End in Sight?

June 30, 2013

The “end in view” was a term of art for the American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952). Dewey generally used the expression to make note of the difference between the purpose or goal that people have in mind at any given time and the further, larger or comprehensive ends that make action in pursuit of any well-defined goal meaningful. So when I go downstairs in the morning to make coffee, making coffee is my end-in-view, but making my coffee is imbricated in a matrix of broader and subtler purposes, many of which would be not only difficult for me to articulate, but which would probably surprise me, if they were articulated. I make coffee because I want to drink coffee. I drink coffee because doing so gives me a sense of well-being. It helps me wake-up, but it’s also part of my routine. I follow my routine because following a routine is something that people do pretty much without thinking, which is to say, without having any particular end-in-view. But breaking the routine is disturbing. Given the life I lead, I don’t have the luxury of waking up in the same building every morning, and I value my routine. I appreciate that other people might feel stifled or imprisoned by their routines, but they still might wake up with coffee as an end-in-view.

Dewey’s larger point was to debunk the idea of an “ultimate purpose” or a “final end”. Some philosophers have proposed elaborate theologies to argue for a particular vision of the ultimate purpose for human life while others have been content to assert that pleasure is the ultimate end, that all our purposes come down to achieving a certain feeling, if only for a while. Dewey would point out that even a mundane end-in-view like making coffee is not only embedded in more comprehensive and obscure ends, it entails a lot of subsidiary ends. I find the coffee pot (usually in the dishwasher), I fill it with water, I find my coffee beans (usually right on the counter in a little crock), I open the crock, I find my coffee measure, I measure out three scoops in my coffee grinder (Oops! I left out looking for or plugging in the grinder), I put the top on, I hold down the grind button (this takes effort) and I count to twenty-two by thousands (one one thousand, two one thousand, etc. etc.). And this description, which is threatening to drive both of my regular readers away from sheer boredom (and I hasten to add that any of my regular readers would ipso facto have a high tolerance for boredom), omits everything about pouring water from the pot to the machine, coffee filters or the possibility of being interrupted by the cat. All of these are subsidiary ends-in-view that get subsumed under making coffee. As John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens while we are making other plans.”

Of course, this doesn’t prevent coffee from eventually getting made. Some things come to an end, and Dewey tended to talk about this coming-to-an-end sense of ends (as opposed to the purposive sense of ends) as “the consummatory moment.” Sounds much more significant than it generally is, but it’s truly important to concede that while we continue to plan and plan, some things ripen, consummate and then, probably sometime later, we recognize that their time has not only come, it’s actually gone. So it’s fairly rare that we notice or think much about a consummatory moment or and ending time much before it has already passed us by. All of which is a long-winded wind-up to my taking note of some ends-in-view and the eventual consummatory moment for the Thornapple CSA.

No, we’re not going away anytime soon, or momentarily, at any rate. We’re poised on the brink of our best season ever when it comes to harvesting and enjoying tasty summer vegetables. Short of that rapture that failed to occur about this time two years ago or at the crank of the Mayan calendar last December, we’ll be having fun all summer long. All those tasty greens and reds will constitute enormously satisfying ends-in-view for Thornapple shareholders over the next four months. But not being a mouthpiece for naïve optimism in general, I’m saying it’s time to consider whether this particular effort dedicated to the goal of sustainability is itself sustainable into the further future. If not, it’s less about the end in view than whether the end is in sight.

More to come.

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

Place Prosperity

June 23, 2013

I woke up this beautiful June morning after three days of academic conferencing that was both grueling and deeply satisfying. I would normally be traveling for the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society, but this year the meeting was at the Kellogg Center on the Michigan State University campus in East Lansing. One of the conference highlights was the keynote address by Amy Emmerling, who is a managing partner for Zingerman’s Bakehouse. As she described it, Zingerman’s is a throwback company that is more dedicated to making the Ann Arbor, MI area a great place to live than it is to fattening its partner’s wallets. They do this by running a family of businesses that are guided by a commitment to full-flavored traditional food. This is half the story. The other half is the way that they run those businesses.

