Breakdown Lane

Written by: Paul Thompson

Primary Source:  Thornapple CSA

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.

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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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