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