Cool Man Cool

July 28, 2013

It’s 55° with light rain in central Michigan this morning, and it’s late July. The tomatoes won’t like this.

Of course we did have ten days or so of unseemly hot and humid weather back when the whole country was enduring a heat wave earlier in the month. Although that kind of weather would definitely put a dent in anyone’s enthusiasm for hand-weeding, all-in-all this was a pretty good thing for mid-Michigan farmers. So like we did a couple of times last year when the drought was eating us up, it may be time to devote one edition of the Thornapple blog to kibitzing about the weather.

Talkin’ ‘bout the weather down at the Chit-Chat Café. Now that’s a caricature of the farmer if I ever heard one, but there may be a kernel of truth to it. It certainly seems natural that someone whose daily routine is so dramatically affected by temperature and rainfall might appear to be obsessively interested in it. But we all like to talk about the weather, don’t we? I think it was Bill Cosby who once noted how much time the elderly spend watching The Weather Channel on cable television. “It’s like Mister Rogers Neighborhood for old people,” he said. It was Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler who said, “Don’t know why there’s no sun up in the sky.” But that might have been something else entirely.

I was wandering along Grand River in East Lansing earlier this week and picked up some coffee at Starbucks and some cash at the credit union. In both cases, the people behind the counter wanted to talk about the weather. They were languishing indoors in an air conditioned space and pining to get outside into one of those stupendous Michigan summer days when the temperature is hovering around eighty and the humidity is tolerable. Well, we did have a few spectacular days last week, but that’s not what I came here to blog about during a spell when we might be thinking that autumn is setting in a month early. If there is any kind of food ethics point to talking about the weather, it has to get beyond chit-chat.

Point number one might be one of those carpe diem things, where we point out that attending to the weather is (or can be) a way to signify the magnificent fragility and timorous radiance of being alive. That, however, calls for poetry and I think we’ve pretty well established that the Thornapple blog is not the place for poetry. So maybe I’d better just move right along to point number two, which would be the way that thinking reflectively about one’s food and where it comes from is an important way to introduce a bit of systemic sensitivity into one’s daily routine. Registering the fact that all this cool weather is not going to be good for the tomato harvest is a way to stay in touch with something bigger than oneself. Not that you can or should do anything about it. Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. (That was either Mark Twain or his friend and neighbor Charles Dudley Warner. Who knows?)

Having a sense of what’s going on out there and how it affects things, however, that’s good ethics.

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

4 U Blue

July 21, 2013


Blueberries are high in anti-oxidants.

You should consume anti-oxidants because the newspaper says that it is good for you to do so.

The blueberries are “in”. This is the time of the year for you to get enough anti-oxidants into your diet to tide you over for the next twelve months of darkness and despair. So head on down to your local farmer’s market and buy some anti-oxidant rich blueberries this morning at the earliest opportunity, or this afternoon at a somewhat later opportunity, or before the end of the week at the absolute latest opportunity. Anti-oxidants will not hang around waiting for you to decide that it is convenient to go down and get some. Anti-oxidants are nature’s way of saying “He who hesitates is lost.” The Internet says that this proverb goes back to Cato, but does not indicate whether it was Cato the Elder, who expelled the usurers from Sardinia, or Cato the Younger, known for stubbornness. Neither do we know whether Cato, who clearly did resist the machinations of Julius Caesar and Pompey, also resisted oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is known to figure in a number of human disease processes.

The dative is a grammatical case used to indicate to whom or to which something is given. Oxidative would thus be various forms of the dative that are predominantly associated with Western (e.g. European) thought. Something given is colloquially something that may be presumed or taken for granted. In epistemology, it is the indubitable and undeniable experiential substrate of knowledge—the cogito for Rationalists and sense experience for Empiricists. Wilfrid Sellars (1912-1989) was famous for his work on “the myth of the given,” making Sellars the grandmaster flash of anti-oxidative philosophy. Unfortunately, history does not record what Sellars thought about blueberries. Many of Sellars students and followers are among the most influential of contemporary philosophers, so however doubtful it is still possible that one or more of them will weigh in below in the comments section to share what they know about Sellars and his taste (or lack thereof) for blueberries.

In a similar vein, Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “We do not quite forgive a giver. The hand that feeds us is in some danger of being bitten. We can receive anything from love, for that is a way of receiving it from ourselves; but not from anyone who assumes to bestow.” We also know that Emerson was contemptuous of Henry David Thoreau’s penchant for organizing huckleberry parties. The huckleberry is more widely known as the bilberry, a shrub that grows throughout Europe and in Western North America. It thus appears likely that Thoreau was actually seeking blueberries in his spontaneously organized excursions into the wilder climes surrounding Concord, Massachusetts. From which we may infer at least one disturbing strand of inconsistency in the anti-oxidative musings of Emerson.  Still and all, we rather suspect that however contemptuous he might have been for Thoreau’s enthusiasms, Emerson would not have turned up his nose at Frosted Flakes with fresh blueberries or a blueberry pie.

And neither should you.

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

A Few More

July 14, 2013

So both of my regular readers chimed in last week. If you read the blog early, you might want to go back to look at what they said. Of course, since both of the people who read the blog posted a comment, there’s no one left who needs to go back, but if I start following that line of thought I’ll end up with another blog on robots, and there’s no call for that during the high season of summer.

My thought is that if you care about the relationship with the farmer, as John Zilmer’s comment suggests (and which, I might add, is consistent with a thread that was running through “More Thoughts on the End in Sight?” its own self), then this is something that you might actually achieve better by shopping at a farmer’s market. After all, you can go down there and have a confab with the guy or gal who grew those green beans, and this is not necessarily something that happens when you pick up a box from the CSA drop spot. You might have a confab with several farmers, for that matter. And isn’t that all to the good and much more satisfying than the abstract idea of risk sharing or getting an anonymous (if tasty and fresh) box of veggies from the weekly CSA delivery?

