Breakdown Lane

October 25, 2015

I’m writing on the bus from Xitou to Taipai City, and the traffic is heavy on Sunday evening. Things run in a smooth and orderly way here in Taiwan, unlike the roads around Beijing. Still and all, I see quite a few drivers zipping past on the right in the breakdown lane at about 70 mph. I’d hate to have a flat tire here.

And speaking of which, we’ve kind of had a flat tire year in the Thornapple CSA, haven’t we? We’re ten days or so past the last distribution day, and maybe it’s a good moment to reflect on the past. I always have to be careful with this, because Diane is afraid that Thornapple members reading the blog—she’s crazy to think there are any—might think I’m speaking for her. Well for the record, Diane and I are on opposite sides of the globe. My e-mail is not working, and I can’t get cell service here. Meanwhile she doesn’t have an internet connection. So I’m speaking just for myself.

Looking back on seven seasons, I’d say we’ve done well for the members on five of them. We had a rocky year some time back, but memories are short. This year there were a number of things that members were hoping for that never materialized in the weekly baskets. Hopefully next year will be better.

But there’s another side to this and that’s how things work out for our farmers. As both long-time readers and most local Thornapple members probably know, we have a “core group” of members that takes on responsibility for steering things on behalf of the entire membership. Unlike farmer-organized CSAs, we hire a farmer at Thornapple. Often it’s a relatively young and idealistic person or couple hoping to get a start in small-scale organic farming. In fact, I can’t think of an exception to the “young and idealistic” part of that, but maybe the fact that it seems that way to me reflects more on me being old and cynical than them being young and idealistic.

I’m not going to do a tally, but I will say that more often than not, the main thing these young and idealistic types learn is that this small organic farming life is not really everything that it had been cracked up to be. Many of them would not like to hear me say that. They have often remained idealistic even as they have confronted some disappointments. And there’s no single failure mode here. Sometimes the physical labor has just been too much, and at other times the ability to build extra income through sales at farmers’ markets or the like has just not proven to be as lucrative as it needed to be in order to make being the Thornapple farmer into a viable lifestyle. Sometimes it was just that a more attractive alternative beckoned. For many of those years we would have been happy to have a farmer come back, but wound up searching for a new farmer over the winter months.

But let’s face it members. We have a tendency to wear out farmers. Making all the pieces fit in terms of matching work expectations,  meshing a communication style with the needs of our members and then jibing with the facilities at Appleshram is just not a trivially simple affair. It’s kind of amazing that on 5 out of seven tries, the membership has come away with warm and fuzzy feelings about the CSA way, even when on three or four of those occasions the farmers have concluded that it is an experience they don’t need to repeat. Coming to appreciate that complexity is one of the lessons that the whole CSA experience is designed to teach us urbanites, disconnected from our food systems as we tend to be. Let’s not forget that as we start planning for a more satisfying year in 2016. I hope all the members who do read this can see their way clear to shaking off that flat tire and giving it one more try.

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


May 31, 2015

In the spirit of our penchant for obvious and not-so-timely reminders, we note that May is asparagus month. Fresh, asparagus is a favorite for most true foodies, and by “fresh” I mean picked this morning or at least yesterday. That makes asparagus an inherently local food as well. We’ve been in asparagus season here in Michigan for the last three or four weeks, and with a bit of luck we will have two or three weeks more. So reminding people that this is the time of the year to be on the lookout for asparagus may not be entirely futile.

The first pick-up for Thornapple CSA will be on Wednesday of this week, but I must advise expectant members against looking for asparagus in the first weekly share. You don’t just plant asparagus in January or February with the idea that you will be eating it in May. Asparagus needs a good 3-4 years to be in harvestable condition, and some say you should really not expect much for seven years. 35 years ago when I came to Texas A&M as a newly minted faculty member, lots of us thought of the place as a temporary stop on the way to a position at a more attractive place. My colleague Dick Becka used to say, “Living in College Station is not so bad; it’s the thought of dying here.” Some of the newcomers came around to the idea that A&M was actually a pretty good place to work, while others resigned themselves to the limited mobility of the increasingly tight job market for university faculty. We would recognize this transition in an individual’s attitude by noting whether or not they were planting asparagus in their backyard garden. Anyone who puts out asparagus expects to be around for a while.

