Acme Weed Killer

May 27, 2012

Just in case anyone was wondering why an ethicist would get invited to participate in a weed summit, I thought I would take the opportunity to explain it this week in my usual manner. That is, I’ll get around to it after chasing several only vaguely relevant rabbits down their respective rabbit holes, all the while alternating between giant leaps of intuition that no reasonable person could be expected to follow, on the one hand, and excruciatingly detailed exposition of minor points, on the other. But before I get into this week’s tangential matters, I’ll take the opportunity to point out that Dr. Janice Swanson, Head of MSU’s Department of Animal Science took the opportunity to respond to last weeks’ blog on local Lansing area eggs that are (or might) compete with Grazing Fields’ eggs. Depending on how you view the Thornapple Blog, you may have to go back to the page where last week’s blog is stored permanently in order to see her comments, so I’m going to provide a handy link right here.

And then I’m going to ignore this issue and plow ahead on weeds. In case the discussion picks up, I’ll come back to it, so don’t feel shy about using the comment box to write something about eggs. This will only confuse the robots and other random surfers who show up here even more thoroughly than the blog itself. “Whazzup? He’s talking about weeds, but the comments are about eggs? Did I miss something”, they say to themselves. And I just love it when people do that, perverse soul that I am. Well, you did miss something bucko, but if you read the first paragraph of this blog, it should not really be all that much of a mystery.

So I’m going to ignore your confusion and plow ahead on weeds. I hope that some of you have felt mild feelings of bemusement at the very idea that some organ of our state apparatus though that it would be a good idea to devote a day in early May to something called “a weed summit.” Isn’t a “summit” something where the leaders of the global powers get together to decide the fate of the 99%? Or maybe it’s more literally “the top” or acme (which should conjure an image of Wile E. Coyote). Well, I guess the idea was just that we would get our best brains when it comes to weeds together and have a tête-à-tête, a meeting of the minds, a high-level confab on all matters concerning unwanted herbaceous life-forms. Agents K and J were there, poking around under the seats, looking for alien invaders.

But you can hear about their adventures on your own so I’ll ignore them and plow ahead on weeds. A weed is a plant in the wrong place. As I said two weeks ago, herbicide resistant pigweed is but one of several problems plaguing American farmers. This gives me a chance to quote one of my favorite songs of the last decade, Mark Knopfler’s “Ole Pigweed”.

Everything was in there that you’d want to see, corned beef and onions and true love,
Turnips and tinned tomatoes, parsnips and a few potatoes, a couple extra blessings from above.
Now this here mingle-mangle was my best one yet, a big old bad goulash worth waiting for
And I’m just about to dip my can and taste some brotherhood of man when I get a feeling that there’s a flaw.
Who put old pigweed in the mulligan? Was it you who put old pigweed in the mulligan stew?
I close my eyes for just a minute, what do you do? Who put old pigweed in the mulligan stew?

Although this points nicely to ethics, the connection to the “best brains on unwanted herbaceous lifeforms” bit  is still kind of obscure, so I’ll ignore the lyric and plow ahead on weeds. To repeat the point from two weeks ago, weeds adapt. And it’s not just your weeds, it’s your neighbors’ too. So to have any effective farming strategy for weed control, farmers have to cooperate, at least on a regional basis. And if they ain’t gonna cooperate, they might as well just do whatever makes the largest buck this year. And that, in fact, is what they’ve been doing.

You won’t find self-improvement or philosophy in a dumpster sitting by the kitchen door.
There’s plenty leek and humble pie. Ain’t too much ham on rye. Sometimes I wonder what I’m looking for
But a spoonful of forgiveness goes a long, long way and we all should do our best to get along.
Add a pinch of kindness crumbling to your loving dumpling, okra for thickening when something’s wrong.
But who put old pigweed in the mulligan? Was it you who put old pigweed in the mulligan stew?
I close my eyes for just a minute, what do you do? Who put old pigweed in the mulligan stew?

And so they must plow (ahead).

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

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Breaking More Eggs

May 20, 2012

While I was at the weed summit I got an e-mail from Jane Bush about some MSU eggs that have been showing up in local supermarkets. In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that Jane owns Appleschram Orchard, which is where Thornapple CSA has leased some hoop houses and a plot of land to produce its weekly distribution of veggies. Jane has been very generous in the terms for these arrangements, and she is extremely supportive of the whole CSA project and the local food ideal. I need to write one of my “food ethics icons” blogs about her, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.