To start with the first half, I’d like to point out that food quality is one of the things that makes anyplace into a great place. You can be snobby about this, but you don’t have to be. Good food can be simple. In my book some of the best food is simple. But you do have to be attentive to the things that make it good: the ingredients, the time and care needed for preparation and the emotional inputs. Any number of poets and writers have told us that spite and sloth, as much as love and joy, become part of the final product that people eat. Our Western scientific viewpoint as administered by the Eff Dee Ay and other acronymic orgasimations does not recognize emotion as a legitimate food ingredient, but I am here today in the Thornapple Blog signing up for the contrary point of view. Emotion counts. Definitely. And if you want to live in a good place, you need to be eating good food most of the time, and this means food prepared by people who are not pissed off and resentful of the fact that they are there preparing it for you as opposed to, say, having a beer and watching reruns of Dancing with the Stars. There is some highly snobby food seen on the food channel that is not good food by this definition, and since I am the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agriculture and Food Ethics, what I say goes.

Or at least, sort of.

So you can see that there is a much tighter connection between the first half of the Zingerman’s philosophy (as it was recounted by Amy Emmerling) and the second half. You can’t really make good food in a way that conforms to the now official W.K. Kellogg Chair definition when the people who make it are spiteful and inattentive, and if you are running a business that makes food, the people who make the food are, more likely than not, your employees. If you want employees to take an interest in what they are doing, it is wise and prudent to ensure that they are fully and emotionally enrolled in the project for which they are employed. In the Dot Com era, start-up IT companies did this by putting a pool table and video games in the break room, but being old-fashioned I’m inclined to think that Zingerman’s approach (open accounting, listening and opportunity for advancement)  is probably both more generalizable and reliable.

Now I hasten to add that I am not here to plump Zingerman’s, though I did buy 12 oz. of their coffee yesterday evening at Goodrich as I was on my way home from the Kellogg Center. All I really know about their philosophy is what I heard in Amy’s talk on Friday. I also know that they make great bread. There is a school of thought in business and economics that calls it “place prosperity”: you run a business because you want to make the place that you live more handsome and appealing. It’s not always easy, and it means passing up on some key market opportunities that could create wealth. But contra Milton Friedman, that’s what business should do. Don’t forget: you heard it here first.

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


June 16, 2013

Sometimes I reel off a series of ten or twenty blogs dealing with substantive topics in food ethics, and I manage to do it with something of a light touch, if not always a modicum of humor. So I count things like discussing the surprising rationale for NOT requiring recyclable cloth grocery bags and the inconveniences of retail food stores’ attempts at inventory control as a “substantive topic”, and I’ll even include a couple of entries on how the prevalence of all you can eat buffet tables seems to affect the formation of moral character, or the rationales for resilience and food hubs on the list. I look back on a string stretching back to last December and ignore an occasional rant brought on by robots or bat guano (even if the latter might have been my funniest effort) and feel like I’m keeping up my end of the bargain.

And then one Sunday in June I wake up and it feels like I’m channeling Andy Rooney. All I can think about is some diatribe about the lack of good tortillas or grits in Michigan, or how strange the whole idea of kale chips seems to me. I could probably gin up a paragraph or two about those little tinfoil packages of jelly one finds at chain restaurants these days. How did they get that jelly in there in the first place? Is there a job description for jelly squirter, or has that been taken over by machines? And whatever happened to just passing around the jelly jar, anyway? If it was good enough for Grandma and Grandpa, it’s probably good enough for us, too. It’s just a sign of our basic ineptitude (or maybe it’s global capitalism run amok) that leads us to think that we need little tinfoil packages of jelly, anyway. What’s next? Tinfoil packages of butter and honey?

Then it’s on to “Who even uses the word ‘tinfoil’ these days? When was the last time you heard someone say that?” Ah yes, it’s only been a couple of years since we lost Andy, but some of us miss him. And speaking of Andy Rooney, we might notice that his segment on 60 Minutes was originally a replacement for the “Point/Counterpoint” exchange between James K. Kirkpatrick and Shana Alexander. I’m sometimes tempted to channel Kirkpatrick, but not so much his persona as an irascible arch conservative as the irascible column he used to write on language. I’m tempted to point out that the word ‘reflexive’ is supposed to indicate a reflex action, hence one that is an utterly unthinking and non-conscious response. But some sociologists and geographers are now starting to use it when what they really mean is ‘reflective’—an action that has been consciously and deliberatively considered. It would be utterly irrelevant in a food ethics blog if it weren’t for the fact that their advocacy of “reflexive food ethics” is even starting to penetrate into real life!