As a result, asparagus DOES NOT appear on the list of vegetables that you can expect to get from your participation in the Thornapple CSA. We did put out some asparagus at Appleschram a couple of years back as an experiment, but it hasn’t really taken. One problem is that it’s hard to keep people out of it while it get’s established. Casual visitors easily convince themselves that they have stumbled on an unknown treasure trove. They yield to the temptation to help themselves to a few stalks, thinking that it couldn’t possibly hurt anything.

This is an instance of a collective action dilemma—a problem theorized in the 1960s by Mancur Olson. I met Mancur Olson once in the hall at 1616 “P” Street in Washington, DC. It probably would have been less than a year before he died, but I suppose that this is too much a tangent even for the Thornapple blog. A more accessible version of the problem was formulated by Garrison Keillor for one of his A Prairie Home Companion monologues. It’s called “The Living Flag”, and it was popular enough that it was one of the stories celebrated in the 25th anniversary collection. But that’s all I’m going to say here. If you want to hear how Keillor explains collective action dilemmas, you can go to this link.

The long and short of it is that we are at least a year or two behind in getting asparagus established for distribution in Thornapple shares. This will not, however, deter our farmers Paul and Chelsea from providing a sumptuous helping of salad greens, and maybe some kale and radishes. Yum. In the meantime, look for asparagus on the menu at any appropriately hip or “local” eatery, or find some at the produce section in your local market. It may not have been picked yesterday, but it will still be pretty damn good.

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

High Tunnel Time

March 15, 2015

After a full week of when daytime highs rose well above forty degrees and nighttime lows remained above freezing there is quite a bit of muddy green showing in the Michigan landscape this morning. There is also still a fair amount of snow in my yard. I doubt that the areas along the curb where it was piled high from shoveling will be clear even by tomorrow night, despite the predicted high for 2015 at 66°. Diane was out at Appleschram Orchard yesterday attending to the hoophouse where the early season pickings for Thornapple CSA will very soon be enjoying the convection-warmed air. Maybe I should take a week off from this season’s musings on food and culture to say just a word about the hoophouse.

First a note on terminology. I’m sure all the hipsters among my readers already know it, but we have some great new words to toss around over our pumpkin spice macchiato these days. Like, “Did you see that high tunnel going up on the North Farm above Chatham?” I could spin off a tangent here by explaining how I can be so sure that every enumerable hipster among my devoted audience of readers knows this, but I’ll resist the temptation for epistemological diversions. Both of my regular readers can probably fill in these details for themselves.

A “high tunnel” is a kind of hoophouse. A hoophouse is a kind of greenhouse, specifically one constructed by placing a row of metal hoops in the ground and then covering them with plastic. Generally speaking, a high tunnel is a hoophouse that is tall enough to stand up and work in. Low tunnels—hipsters may know them as “quick hoops”—are placed over plants to produce a little early season warming and to keep the frost off. They get taken off when the danger of freezing temperature is safely past. High tunnels are more permanent fixtures, though there are some very fancy ones mounted on wheels that can be rolled back to give the plants inside the full benefit of summer sunshine. You can also peel the plastic back off of a regular high tunnel, but that’s a lot of trouble. It’s not something you are likely to see at Thornapple CSA’s farm.

Hoophouses have revolutionized the production of vegetables for local markets, especially in Northern climes. By this time of year the late winter sun comes through and warms the air inside, creating an internal convection inside the tunnel that can add 15-20° to the outside temperature. This is not a big deal on days when it does reach 66°, but that doesn’t happen every day of the week in March (or April, for that matter). Nor does it happen every day in October and November. The extra warming is big on days when it fails to crack 40°, and huge when that late March snow comes in and it’s 22° at 9:00 in the morning. And, obviously, the physical barrier of the plastic is important for just keeping the snow off of the tender plants during their early season moments of vulnerability—something working for low tunnels, too. It’s less clear that you get a lot of protection from insects and plant diseases, but there is a shield that works as a first line of defense.