But she was e-mailing me because of another hat she wears in connection with the Grazing Fields Co-op. This is a consortium of small scale farmers who market animal products in a number of mid-Michigan outlets. Most especially they produce eggs. That may be all they produce, but since I lack a full-time fact checker for the Thornapple Blog who could call up Jane and double-check, my tendency (you may have noticed) is simply to hedge my prose whenever there’s something I’m not pretty confident about. At any rate, it’s eggs she was inquiring about. Her concern was that these MSU produced eggs were going to undercut the market for Grazing Fields eggs. And she does not think that that is fair. Hence, another egg blog on food ethics.

I haven’t seen these MSU produced eggs, so I did a little bit of poking around and learned that they may be a side effect of the major expansion of research into systems for egg production in our Animal Science Department. I know a little bit about that, but I’m still not sure what’s what about eggs in local markets, and I’m totally in the dark about what will happen when the full scale research gets rolling sometime next year. I’m pretty confident that we (I mean MSU) will be producing more eggs that all the Grazing Fields producers put together. Again I hedge (“may be”, “pretty confident”, “still not sure”). As I’ve said before, not everything you read in the Thornapple Blog is strictly true, but today I’m trying.

So it wouldn’t be fair for MSU to put eggs into local stores in competition with Grazing Fields. The research in question is being sponsored by a coalition of retailers who want some impartial info on the welfare of hens being raised in different housing systems. I’ve written a couple of previous blogs about this debate. There’s “conventional cage production” which is the current norm for something like 96% of the eggs produced in the U.S. If you did read the essays in the NY Times on the ethics of meat eating, you know that people do not generally like it. I know, I know. Eggs aren’t meat, and in truth most people don’t know that there’s no more connection between chicken meat (e.g. broiler) production and eggs than there is between rutabagas and Maseratis. They are separate industries. But what can you do?

Sticking to eggs, the big alternatives to conventional cage production are, number one, birds wandering around on the floor, pretty much like broiler chickens. They can have more or less room on the floor, and they can have outside access or not. It may be more important whether they have good air circulation, a place to perch and a way to escape predators, but that’s another blog altogether. I believe (hedging again) that this is what Grazing Fields producers are doing. (Jane, if you’re out there, a bunch of us at MSU would indeed like a chance to visit some of these producers.)  Number two, you can also build some pretty elaborate facilities called “aviaries”. These look a lot like caged production, but there are no doors on the cages. Birds can move around, but again overall space allotments and issues such as amenities like perches and outdoor access are variable.

Finally, number three, there’s “colony housing”. I wrote about this last July, so I’m just going to link to that blog here. MSU is doing some controlled experiments to determine how each of these different systems perform with respect to a) animal welfare; b) environmental impact; c) food safety (don’t expect much here) and d) a producer’s cost structure. As a byproduct, they will have quite a flock of egg laying chickens, and being egg laying chickens, they will lay eggs. And here we ask, “What are we supposed to do with all those eggs?”

Say, here’s a thought: People love MSU Dairy Store Ice Cream, and they love to support the Spartans. Let’s put ‘em in local grocery stores so folks can “Go Green” when they make an omelet. But whoa! This is the thought that has Jane in a tizzy. In fact, land-grant universities like MSU have been facing this quandary for over a century, and they have generally decided that it is a bad idea for them to take agricultural commodities that they can produce without needing to make a profit and then put them into a market where they compete head-to-head with the products of small producers who struggle to keep their heads above water.

But are they just supposed to put all their production into a hole in the ground? That seems wasteful, and when it comes to food, wasteful also seems morally wrong. And what about the University’s responsibility to taxpayers? Wouldn’t someone who saw us dumping potentially salable goods be entitled to complain when we show up at the legislature, hat in hand? Sometimes the University tries to absorb their production in on-campus food service, but truth to tell, that just elicits an angry e-mail from the Presidents of Sysco, Sodexo and US Foods, rather than Jane Bush. You can sell the stuff in ordinary commodity markets, though there you’re competing with Herbrucks. You can give ‘em to the Food Pantry, but it still means eggs that someone else didn’t get a chance to sell. It’s a dilemma—an ethical dilemma—and frankly, I’m not at all sure how this will wash out.

