Increase

August 28, 2016

The Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU) is gathering steam for a new push around food and agriculture when the new administration is installed next January. The exact nature of their initiative is still in flux at this writing, so pardon me while I take a few sentences to situate this whole mess for the casual web surfer.

First, who in the bejeezus is APLU? This one is comparatively easy. APLU is an organization of public universities (that would include Michigan State) from the U.S., Canada and Mexico. It performs a number of coordinating, planning and lobbying services for members. Now for the context in which the APLU decided that a new effort to draw the government’s attention to what universities are doing with regard to food and agriculture.

One of the big things was “Feed the Future”, so what in the bejeezus is that? Well, succinctly, it’s an existing government initiative, well enough established to have its own website, which you can find here. Go figure it out for your own self, I say, but I will offer this: Based on studies from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) at the United Nations, as well as our own intelligence services, folks at the U.S. State Department started to get nervous about what the world would be like in 2050, mainly because the projections indicate a significant rise in hunger. The State Department worries about hunger because they associate it with violence and political instability. Hence, “Feed the Future”: every dollar we spend on increasing food security today repays itself five times over in reduced military spending in 2050.

Universities with food and ag programs feel like they can contribute to food security in 2050, so they want to direct some of these dollars spent today into their budgets. Although this sounds on the face of it like a cynical ploy to garner budget dollars, I do in fact believe that there is an ethically sound rationale buried deep in here somewhere.

But there is more.

However justified a push toward greater food availability might be from a global perspective, just pumping up crop yields has feedback effects. The impact on domestic food systems is one of them. We’re coping with the over-industrialization of our food system here in North America, as countless past blogs in this space have emphasized. Will increasing “Feed the Future” dollars to increase our university’s capacity to increase the food-yield from crops such as rice, wheat, corn and soybeans further increase industrial monocultures, not to mention increasing the profits of farm input suppliers? How many times can you use the word “increase” in a single sentence?

Let’s hope the new push at APLU is mindful of that.

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

 

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What Jackie Wilson Said

August 21, 2016

I paid a visit to the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm last week. I’m afraid I didn’t have my reporter’s hat on, so don’t count on the blog for accurate or detailed information this week. Truth to tell, I hardly knew where I was. I don’t get into Detroit but once or twice a year, and it always feels like this giant swoop down MI 10—better known locally as “the Lodge”—then being shot out into some neighborhood. But I have yet to acquire any real sense of how those end points relate to one another. So I had to Google a few things to figure out that I was in the North End.

One of the things I Googled was “Jackie Wilson”. One of the houses being used by the farm is reputed to be Jackie Wilson’s boyhood home. So on the authority of some Internet site that says Jackie Wilson grew up in the North End, I’m interpolating that that’s where I was. All of this might be false. Even on a normal weekend not everything you read in the Thornapple Blog is strictly true, but on this weekend I’m just still in a cloud about many of the facts, myself. And like I said, I wasn’t taking any notes.

And I wish I had been.

But here’s a few random impressions. Oakland Avenue Urban Farm has been around for awhile, but it seems to be one of the less celebrated urban farms in Detroit. They may have been deliberately flying under the radar because they have only recently (recently meaning the last two years or so) been able to acquire legal title to much of the land they are using for fruit and vegetable production. This can be attributed to city administrators who were not all that interested in supporting this enterprise, and who did not think that food production was “the most valued use” for some of the abandoned properties in the North End. So they were dragging their feet and just not cooperating with attempts to consolidate some of the lots on the site. There’s still a problem with the fact that all of these lots have separate addresses. It’s like walking out into your garden and discovering that while your cabbages are being grown at 1072, your carrots reside at 1074 and your blueberries are living at 1076. So they can’t all be part of the same household, right? And then for purposes of staying legal, you have to fill out a separate form for cabbages, carrots and blueberries when it comes to everything from the census to paying the water bill. But there’s no process on the books for going back to the idea that these contiguous lots are something we might call “a field”.

Detroit has become known for its problems over the last thirty years or so, and this is not the place to go into any of that. The problems that bear on the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm are associated with a once densely populated city that has shrunk to—what? Less than half its former size? This leaving too much housing, depressing property values and then, in turn, leading mortgage holders to just walk away. The Oakland Avenue Urban Farm occupies most of two city blocks from which all but two or three of the houses have been removed. There are opportunities to expand further. As Jackie Wilson sang “My heart is cryin’, dyin’.”

Jackie Wilson was one of the great tragedies in the early days of rock and roll, but the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm is actually a pretty inspiring place. They are paying young people to come out and work on the farm. Not as much as they would like, but something is important. And they are supplying the neighborhood with some pretty sensational looking fresh produce.

Here’s a nod to them.

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

Bindweed & Stinkbug Season

August 14, 2016

I never thought it would come to this.

As both of my regular readers know, I’m contractually obligated to post a blog sometime about now when the tomatoes come in in Michigan. It’s a hot year (in case you didn’t know) and we are short quite a bit of rainfall. The “hot” part is good for tomatoes; the drought part, not so much. However, we are, I think, on our third week of tomatoes in the share of the Thornapple CSA, and for the first time this year we may have more tomatoes than I can eat in a single sitting.