The hoophouse is one of the reasons why it is just fallacious to suggest that organic and local production is a nostalgic return to the farm production of yesteryear. Next time you are down at the coffee bar, try using the term “high tunnel” very casually in a conversation. If you are very ambitious, you can explain the bit about fallacious inferences too. Just remember that ‘fallacious’ rhymes with salacious, and be prepared for someone to take it the wrong way.

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

Plastic Houses

November 23, 2014

There’s an old saying to the effect that people who live in glass houses should not throw stones. Good advice for bloggers, I think. If you are “out there” and visible, you should think twice about digging in to someone for something that you could be dug into yourself. There’s also a variation on the adage that has something to do with grass houses and ends with the admonition “…shouldn’t stow thrones.” Figuring out what that has to do with a food ethics blog would be a fine tangent for this week, don’t you think?

But as has become my custom of late, I resist the temptation to make sense of that to get right along with the main theme for the week, which has nothing to do with bloggers who expose their own vulnerabilities (not that I would ever do that) or glass houses, for that matter (though here we are getting nearer to the point). The point such as it is being not glass but plastic houses.

Thanks to my friend John Biernbaum plastic houses are all the rage among sustainable agriculture types here in Michigan. Of course no self-respecting hippie farmer would refer to them as plastic houses. They’re high tunnels or low tunnels (depending on whether they are high or low) or maybe it’s the hippie farmer who’s high or low. They’re also hoop houses. This would not need explanation if you have actually seen one of these babies. A bunch of my students and I went up to the UP earlier this summer to help John build a particularly big one, and I was caught on film (well maybe it was pixels) with a sledgehammer in my hand putting up the support for one of those hoops. I wish I could put that photo in my annual report.

So even though us calloused hands, sledge-hammer swinging, hard-working, dirt on the face sustainable farmer types wouldn’t literally live in one of these plastic houses, the whole routine about not throwing stones would still be highly relevant. Holes are a bad thing. They kind of screw up the whole convection heating phenomenon that allows Michigan farmers to grow spinach or broccoli well into this time of the year. Maybe not this year, because it has been so damn cold, but you know what I mean.

But stones thrown, thrones stowed or what have you, a hoop house is going to occasionally need some first-order maintenance. Which basically means another plastic sheet big enough to cover the whole damn thing. Not cheap, mind you, but also something that requires a whole raft of people just to maneuver around and actually get on top of the skeleton so that it can be fastened down to keep the little budlings toasty when it’s freezing outside. And that whole raft of people thing brings me to my true and honest reason for posting a Thornapple blog (aside from the fact that it’s Sunday). Which is that it’s time for the hoophouse out at Appleschram farm where we grow veggies for the Thornapple CSA to get a new sheet of plastic.

The big event is scheduled on Wednesday from 3 to 4 in the afternoon, assuming the wind is not blowing too hard. Cold will not deter us, but wind well might. If you’ve longed to be part of barn-raising on the day before Thanksgiving, this may be as close as you’re going to get this year. Call Diane (you know the number) if you have any questions, and bring your own sledgehammer if you are in it for the photo op.

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


One Thing or Another

June 8, 2014

Diane and I have spent a chunk of the morning trying figure out where we can get a new Garden Bandit™. This can only mean one thing. The weeds are coming up and something needs to be done about them. We bought our current Garden Bandit™ in Stratford, Ontario a few years back when we were up there for the Shakespeare festival. Stratford might also merit mention in the blog for hosting the Ontario Pork Congress, which will actually be happening next week. Hurry up with your registration, if you were thinking about heading up for either pigs or Perdita. But that’s probably just a tangential thread for this week’s entry.

