Jane Bush

January 27, 2013

Maybe it’s time for “January-is-Food-Ethics-Icons-Month” to go local. We would have lots of choices here in mid-Michigan. Laura Delind deserves iconic status both for her work on the ground with groups like the Urbandale Farm and for her wonderful writing on the ethical significance of place. John Biernbaum and Laurie Thorp could be singled out for the work they put in to create the Student Organic Farm at Michigan State University. Terry Link, who sometimes actually reads this blog, is a hero for his work on sustainability, his earlier service to the Greater Lansing Food Bank and now food hubs. And I could go really close to home and celebrate the various exploits of Diane Thompson, working on food issues in local schools, local markets and the Thornapple CSA. But we’ve been doing rock star farmers in 2013, and none these people are farmers.

I may be in trouble here at home for saying that Diane is not a farmer, but nonetheless, I proceed.

There are plenty of iconic farmers in mid-Michigan, for sure. I’m not going to start naming them because I wouldn’t know when to stop. Since this is the Thornapple Blog for the Thornapple CSA, it is actually pretty easy to know where we should turn when we celebrate a rock star farmer from ‘round here. We should look inward. Thornapple CSA is a member organized CSA, and we hire our own farmer. So far, we’ve been wearing out a farmer every year, and we’re currently in the market for a new one. (Prospective applicants should look elsewhere on the website for contact information.) So, no, we’re not going to celebrate our farmer as the rock star farmer, because as of this month, we don’t have one. We do, however, have a farm. It’s not actually our farm, but we have a place to grow stuff—both outside the old fashioned way and also in one of the new-fangled high tunnels that John Biernbaum has been talking about. That place, as members know, is on the premises of Appleschram Organic Orchard. We have that place because the owner-operator of Appleschram has taken a deep personal interest in Thornapple CSA. We pay a concessional rent, but Jane Bush is way more involved than that, serving as a member of the Core Group and an occasional source of farming wisdom.

Looking back over the month, it seems that you need to be doing something beyond farming to qualify as a rock star. Our other rock star farmers this month seem to spend almost as much time writing as farming. That would make Jane different, but she does have her fingers in lots of pots. She’s active in building a healthier and economically more vibrant food system in Southeast Michigan through the Food System Economic Partnership, where she helps with business development. That builds on her experience organizing the still viable Grazing Fields egg co-op. Grazing Fields gets mentioned nationally as an example of how small producers can work together in order to get their products into circulation locally. It’s not just farmers markets; its access to grocery stores and gaining a brand identity in a local region. And Jane was just up at Grayling High School talking about water management at the Northern Michigan Small Farm Conference.

So I’m going with Jane, partly because she’s our rock star farmer, but more importantly because however much we need the rock star farmers who get written up in the New York Times or the Atlantic Monthly for raising the average person’s consciousness, people like Jane are the ones who are actually pulling this local, organic, sustainable thing off. Jane’s doing this in Michigan, but she’s not alone, and our team of dedicated people is supported by thousands of like-minded people adapting the message and the practice to farming conditions and regional cultures that vary from one place to another.

So excuse me for taking a week off from sarcasm and robot bashing. We’ll be off the icons next week, so maybe I can unleash my snarky genes again.

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

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Fred Kirschenmann

January 20, 2013

We awoke this morning to stories celebrating the life of St. Louis Cardinal great Stan Musial, who died yesterday at age 92. I’m going to dedicate the blog to a food ethics icon that could be classified as the Stan Musial of rock star farmers. Thankfully Fred Kirschenmann is very much with us. Fred operates a large organic farm in North Dakota. In 2000 he became Director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. He still owns the farm in North Dakota, and if you spend any time around him, you know that he’s very much still involved in its operation. Fred says that nowadays he farms by cell-phone. Fred is very well known in the world of sustainable agriculture, and like our last two rock star farmers, known as much for his writing as his farming. If you doubt me, just Google him and you’ll find that he is all over the Internet, too.

Nevertheless, I have this feeling that readers of the Thornapple Blog are less likely to know Fred’s reputation than, for example, Vandana Shiva or George Washington Carver. And that’s what connects him to Stan Musial. Speaking on NPR, Mike Pesca says that if you see a list of the 10 greatest baseball players without Musial’s name, throw it away. He’s near the top in most key hitting and many key fielding categories, yet the rap is that he is underappreciated. Pesca says it’s because he played in St. Louis his entire career instead of one of the nation’s major media outlets. And something like that would also be true of Fred, who, for all of his accomplishments, has never had the celebrity of East Coaster Joel Salatin or West Coaster Mas Masomoto, mainly because it’s a major pain for reporters to get all the way out to North Dakota in order to visit his farm. And visiting the farm seems to be crucial for rock star status. For all most of us actually know, Fred’s farm is like Manti Te’o’s girlfriend: we’ve heard about it, but has anyone actually seen it?