Sorry, Jane. I wish I could be more definitive.

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

Down in the Weeds

May 13, 2012

I spent a chunk of time last week attending something called the “National Summit on Strategies to Manage Herbicide Resistant Weeds,” in Washington D.C. Now I’m sure almost all readers of the Thornapple Blog have had this problem on their minds for some time. Sure, it may not rank right up there with the persistent feeling of loss and alienation that we have come to associate with a life of quiet desperation or the heartbreak of psoriasis, for that matter. But I’m sure that for almost all of you, barely a day has gone by without asking yourselves “How in the heck am I going to manage herbicide resistance?”

Unless, of course, you are one of those Communist outsider organic-types who doesn’t use herbicides in the first place.

For the uninitiated, if homicide is the killing of a human being, you can infer (correctly in this case) that herbicide is the killing of an herb.  You may be thinking about parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. And if so, this may carry you right on to that girl who “once was a true love of mine.” But in this case, we are actually talking about what most people think of as “plants”, though it does not in fact encompass the entire botanical kingdom. And if it’s news to you that there is a botanical kingdom, need I remind you about “Old King Cole,” which naturally is an Anglicization of kohl, as in the familiar word “coleslaw”, which, in turn, is also a familiar food. But I digress: just look up “herb” in Wikipedia and you will get the general drift here.

Herbicides are plant killers, and who among has not had those urgings to become a herbicidal maniac at one juncture or another? I’ve been getting those feelings myself lately, because our warm and wet weather has prompted the weeds that grow in the cracks of my driveway to make an earlier-than-usual appearance this year. Diane and I always fight about this. I’m not sure if it’s because she is a herbiphile and her natural maternal instincts incline her to protect those little greenies, or if she just hates to see that herbicidal glint in my eye as I start poking around for the Round-Up. As for myself, the interest in herbicide stems from the fact that between the ice in the winter and the weeds in summer, one’s driveway can be reduced to rubble over the course of just a few seasons.

Which gets us, finally, back to herbicide resistance. You might think that this was some kind of social movement: those downtrodden weeds have decided to stand up and resist the herbicidal maniacs who have been oppressing them all these years. And if you did think this, you would basically be right. A number of plants are becoming resistant to Round-Up (or as we like to say at the summit, glyphosate). This means that when you spray them, not much happens, whereas when you spray a non-resistant plant, in a few days it starts to die. But why should we care, you ask? Shouldn’t we be on the side of resistance along with all the other 99% who are occupying Wall Street?

And the answer would be…  Well, you can answer however you want when it comes to the weeds in my driveway, but the herbicide resistant pigweed that is more and more frequently occupying cotton fields throughout the South has a particularly noticeable effect. This bad boy is not content to stand there in solidarity with the cotton plants. It’s actually a bully, and before you know it, all the cotton plants have been pushed out of the occupy movement, at least as far as occupying farmers’ fields is concerned. And this, along with herbicide resistant water hemp that occupies soybean fields (and a few others) has put commercial farmers in a tizzy. We don’t actually grow all that much cotton or soybeans at Thornapple CSA, though I expect that members will be purchasing spinning wheels and looms so that they can make their own 100% local frocks and bluejeans any day now. And of course, if and when we do start to grow cotton or soybeans, we won’t be using herbicides, because they are not allowed under the USDA Organic Program, whose methods we follow, except for the fact that we don’t bother to hire an accredited certifier, which is why the cotton and soybeans that we would grow, if and when we decide to grow them, would not qualify for the Organic label. So once again you ask, why should I care?

And the answer to that might be is that everybody has to pay attention to the weeds now and then. We are small enough potatoes at Thornapple that we just go out there and pull ‘em out with our hands. Larger potatoes and we would probably figure out a way to cultivate them with a tractor. And then there are some complex rotations one can use to help keep them from getting such a stranglehold on the occupy movement in the first place. But over the last 40 years, our truly large potato commercial farmers have become enamored with something called “no-till”, which means that you don’t go out there and disturb the soil. You knock ‘em down with herbicide.