The weeds are coming up and that can only mean one thing. It is now high Spring in mid- Michigan. I was way up on the shores of Lake Superior last week and I saw plenty of ice in the harbor at Marquette. But then I spent a day at the Michigan State farm in Chatham where it was 86°. Too hot for this time of year, especially in the U.P. We could go off on climate change, but that, too, would just be a tangent. And so I persevere.

It’s high Spring in mid-Michigan and that can only mean one thing. Out of the deep freeze time when we all learned the meaning of the phrase “polar vortex,” it’s now well past the season for planting. In fact the little niblit crops that come in first are now ready for the first harvest. This isn’t a tangent. This is what I sat down this morning to write about.

The early crops are ready for harvest and that can only mean one thing: The first distribution for Thornapple CSA. Yes, we had something like 17 varieties of kale available for members this past week. Don’t look for tomatoes quite yet. Climate change has not progressed that far. But there is now officially “stuff to eat”. Diane and I also bought some cauliflower from the Giving Tree Farm down at the Old Town Farmers’ Market yesterday. So rejoice! Hallelujah!

There is now officially stuff to eat and that can only mean one thing. We are heading into the hiatus season for the Thornapple blog. When the blog was established back in 2009, the premise was that we would publish once a week during the off-season to substitute for the weekly delivery of fresh fruits and veggies that members get from early June right on up through October. Once the weekly pick-ups start, the obligation to deliver a weekly barrage of verbiage is kaput. Of course you will find very few summer weeks when we did not deliver a blog anyway over the last four years. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure you’ll find any. So maybe I’m just blowing smoke here this week. Maybe we’ll be back next week with another thoughtful and titillating essay on food, farming and the quest for ethical spirituality.

But then again, maybe we won’t. That can only mean one thing. You will have to check up on us every week this summer in order to find out.

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

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

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

Behold the Bean

March 10, 2013

I awoke this morning to the smell of black beans that had been cooking overnight in the crock pot. If you are reading the blog on Sunday, March 10, 2013, it may not be too late for you to enjoy some bean soup and a classical guitar recital from Thornapple CSA Core Group member Ryan Apple this evening at Diane Thompson’s house. The blog is not a newsletter, or I would have been mentioning this pending event for the last several weeks. Nevertheless, we do CSA beeswax now and then, mainly because I’ve made the determination that exploring the CSA way is a legitimate theme in food ethics. And one way to explore the CSA way is to blog occasionally on the various activities and machinations of the Thornapple CSA.

Maybe this is one of those occasions. Some years back I learned that “occasional poetry” is a poem written to be recited at a particular occasion. We don’t do this much, and by “we” I mean not only you, me and Bob, but virtually all Americans. Sure, there is that performance by the Poet Laureate at Presidential Inauguration ceremonies. That’s how I learned what “occasional poetry” is. But in general we pass on almost every occasion for poesy. Is there anyone out there Tweeting poetry? Surely there is. I heard on the news that there are now 64 million people writing blogs. Somebody out there is posting every time they go the bathroom. In fact, I was so curious about this that I did a Google search to see if I could figure out who that was, but all I came up with was a rapture-oriented blog where someone was sharing, “I remember last year the Holy Spirit really opened my eyes to how lost the Jehovah’s Witnesses are.”

Of course in the Thornapple blog we try to avoid overt discussions of partisan politics. Even Tea Party Republicans enjoy a good bowl of black bean soup now and then. So I’ll just treat the rapture thing as this week’s tangent and get right on back to occasional poetry.

It got me thinking… Say, Ralph Waldo Emerson has nothing on me. After all it was Ralph himself who wrote “to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius.” So I decided to write a poem for today’s Thornapple CSA soup and guitar recital event. In fact maybe I should just convert the whole weekly blog over to occasional food poetry! And as my enthusiasm for that swelled, here is the poem I came up with. Or perhaps it is the poem up with which I came. (Got to start parsing poetically now).