Although I’ve never seen the big organic farm, I have been in Fred’s house in Ames. So I can attest to the fact that Fred has seemingly read every book in the universe, or at least every one of them that has anything to do with food, farming or the environment. Every time I see him, he’s referring to something else he’s read. For the last five years or so Fred’s been big on authors who stress “peak oil”—the idea that we’ve now passed (or very soon will pass) the peak levels of global petroleum production. From now on, things like gasoline, diesel oil and synthetic fertilizer are going to get more and more scarce, and as a result, they are going to get more and more expensive. This is what’s going to make conventional farmers rue the day that they ever got on the fossil fuel bandwagon. They’ll find that soon they can’t both fuel their tractors and purchase energy intensive inputs like fertilizer and pesticides. In fact, the “peak oil” mantra drives a lot of messaging in the sustainable agriculture world, and Fred is hardly its loudest prophet.

As a food ethicist, I’m obligated to voice the countervailing perspective. Sorting out the relative cost of producing stuff is the one thing that capitalism is really good at. We’re discovering that even relatively modest increases in global oil prices have made it economically feasible to bring new forms of carbon fuel production on line. Like especially fracturation hydraulique (in philosophy, any idea becomes more profound if you use French or German—you may know this as “fracking”), which according to some guy I met in an airport somewhere will give us another 400 years of petroleum production at present levels.

Now my point here is not to diss Fred’s commitment to ecologically principled farming, but rather to point out that the big issue may not be so much that we are going to run out of oil as much as it is that we may not run out of oil. The one thing that capitalism is absolutely terrible at doing is making people adjust to costs that don’t come out of this week’s paycheck or this year’s earnings statement. And here we would be talking about the pollution effects of using all that fossil fuel. That’s not limited to smog, chucko. It includes the accumulation of greenhouse gases that are causing a gradual rise in temperature and at the same time, a lot of unpredictable variability in the weather. And you’ll notice that I haven’t even brought up the potential damage from doing all that fracking. So basically, Fred’s right: we should be farming more ecologically and relying much less on fossil fuel. Somebody will pay for it if we don’t. I’m just not sure it’s us as opposed to our children and grandchildren.

I can’t believe that Stan Musial would approve.

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

Mas Masumoto

January 13, 2013

I’ve been reading a new book called Grounded Vision by an English professor named William Major. He sees agrarianism as a theory of criticism. What criticism itself is I’m not entirely sure. It seems to have come down to us from “literary criticism,” which Red Warren putatively defined as “jus’ a bunch o’ smaht people sittin’ roun’ tawkin’ ‘bout littature.” I don’t have a source for this quotation, and it may be completely spurious. I do have a link to a picture of Warren from the Vanderbilt University Library, and he looks like someone who would say such thing to me. Apparently English professors got tired of talking about literature sometime in the 1980s and realized “Hey! We’ve got tenure. We don’t have to talk about literature. We can talk about anything we damn well please!” Which turned literary criticism into “cultural studies”. When an English professor muses on the basis for criticizing culture (e.g. anything he or she feels like talking about that day), it becomes a theory of criticism. At least that’s as near as I can come to figuring out what Major’s book is about.

So Major thinks that agrarianism is as good a basis as any for talking about whatever you feel like talking about on any given Sunday. Hmm. Sounds suspiciously like the operative principle behind the Thronapple Blog, don’t it?

But of course THAT’s not what I sat down to write about this morning. What set me off was the people that Major keeps bringing up in his book. Maybe, I thought, I can get some ideas for my next “Food Ethics Icon”. Not surprisingly, Major is mostly talking about Wendell Berry, who has the virtue of being both an agrarian and an English professor, so if anybody would know how to use agrarianism as a theory of criticism, you would expect that Wendell Berry would be the guy. But we’ve already celebrated Berry’s iconic status in the Thornapple Blog, so he’s out.

There are certainly other candidates that keep coming up in Major’s book, however. The one I’m drawn to this morning is David Mas Masumoto. Mas is a real live rock star farmer who is very well known in California for his efforts on behalf of family farming. He also writes. A lot. Major is mostly focused on his first book Epitaph for a Peach, which describes Mas’s devotion to the Sun Crest peach variety, despite the difficulties that is causes him as a peach grower. It’s apparently finicky and difficult to market. But its all-too-brief moment of peak flavor is, if we take Mas at his word, to die for. I’m kind of a Georgia peach man myself, and I don’t really know my varieties. I do know you can get some pretty sensational Michigan peaches (though not last year), even if the ubiquity of great peaches that I experienced during my time in Georgia during the late sixties and early seventies seems to be a thing of the past. Major (remember him?) keeps pointing out the way Mas talks about proper farming as being very far from having any sense of control over the environment. Rather, it’s a matter of subverting your ego and recognizing that the environment is controlling you.