Arrgh! Ordering that chicken fried steak night after night: Now that’s an example of reflexive food ethics. Grr! Andy Rooney would never make such a mistake.

Well, Rooney might have ordered the chicken fried steak, for all I know. It’s misusing the word ‘reflexive’ that I’m talking about. As we said in the Thornapple Blog, once before, “Jane, you ignorant slut!”

We’ll leave the kids who never saw Point/Counterpoint (it ended in 1979)—and thus have no idea what Dan Ackroyd and Jane Curtain were parodying (they probably have seen that) to ponder that one awhile. Then they can tell the robots.

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


Inventory Control

June 9, 2013

You may have heard on the radio that Amazon.com is trying to get into the grocery business. Given the narrow profit margins in food retailing, it’s impossible to imagine how they can do it without incorporating delivery charges that will make grocery shopping online considerably more expensive than the jaunt down to Goodrich, ELFCO or Meijer. I was sitting there thinking to myself, “Who would pay extra to shop on the Internet?” As both of my regular readers know, I already have enough trouble with robots.

And then I went shopping myself. I needed some blue socks, so I went down to TJMaxx and found a two-pack that suited me for eight bucks. And while I was down at the Lansing Mall, I decided to hop across the street to Meijer because I needed a new mouse for my computer. I picked out a snazzy cordless model in black, but as I was walking out of the electronics section, I noticed a red version of the same model that was on the clearance rack for eight bucks less. Not being particular about my mouse color, I put the black one back and put the red one into my cart. Then I headed all the way across the store to the cottage cheese.

I never go to Meijer without buying cottage cheese. Longtime readers of the blog know that I have a thing for cottage cheese. While I’m generally quite happy to food shop at a venue less corporate, I just can’t get the kind of cottage cheese that I crave at Goodrich or ELFCO. Whether Country Fresh or Horizon, that Dean Foods stuff is execrable. (It always feels good to find some excuse for using the word ‘execrable’ in the blog.) And even if I can understand that Michigan brand cottage cheese is offering both piquancy and texture that some gourmands appreciate, it’s not my cottage cheese. Frankly, I’m not sure what’s happened to cottage cheese since the rosy days of my youth, but most cottage cheese on grocery shelves these days is execrable. (Wow! Three appearances in a single paragraph!) But Meijer’s store brand is acceptable. Not as good as it could be, but worth eating.

So I get to the checkout, which already puts me in a bad mood. I absolutely hate self-service checkout and if you are at Meijer, it’s either self service or waiting behind someone who has $483 worth of groceries, mostly in items costing 60¢, $237 of coupons plus at least five certificates that require the signature of someone who has come in from corporate headquarters in Grand Rapids on a helicopter. I actually do go through a human-powered checkout line on this particular day, but when my mouse comes up, it turns out that I’m charged full price. The Meijer price computer has apparently not been informed about the difference between black and red. Now, I think about this for a minute and I decide that the hassle I would be put through to claim my clearance price is just not worth the eight bucks I would save. Someone would have to come up to the register from electronics, and after that someone would have to be flown in from Grand Rapids to approve the paper work. So I just don’t say anything about it. My new red mouse sits near my right hand as I type this, and it works fine.

However, on my way out of the store, lights start flashing and sirens start blaring. Everyone turns and looks at me with that “well, we’re withholding judgment for now, but if you are a shoplifter you are about to get what you deserve” kind of look that is unique to the upper Midwest. Southerners never look at you that way, but I think that this is a tangent that needs to be set aside for another time and place. So the friendly greeter who says, “Welcome to Meijer!” when you walk in reveals his true purpose and asks to see my bag. He rapidly concludes that I am not trying to steal cottage cheese and goes straight for the mouse. I, of course, have a receipt to show that I have just charged the full, undiscounted non-clearance price for this red mouse to my Discover card. It’s now between me and Discover as to whether I eventually pay for it, so that’s not his problem. He tells me to have a nice day and turns off the siren.

