Written by: Paul Thompson

Primary Source: Thornapple CSA

I’m checking in this week from the Northern Michigan Small Farms Conference in Traverse City. The theme of this year’s conference is “Small Farms Are Real Farms.” I’m a bit put off that they didn’t ask me to speak at the conference because after all who would be better equipped to speak on the subject of reality than a philosophy professor? Ontology is the subfield of philosophy that takes up the age old questions of being and nonbeing. If you are sitting there in six feet of snow pondering the question “What is reality?” you may have more serious problems than I can help you with, but the question itself is an ontological one.

Of course the you ess dee hay has its own definition of what a farm is. To wit, a farm is any place from which $1000 or more of agricultural products were produced or sold, or would normally have been produced or sold during the year. Heck, back in the early 70s I knew some guys who were operating a farm with a couple of cigar boxes and a Gro-light on the floor of their bedroom closet by that definition. Of course they weren’t reporting their farming activity to the census bureau or to the eye are ess, but there’s nothing to qualify the specific type or legality of the agricultural product you might happen to be producing in your closet on the you ess dee hay’s website. So I guess that (all appearances to the contrary) those good ol’ boys were farmers after all.

Which just goes to show you why you would require someone with graduate level training in ontology to address the question of which farms are real farms, rather than some geeks working for the government. Although these you ess dee hay guys will recite the official definition of a farm for you at the drop of a hat, they’ll also laugh up their sleeves about it at the same time—betraying their true opinions about ontological status of my 70s friends’ farming operation. And more to the point, perhaps also betraying their true feelings about the good folks attending the Northern Michigan Small Farms Conference. Take my wife. (Please?) As anyone who comes to this website on purpose (which is to say, not because you followed some robot created link directing you here because this was supposed to be an authoritative source for information on wedding shoes), my darling wife Diane is the core group coordinator for Thornapple CSA. She also gets her hands dirty doing some farming. And the Thornapple CSA does indeed produce more than $1000 worth of agricultural product in a season. But there’s just this itchy feeling that some old-timers get when someone refers to a CSA of our size and ideological bent as a farm.

Now I don’t want to get too technical here with my ontological analysis. I know all too well that I’ve already put some of my regular readers off just by using a word with five syllables, much less one that is derived from the Greek ὄντος (or ontos). Let it just suffice for me to say that there are no grounds on which one could dispute the reality of Thornapple CSA. I mean it’s right there at the top of the webpage, isn’t it? Of course there are some skeptical ontologists who dispute the reality of the universe, but we’re not going that direction (even as a tangent) this far down on the page. It’s not the reality of small farms that is at issue, it’s whether they are farms. Well what else could they be, I ask? And the answer would probably be “hobby farms,” this because although they do produce more than $1000 a year in agricultural products, they don’t necessarily produce enough for somebody to buy a dually pick-up, two snowmobiles and an enclosed trailer, plus take a vacation to Branson, MO every other year (to cite just a few of the key ontological traits that are occasionally said to characterize a real farm).

But that’s just what’s gone wrong with this country, a typical attendee at the Northern Michigan Small Farms Conference would counter. And who am I to disagree with an ontic certitude of that caliber?

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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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