And I think this is a bang-up message for an agrarian food ethic, so I’m quite willing to go along with Major and declare that Mas Masumoto is a true food ethics icon. I’ve run into Mas a few times over the years, and was able to have a pretty lengthy conversation with him when I was on the faculty at Purdue and he spent a week or two there as a scholar in residence. He thought it curious that a philosophy professor would a) be working on food and farming or b) want to talk to him. But he seems to be a really nice guy who both farms and writes reasonably well. His most recent book is The Wisdom of the Last Farmer. It’s about the transition he experienced in taking over the orchard from his father, and then coming to terms with his father’s passing. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing to have these rockstars who both farm and write. It’s definitely a good thing when English professors assign books like Epitaph for a Peach or Wendell Berry’s Another Turn of the Crank, and if they need some sort of rationale for talking about them, I suppose agrarianism as a theory of criticism is as good as any.

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

Joel Salatin

January 6, 2013

Longtime readers of the Thornapple blog recall that January is “food ethics icons” month. We take the first month of the year off from topics or problems in food ethics and the trials of living with robots to consider a few personalities that have had important effects on the way that we understand food and farming. Since this tradition goes back to January of 2011 (and since there were five Sundays in both 2011 and 2012) we’ve considered ten food ethics icons so far. I won’t run through the whole list. If you are interested, you can find them here. Notably, there aren’t any farmers among them, at least not if you think of Wendell Berry as a poet and cultural critic, rather than being a farmer. Wendell certainly farms, but excuse me if I think of his farming more as a personal ascesis that supports his literary endeavor than as a vocation, job or career. Ascesis comes from the Greek ἄσκησις, prominent especially in the philosophy of Epicurus, but that’s the subject for another time and place.

So maybe it’s time to mention a few farmers. We still have a couple hundred thousand of them in these United States, so it’s a little difficult to know where to start. Of course, if we’re focusing on food ethics icons, that should narrow things down a bit. There’s very little that would connect the farming that many of our yeoman practice with ethics, and even among those (lots, actually) who are every bit as ethical as you, me and Bob, few are going to qualify as having iconic status. As with last week’s blog on food hubs, I’m about three or four years late in identifying and celebrating the key individuals that deserve exceptional recognition. There was a spate of articles about “rock star farmers” in the national media in 2008 and 2009. Susan Burton’s article on farmer Amy Hepworth in New York Magazine would be a case in point. Hepworth supplies food co-ops and restaurants in Brooklyn. Burton’s plays up her ecological farming methods, her economic independence and a quirky personality.

Of course, farming near enough to New York City that you can make a personal appearance in Park Slope would be an enormous advantage when it comes to being noticed by a talented journalist. It’s kind of like being a philosophy professor who gets published in the New York Times. If you happen to be running a medium-sized dairy farm out in Wisconsin or Minnesota, your chances of becoming a rock star would appear to much slimmer.  That would be more like being the bass player, a background singer or writing a blog for a mid-Michigan CSA, I guess. You depend on the rock star farmer to develop a brand-identity; otherwise you’re out of work. But nobody is really going to notice you. A few of us remember Johnny Cymbal, but does anybody know who actually sang “No no, be -be -BOP-p-p-bop bop bop…” back there in 1963?

Of course when it comes to getting noticed, nothing is better than getting noticed by another food ethics icon. And in this case we would be talking about Michael Pollan, who brought Joel Salatin to national attention. I had a long telephone conversation with Pollan sometime back when I was on the faculty at Purdue University (so this would have been 2002 or early 2003). I had been talking about small-scale independent farmers who embody agrarian values and farm ecologically. He asked if I could show him one. I told him that I could show him several if he came out to Indiana. He said thank-you but that he had a line on someone a bit more local. I presume he was talking about Salatin. Whatever the case, Salatin gets written up in The Omnivore’s Dilemma and then appears in numerous films, writes his own books and goes on the national lecture circuit when he can spare a moment from his farming. I guess that makes him a food ethics icon if there ever was one.

I’ve never met Salatin, and I’m not going to diss him in the Thornapple blog. I will pass on a link to somebody else’s blog, written in 2009, that comments on Salatin’s rock star status in the context of commenting on rock star farmers in general. I might also mention that my self-deprecating comments above to the contrary, there really doesn’t seem to be any clear sense in which the notion of a rock star farmer is passé. Lots of small farmers are identifying with the concept in their marketing, and Katherine Gustofson posted a lengthy piece on it in the Huffington Post just last November. But I like the thought in Stony Brook Farm blog I’ve linked to just above: There’s no harm and lots of good in a few farmers getting some attention, but “Movements move not by the light of a few rock stars, but by the weight of the masses. Rock stars are a mistake.”

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