get there.

You can also have a list of “Friends”. Those of you (probably neither of my regular readers) who are down with Facebook know that this word has absolutely no relationship to the meaning of the ordinary English word ‘friend’, much less to Aristotle’s celebrated discussion of friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics. “Friends” are just people to whom you are linked by the app in cyberspace, the cloud or wherever it is that links do that voodoo that they do. Du? But if say, you’ve decided to pop into The Energy Bar for a mocha, and one of your “Friends” is also in the mood for a coffee or a glass of carrot juice, they can open their smartphone, consult Yelp! and learn “Hey! Paul just checked in at The Energy Bar. I think I’ll head that way and see if he wants some company.”

Being the guru of food, fun and conviviality that I am, I think that this is an absolutely smashing innovation, certainly something that should be vigorously endorsed by anyone interested in food ethics. And so I “check-in” religiously on Yelp! whenever I wander into a pub, coffeeshop or other general dive with nothing better to do besides sit there by myself, peruse the newspaper and enjoy a mocha or a tuna sandwich. There is a rub, however, and it is that I have no friends. Zero. Nada. So when I go to the Energy Bar, the chance that I will run into somebody I know is pretty much the same whether I “check-in” or not.

Which makes me feel sort of like some pathetic loser when I “check-in” and Yelp! advises me that I have no friends. Nevertheless, when I did the check-in at The Energy Bar last Wednesday, my phone automatically opened a new page congratulating me on the fact that I had just become “The Duke” of The Energy Bar. Now, this is getting really obscure, but it turns out that Yelp! keeps track of check-ins, and the person with the most check-ins at any given establishment becomes the duke or duchess of that establishment. It is also apparently possible to achieve higher levels of Yelp! royalty by being the duck, er duke, of many different joints. So even for us pathetic losers with no friends, cyberspace has cooked up a rewards system to make us feel good about checking in!

Except that this was exactly the second time that I had actually stepped into The Energy Bar. Aside from the fact that Starbucks is across the street, I have no explanation for my sudden royal status. The Energy Bar makes great carrot juice, and their mocha is passable as well. Aside from that, if there is anyone out there who would like to be my friend, please sign on to Yelp! and look for the Duke of The Energy Bar. Pathetic losers should stick together.

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

Tea Party

March 11, 2012

If you read the blog last week, it will not surprise you too much to learn that ten days ago I was standing on an impossibly steep mountainside in Taiwan. I was visiting a tea plantation—actually one of two tea research centers maintained by ROC Ministry of Agriculture. In the spirit of The History Channel, I could use this occasion to launch into a brief lesson about the ROC, which was established in 1912 and is not to be confused with the PRC. I’ve learned some interesting things about the ROC on my two trips to Taiwan, and about 30 seconds ago I learned that if you Google ROC all you get are links to a mid-90s TV show or discussions of the mythical bird that destroyed Sinbad the sailor’s ship. So maybe I’ll skip the digression.

If I got the story straight, the use of the word ‘plantation’ may be a bit misleading in the case of Taiwan. It seems that what you need to be a tea producer in the ROC is secure access to say 5 or 10 acres of mountain slope, often terraced, and about $10,000 of equipment for rolling and drying the tea. The tea plants look like simple hedges about 1-1½ meters high. The pitch of the hedges ranges from steep, as in you are leaning forward a bit to walk up it, to precipitous, as in a set of terraces much more vertical than any staircase you ever climbed. Each leaf is picked by hand, and then begins a process of consisting of alternating steps of exsiccation, fermentation and various forms of mixing, tossing and rolling. All this is done “on farm” so to speak, and the end product is then graded before being sold to tea buyers. The picture I got is that while these tea producers are doing okay by Taiwanese standards (which are pretty darn close to U.S. standards) they are not the kind of Big Daddy bigwigs I associate with the word ‘plantation.’

In the spirit of A&E, I could use this occasion to bring up Burl Ives portrayal of Big Daddy in Richard Brooks’ 1958 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (also starring Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor), except that if you Google “Big Daddy” what you get is a 1999 film starring Adam Sandler. So maybe I’ll skip the digression, and just move right on to the reason why I decided to write this blog.