And I think that it is. Which provides just one more reason why Thornapple CSA is having trouble attracting and keeping members. We have a ton and half of farmer’s market opportunities here in the Lansing area these days, up from a miniscule fraction of a ton just a couple of years ago. Every neighborhood business district has figured out that it is fun and festive to sponsor a market day, and if they can attract just a few real-live farmer types out there to display their wares, well it just adds a heap o’ fun to the festivities. And, of course, people show up, enjoy seeing their farmer (not to mention each other) & then they break out in a mile-wide smile. The whole scene is just smothered in Gemütlichkeit and if people just happen to buy a hot dog, a beer or a monkey wrench from one of the storefront merchants while they are down there feeling good about themselves, well who’s going to complain about that?

Of course the Marxists in the crowd will probably grumble about a commodity fetish or something, but they’re too busy reading intersectionality blogs to drop in on the Thornapple site, in any case. The net result, the cash value and the final payoff (not to cave into that commodity fetish thing) is that people feel better about shopping at a farmer’s market than they do about signing up for a CSA.

Now I hasten to add that our personal farmer, James Benjamin, has been showing up at the distribution location for Thornapple CSA so that you can schmooze with him just as sure as you could if he were hawking zucchini down at the Allen Street Market. May not be quite the same thing, but it’s certainly should go some distance toward building a relationship with the farmer.

Still and all, it’s making member recruiting into something of a challenge, and the business model for a weekly distribution CSA in the Lansing area just may not be sustainable, as a result.

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


Thoughts on the

July 7, 2013

The Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) idea originated in Japan when a group of women decided to try and figure out some way of supporting small, local farmers. I’m a little fuzzy on the details here this morning and I’m in no mood to go down to the library in order to get my facts straight. So both of my regular readers will just have to cut me some slack. What has come down to us is that risk sharing is the “core idea” behind the CSA movement. That is, food consumers assume some of the risk that has traditionally been borne by farmers. Farmer risk is complex, but since I’m not so complex myself, I like to focus on just two elements: 1) Weather: on the day that you plant your crop, you never know how things are going to turn out; 2) Prices: Farm commodity prices are volatile because when you have a great year in terms of weather, it’s likely that everyone else did, too. So there’s more out there than people want to eat, and tasty farm commodities—especially the fruits and vegetables—are just going to rot if they don’t get sold right away. There’s a strong tendency for farmers to drop their price to ensure that they are not stuck with rotting fruits and vegetables at the end of market day. And first thing you know, even in a bumper crop year, you’re selling stuff for less than it cost you to produce it.

Recognizing these facts, the CSA idea is to basically take risk Number 2 off the table for farmers by negotiating a price even before the crop goes in the ground. Members of the CSA make an up-front payment to the farmer that covers seed and supplies, as well as a stipend (I hesitate to call this “profit”) that will compensate the farmer for all the hard work that is required to get tasty fruits and vegetables to you throughout the growing season. My economist friends would insist that this just rearranges the risk, rather than taking it off the table, because the farmer has now forgone the opportunity to make profits above and beyond the stipend that he or she has negotiated with members of the CSA, so there will be years with the CSA farmer will “lose” relative to the farmer who is spending two or three days a week hawking their wares in a farmers’ market. But this is an excessively pecuniary way to look at the situation, and so I move on.

But we are still waiting for the other shoe to drop, which is, of course, the weather. When we have a year like last year, things don’t go so well for farmers, and if you are in a CSA, you are not very likely to have gotten more for your up-front investment than if you had held onto it until July and August, then gone to Kroger or Meijer and paid a small premium for fruits and vegetables that were being trucked in from less drought-stricken climes. Hence, there really is some “risk-sharing” at the core of the CSA idea. And here we come to the nub of today’s blog.

Some people who sign up for CSAs are down with the CSA way. They dig that risk-sharing thing, and they can accept a year like last year when the broccoli is bitter and the pickings are slim (at least until the tomatoes roll in). You chalk it up to bad luck and you feel good about the way that you are supporting a farmer. In fact, one problem for the Thornapple CSA has been that some of our members may be a little bit too “down” with that idea, by which I mean that their loyalty is to a particular farmer. And since circumstances mean that we’ve tended to change farmers every year, there have always been a bunch of people who sign up to support farmer X, and then drop out the next year when farmer X heads off to California, takes another job or some such thing and then farmer Y has to step in and take over. Need I say that this is not a particularly sustainable model from the fiscal perspective?

So one response has been to offer some “extras” (like organic strawberries) that we buy in bulk from other farmers. This is supposed to get extra income into the treasury, but when there’s a “miscommunication” (like when the grower initially says they will be $31 and then after you’ve driven a couple hundred miles to pick them up, they turn out to be $34), you may not even recover the gasoline costs when you sell them to members for $35. Another idea is to initiate mid-season half shares as a way to channel enough revenue into the coffers so that the CSA can pay the stipend agreed to back in February. It’s a great year this year, so a half share starting now is an enormously good deal for consumers. But these responses mean two things: 1) the price risk is back with a vengeance only now the farmer may not get paid at all when the CSA goes bust; and 2) the whole “risk-sharing” idea has kind of gone kaput for people who buy a mid-season share.

Now this is NOT meant to make Thornapple members feel guilty. I’m not sure that either of my regular readers is a member, in any case. But it is intended to spark some reflection (rather than reflexion) on the CSA way. More than usually, I’d love some postings in the comment box.

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