When I awoke I sensed the bean
Wafting warmly on the morn.
To wit, thought I, festivity
Waits thither to be born.
Gaiety plein air guitar—
En Francais we harmonize
More boldly—and so I
Brush away the flies
And comb my beard.
A meal to make
And welcome guests,
Our bread to break.

Perhaps I should note that it isn’t actually I my own self as a real and actual being embodied at the spatio-temporal vortex of Lansing, Michigan at the archival date of March 10, 2013 that is cooking this soup. My poem could indeed get me into domestic trouble if people took that particular inference from it. It’s poetic licence, don’t you know (as was that bit about the flies—there are no actual flies in Diane’s bean soup). Come to think of it, maybe this occasional poetry thing isn’t such a good idea.

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

Jane Bush

January 27, 2013

Maybe it’s time for “January-is-Food-Ethics-Icons-Month” to go local. We would have lots of choices here in mid-Michigan. Laura Delind deserves iconic status both for her work on the ground with groups like the Urbandale Farm and for her wonderful writing on the ethical significance of place. John Biernbaum and Laurie Thorp could be singled out for the work they put in to create the Student Organic Farm at Michigan State University. Terry Link, who sometimes actually reads this blog, is a hero for his work on sustainability, his earlier service to the Greater Lansing Food Bank and now food hubs. And I could go really close to home and celebrate the various exploits of Diane Thompson, working on food issues in local schools, local markets and the Thornapple CSA. But we’ve been doing rock star farmers in 2013, and none these people are farmers.

I may be in trouble here at home for saying that Diane is not a farmer, but nonetheless, I proceed.

There are plenty of iconic farmers in mid-Michigan, for sure. I’m not going to start naming them because I wouldn’t know when to stop. Since this is the Thornapple Blog for the Thornapple CSA, it is actually pretty easy to know where we should turn when we celebrate a rock star farmer from ‘round here. We should look inward. Thornapple CSA is a member organized CSA, and we hire our own farmer. So far, we’ve been wearing out a farmer every year, and we’re currently in the market for a new one. (Prospective applicants should look elsewhere on the website for contact information.) So, no, we’re not going to celebrate our farmer as the rock star farmer, because as of this month, we don’t have one. We do, however, have a farm. It’s not actually our farm, but we have a place to grow stuff—both outside the old fashioned way and also in one of the new-fangled high tunnels that John Biernbaum has been talking about. That place, as members know, is on the premises of Appleschram Organic Orchard. We have that place because the owner-operator of Appleschram has taken a deep personal interest in Thornapple CSA. We pay a concessional rent, but Jane Bush is way more involved than that, serving as a member of the Core Group and an occasional source of farming wisdom.

Looking back over the month, it seems that you need to be doing something beyond farming to qualify as a rock star. Our other rock star farmers this month seem to spend almost as much time writing as farming. That would make Jane different, but she does have her fingers in lots of pots. She’s active in building a healthier and economically more vibrant food system in Southeast Michigan through the Food System Economic Partnership, where she helps with business development. That builds on her experience organizing the still viable Grazing Fields egg co-op. Grazing Fields gets mentioned nationally as an example of how small producers can work together in order to get their products into circulation locally. It’s not just farmers markets; its access to grocery stores and gaining a brand identity in a local region. And Jane was just up at Grayling High School talking about water management at the Northern Michigan Small Farm Conference.

So I’m going with Jane, partly because she’s our rock star farmer, but more importantly because however much we need the rock star farmers who get written up in the New York Times or the Atlantic Monthly for raising the average person’s consciousness, people like Jane are the ones who are actually pulling this local, organic, sustainable thing off. Jane’s doing this in Michigan, but she’s not alone, and our team of dedicated people is supported by thousands of like-minded people adapting the message and the practice to farming conditions and regional cultures that vary from one place to another.

So excuse me for taking a week off from sarcasm and robot bashing. We’ll be off the icons next week, so maybe I can unleash my snarky genes again.

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