When I started out in the agricultural ethics business way back in the dark years of the 1980s, soil erosion across the Midwest was considered to be one of our big problems. It’s not anymore, and no-till is the main reason why. If you don’t bust up the soil in the first place, you don’t get a Dust Bowl every other decade. They used to think that herbicide-based no-till was a technological fix for that ghost of Tom Joad. Maybe not.

The highway is alive tonight

but nobody’s kidding nobody ’bout where it goes.

I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light,

waitin’ on the ghost of Tom Joad.

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

Hi Fi Fun in the Tyrol

May 6, 2012

Well, I found myself on an impossibly steep slope in a foreign country observing an unfamiliar form of agriculture for the second time this year. This time it was the Alte Adige (or as local farmers there would probably say, the Süd Tirol). The crops were not that unfamiliar to a Michigander: vineyards, fruit orchards and the occasional sheep pasture. You can see a fair amount of that right at Appleschram, the farm where Thornapple CSA is based. But you won’t see a slope like you will in the Alte Adige, and you won’t see the terraces that have been built to cope with it. You also won’t see apple trees that have been trimmed and staked to grow on a single plane like topiary ( the better to get up and down those terraces without falling down the mountain, you see).  I still don’t see how those sheep negotiate the slopes without falling, but I guess they don’t suffer from vertigo the way that I do.

Diane and I happened to be staying right on the premises of the Landwirtschaftsmuseum at Castle Brunnenburg, right outside of Dorf Tirol and in the shadow of Castle Tirol, so it was a great opportunity to learn about a way of farming that has been around for a very long time. Current thinking among archeologists of the region holds that people were living at pretty high altitudes in this region long before they settled the now-fertile and more densely populated Adige River valley. They know this because they have learned that Ötzi ‘s last meals consisted of fruit, meats and einkorn, so it seems pretty likely that people had figured out how to grow stuff in the Süd Tirol more than 5000 years ago.  If longevity makes for sustainability, then I guess this qualifies as sustainable agriculture.

Of course, Ötzi ‘s people were not tending vineyards (as far as we know), but the recorded history of winemaking in the Alte Adige extends back to Roman times. Today there are wonderful varietals we never hear of back in the states: Legrein, Schivia and some very acceptable Grenache and Muscato. They also make some of the best grappa I’ve tasted. If you don’t know about grappa, do the Wikipedia thing and educate yourself.

Unlike the Romans, today’s wineries in the Alte Adige can’t seem to make a serious go of it without copious applications of fungicide. As one wanders along the mountain trails near Castle Tirol, the ominous roar of sprayers breaks the mountain silence. One turns one’s head upwards, always upwards looking for the fog rising out of the mountainside. It is as if some puncture has broken the skin of the volcano, allowing steam to gush horizontally out of the mountainside before forming into a plum that first rises above the vineyard, then settles downward. You don’t really want to be downwind from one of these episodes.

I mention this partly because it’s so reminiscent of my earlier report from an impossibly steep mountainside. Like before, I’m not sure what to make of it, except that the winemaker I was able to speak to would much rather be practicing what the locals there call “bio”—pronounced “Bee Oh.” It’s what we call organic. So much so that he’s experimenting with some new varieties said to resist the fungal diseases that occasion spraying, even though it will probably cost him four or five years of production.

As for that Bee Oh, if you think that someone’s deodorant has stopped working, it can’t be mine. I’m not wearing any.

Oooh! Sorry for that one. When I was a kid my Dad bought one of those highfallutin’ new contraptions called a stereo record player. This was long before anyone had heard of organic farming or Bee Oh. I realize that many people do not know what this is, but I have the suspicion that most readers of the Thornapple blog do. At any rate, having bought the player, he needed some records. I think in those days, you were kind of limited in what you could find that was available in “Stereophonic Sound”. Along with the obligatory Mantovani and the Dukes of Dixieland, he had one called “Hi Fi Fun in the Tyrol”. Polka music, if I recall. I’d include the obligatory Thornapple Blog song-lyric, but this record is one of the few things you can’t actually find on the Internet these days. The back was generic but the front had a colorful photo of Tyrolean dancers in lederhosen. I’m here to testify that you can still buy lederhosen at the market in Merano, and you can even see the occasional tourist hiking in them on the high trails above Brunnenburg Castle.

Too bad about that fungicide, though.

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