They were putting organic fertilizer on the tea plants the first couple of days in March, which led me to ask about organic tea and pesticides. The “tea guy”, who was explaining all this in Chinese, told me that while things are nice right now, if you come back in June, these tea plants will be covered with insects. So yes, they do use pesticides. This is not organic tea, despite its reputation for high quality. In fact, the organic tea in Taiwan is not very highly regarded. So I decided to do a little research on organic tea, and I came up with this little gem from the Journal of Guangxi Agriculture:

Owing to the bottleneck problem in technology that constraints the development of organic tea production, the technique system of standardized production and management of organic tea are studied in terms of the environmental quality of organic tea production base, production technique, processing technique and product criteria based on standardized technique system of organic tea in this paper.

Maybe it reads better in Chinese. In the spirit of Discovery Channel, I could use this occasion to bust the myth about the incommensurability of translation thesis advanced by Thomas Kuhn, but when I Google ‘Kuhn’ what I get are pressure cookers. So I’ll skip that digression, too. When I Google “organic tea” I get page after page of people trying to sell me organic tea over the Internet. So the protestations of my friend from the ROC Ministry of Agriculture to the contrary, organic tea does exist. If you believe the advertising, it is produced by sturdy women using artisanal practices—actually not that different from what the ROC Ministry of Agriculture guy was describing, only it seems that some of them do use pesticides.

Which leaves me with…

Not all that much, really. Should you be seeking out organic tea? I have no idea. And for those of you who Googled ‘tea party’ expecting some discussion of U.S. Presidential politics, sorry for the digression.

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

East West

March 4, 2012

March forth, young people. Today is the day to march forth!

As for me, I’m having biscuits at Mother’s. That would be the one down on Stark Street in Southwest Portland. The one with the 45-minute wait, but since I’m a single, I sneak in right away and sit at the bar. It’s especially nice to eat some biscuits after a week trying to put together a comforting breakfast off the buffet table at the Howard Civil Service International House Hotel in Taipei. This is not a knock on the buffet, which is sumptuous, but international food-adventurer that I am, it doesn’t take long before I’m ready for comfort food first thing in the morning. The couple sitting next to me at Mother’s was friendly (not that unusual in Portland), and soon the woman inquires about the biscuits. “Not quite as good as my Grandmother’s,” I told her, but pretty soon she was asking for a bite, anyway. As I said, not that unusual in Portland.

The week in Taiwan was a big success. It was an East meets West encounter around the theme of agriculture and environmental philosophy. Not to get boring, but environmental philosophy is about explaining and accounting for our environmental imperatives: the things we are morally required to do for nature. Back here in the West we academic-types have a big debate going over whether we can refer all of our environmental imperatives back to the services that nature provides back to us human beings, or whether nature has some kind of intrinsic value that provides a reason why we should preserve ecosystems whether they are useful to us or not.

I get to go first at the confab. My task was to describe “agrarian philosophy,” which is roughly any worldview that takes subsistence production to play an important role in building basic cultural forms. I argue that some agrarian philosophies have been an important source of environmental imperatives, and that what’s curious from a Western perspective is that they don’t get us into this dichotomy between intrinsic value and a view of nature’s value that is based solely on what’s in it for us. Agrarian views emphasize humans in nature, but because farming, fishing and other daily activities are the basis for culture and identity, nature becomes a source of imperatives, rather than something to be valued because it pays off to do so.

I point out that although agrarian views can be found in the history of Western philosophy, they begin to disappear about 200 years ago. The “official” Western culture transmitted in universities begins to regard agrarian thinking as a relic, and emphasizes ethical views formulated in terms of human rights or economic costs and benefits. People in the West become more and more detached from the experience of subsistence production, and agrarian philosophy just doesn’t resonate for them.  But I also give two important reasons why academic types East and West shouldn’t give up on agrarian philosophy entirely. First, agrarian worldviews are still around, and we should show respect for the people that hold them. Second, I believe that there are important things we can learn from these philosophies. They contain a moral wisdom about nature that is lacking in our current thinking about environmental imperatives.

This sets off an explosion. The academic-types from China and Japan talk about the way that an agrarian worldview was implicit in the philosophy of Confucius and Mencius, and how this background is assumed by almost all Asian commentators ever since. They also lament the fact that the new generation in Japan seems to be losing touch with agriculture, and are losing their connection to traditional Japanese culture, as a result. I tell them, “Wow! Who knew! When I studied Asian thought back in the sixties, I thought it was about taking acid out in the desert in order to become one with the universe!” My new friend Toshiro Kuwaka from the Tokyo Institute of Technology closes the conference by saying that he has never participated at an East-West event where there has better communication and understanding among the participants.

It was a great week for me. March forth, my friends, and may the biscuits be with you.

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