There are also some of those very nice heirloom varieties in the mix. I don’t know who thought up the term “heirloom variety.” They are, as I’m sure both of you already know, much tastier than those tomatoes that have been bred in California to get past the thirty mile per hour impact they must withstand. First their vines are ripped from the ground by the celebrated mechanical tomato harvester then blown through a devious mechanism that separates the fruits from the leavings and then chucks them onto the conveyer belt that hurls them at said 30 mph into the bed of a truck. Kersplat for the so-called heirloom tomato, hence the geniuses at the University of California’s Vegetable Research and Information Center (or maybe it was the geniuses at the grower funded California Tomato Research Institute) had to breed up these blemish free and perfectly round pinkish red but not especially tasty types that have to be gassed with methyl bromide (or maybe it’s just ethylene—remember not everything you read in the Thornapple Blog is strictly true) in order for them to be digestible. Not edible, necessarily, but digestible. If you have a methane digester.

But fresh homegrown heirloom tomatoes, or as our grandparents used to call them, tomatoes, they are a different kettle of fish altogether. So about this time of the year, I’m supposed to write a blog reminding everyone that the tomatoes are in, and if by some screwy logic you are NOT a member of Thornapple CSA and have failed to plant your own homegrown heirloom tomatoes out in your backyard, it is most definitely time to scuttle your butt down to the local farmer’s market to buy some. I generally try to come up with some amusing, like the Fat Elvis blog we did way, way back in 2010. Or I’ll mention some tomato oriented song like Guy Clark’s “Homegrown Tomatoes” or Trout Fishing in America’s “Pico de Gallo.” But of course I’ve already done that, so now I have to come up with something original.

By the way, if you are troubled by managing your stinkbugs, or you came to this week’s blog hoping to engage in a bindweed discussion, the website at the California Tomato Research Institute might actually be able to help you out. Meanwhile, I’m still thinking.

I never thought it would come to this, but I just may have run out of things to say about tomatoes.

So excuse me while I cut off the blogging and just go eat some.

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

 

The Hipster Donut Experience

August 7, 2016

We might have seen this one coming. I mean Voodoo Donuts in Portland has been around for quite a while now. In the spirit of what I laughingly call “research” I Googled them and found out that there actually is no such thing as Voodoo Donuts. It’s Voodoo Doughnuts, and their website says that they got started in 2003, the same year as the Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State. I’ll resist the tangent to riff on that coincidence because although I’ve known about Voodoo Doughnuts for a good long while, (though maybe not since 2003, but certainly before this decade) I frankly failed to see that this was going to be more than a one-off phenomenon.

Not that I’m surprised to learn that there are now Voodoo Doughnuts in Eugene Oregon and Austin Texas. Maybe there will be one in East Lansing by the end of the decade, but I doubt it. That’s not what I meant by “more than a one-off phenomenon.” What I meant was that I failed to anticipate that donuts (or doughnuts) would actually become a hipster thing. I should have latched onto it when Glazed and Confused opened up in downtown but somehow I missed it. I think I was still thinking more along the lines of Cops n’ Doughnuts in Claire, which though they make some very fine donuts and are definitely worth a stop when you are on your way going to or from “up North” (or, for that matter, if you happen to be intentionally going to Claire—possibly for donuts) are definitely not hipster. Although it will be very clear by the end of this blog that you should not be relying on the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State for your hipster pronouncements, I can you tell that no place with hoards of sweaty tourists lined up of a Sunday afternoon could possibly be hipster.

Which would, of course, rule out Voodoo Doughnuts in Portland. So what do I know?

Except I wandered into Morningstar in Houston last week at about 7:15 (am, that is) looking for coffee. This is a place tucked into the back of strip mall with no sign out front. Inside everything is dark and shiny. They will make you a pretty decent cappuccino, right down to the little flowering design in the crema, but there is no coffee on the menu. You can get a flat white here, and there is a long list of matchas on the board. But there is nothing on the menu that says “coffee” or “drip” or “joe” or “COD”. They do have something called “The Daily Black” so I decided to order that, to which thankfully you can actually add some cream to (as well as any of several matchas). And what you will have is, in fact, a pretty decent cup of coffee. There is also a menu with a list totally unfamiliar things that probably turn out to be quite a bit like an Egg McMuffin, but I didn’t try any of them.

There is also a very large and impressive rack of donuts. Jason (“Hello. My name is Jason.”) urged me to try the CLP, which is a chili-lime-pineapple fritter (“We grind our own pineapple in house”), which is indeed made with lime and chili (“Not too spicy though”). Though he admitted that he himself was fond of their cake donuts, especially the cinnamon sugar ones, which also include chili (but no lime, I think). They also have special donuts with icings that have the word “Grenache” in them. If you order The Daily Black to go, which is not even discouraged—they are making an effort to be friendly—you get a cup holder with their logo on it, which is a cartoon drawing of a ball-and-chain flail.

So it turns out that the hipsters have gone well beyond the hyphen-free menu of foods produced on local farms run by former CPAs and retired firefighters. Donuts are now hip. Heck, they may have been hip for some time for all I would know. Maybe since 2003. I was going to write a blog this week telling you how you would know whether you had stumbled into a hipster donut shop.

But as it turns out, I have absolutely no idea!

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