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