Well, I would like to have a nice day, but the triple burden of enduring the Meijer check-out process, the failure to deliver a promised eight dollar savings and then the sirens has sort of put me off my game. Then when I get home, I discover that the blue socks from TJMaxx still have one of those giant plastic inventory control tags attached to them. I don’t know how I was able to get out of TJMaxx without flashing lights and sirens, but there it is. These tags cannot be removed without a special tool. The pin is running right through the middle of both pairs of blue socks, so I don’t even have the option of pretending that the giant beige plastic inventory control tag is a hip accessory when I wear these socks. I can’t even get them over my feet while the tag is in place.

Now, if I’m not going to walk across a Meijer store to save eight bucks on a computer mouse, I’m sure not going to jump back into my car and drive back to TJMaxx to either get this tag removed or get the eight bucks I paid for the socks refunded. So industrious soul that I am, I decide to remove the tag with a hacksaw. I will report that the hacksaw does in fact cut through the little metal pin that holds the giant beige plastic fob in place. Unfortunately, you can’t really execute this task without also making a rather nasty hole in all four socks. These inventory control devices really do work.

So this is another one of those Sunday blogs that says a lot more about me than it does about food ethics, but I’m sitting here thinking that I should have sixteen more bucks in pocket than I currently do, and I still need a pair of blue socks. Where’s that link to Amazon.com? I hope they have cottage cheese.

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

Discretion & Valor

June 2, 2013

Discretion, they say, is the better part of valor. It was actually Falstaff who said this in Act Five of Henry IV, Part I. And what Shakespeare actually has him say is “The better part of valor is discretion, in the which better part I have sav’d my life.” But we are not here on the first Sunday in June to parse prosy. My aim is to discern the balance of discretion and valor in organic farming—a topic that, to my knowledge, Shakespeare omitted.

I was out on an incubator farm this week with a start-up farmer. This farmer was showing me some pretty nice garlic, broccoli, kale and other cruciferous vegetables that were out in the field making steady progress. Then we came to the carrot patch. You could make out the distinctive carrot top vegetation. Contrary to the expectations of those reared on U-Tube and as everyone who has shopped at a farmer’s market knows, the distinctive carrot top vegetation is a leafy fern-like shade of pale green. But in this particular patch it was being crowded out by a science fair project intended to demonstrate natural plant diversity, to wit: weeds. Now this was an all-organic incubator farm, so we are not talking about the industrial monoculture problems that got us down in the weeds for about three weeks last spring. No, this was just an honest weed infestation. “As you can see,” the farmer said, “things have gotten a little bit out of control here.”

I might pause to say a bit about the incubator farm. Like it sounds, the idea is to give a start-up farmer something slightly more than a pot to piss in. Usually it’s an acre or less, though that’s variable depending on the crop in question. Often there is some additional support in the form of tools, seeds or other inputs, and there is almost always the opportunity to learn from others attempting to start farming. We have one in Ingham County, though I was a bit farther south (which explains why the weeds had already overtaken the carrots). We could blog a bit on why and whether the incubator farm is a good idea from the perspective of food ethics. Doctrinaire advocates of market forces probably don’t care for the whiff of subsidy that surrounds them, but we went through a discussion of that in connection with food hubs. While I’m not averse to repeating myself in the Thornapple blog, I usually like to stretch the interval between reruns a little longer than six months. So I’m heading away from the incubator and back into the weeds.

My new found farmer friend was still hoping to get some carrots out of this patch. He pulled up a couple to demonstrate the challenge these little boys were coping with. Not much was happening below the soil line, and if you are growing organic carrots as opposed to cruciferous vegetables, below the soil line is definitely where the money is. “Maybe it’s time to give up, plow it all under and chalk this particular experiment up to a composting effort,” he said. Organic farming almost always pays well if you leave the hours that you put into it out of the calculation, and there would have beaucoups of hours needed to free these particular carrots from the burden of competing with the natural plant biodiversity of this particular ecotone. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor in organic farming, too.

It will be a while before we are ready to chalk up many of our Michigan experiments to composting, but that doesn’t mean we have long to wait before we will see the fruits of Spring. I’m not sure why I feel compelled to announce that Thornapple CSA will have its first pick-up of the 2013 season this Wednesday, but I’ve done my best to make it seem like this is a natural way to wrap up a blog dedicated the theme of why it can sometimes be a good thing to give up on the hand weeding and resort to the plough.

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