Discretion & Valor in Organic Farming

Written by: Paul Thompson

Primary Source: Thornapple CSA

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.

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Paul Thompson
Paul B. Thompson holds the W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. He formerly held positions in philosophy at Texas A&M University and Purdue University. His research has centered on ethical and philosophical questions associated with agriculture and food, and especially concerning the guidance and development of agricultural technoscience.
Paul Thompson

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