RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

One Spoonful, Then Another

In mid-summer, every growing thing is at its peak. Bees buzz, fish jump, farmers work 24/7, especially those who grow food to market directly to the public at farm stands, farmers markets, and CSAs. But this year, there's an interesting new trend. Even though it's been an excellent growing season in much of the nation, consumer demand for local food has exceeded supply.

Market farmers report their stuff is sold before they can get it off the truck. Small, neighborhood markets have closed or accept food from stockers who do not raise foods, but stock up at the same warehouses as the grocery stores.

When they find local stuff, consumers are paying more. One of my neighbors, an organic farmer, is getting three times the money as last year for fresh produce. That means, after years of barely breaking even, growers will see a profit!

Consumers are finally thinking about who grows the food they eat. Suburban moms ask for tops on the carrots, honey in the comb, tomatoes on the stalk, eggs with a pedigree, peas with vine attached. They want suburban kids to see where food comes from.

And consumers are getting the larger message, too: If you want to support people in your community, preserve the rural landscape and challenge the industries that profit by seizing lands in faraway places and binding the residents to jobs in an unfamiliar economy, you support your local farmers.

But here's the rub. Agricultural business advisors -- the USDA, banks, journalists, universities and Extension agents -- have hitched America's star to biotech and mega-farming. Only a few mega-crops qualify for insurance or price supports. So, big farmers only raise a narrow range of grains and animals. They've forgotten how to raise food.

Four-H and FFA advisers have been preaching the biotech gospel. Rural kids have received lessons about "golden rice," a genetically-altered rice that adds vitamin A to the rice kernel. This rice, our kids are told, will save the eyesight of Indian children in areas where blindness is rampant. Why is blindness rampant? That's the question that's never asked, nor answered. Hint: It has to do with access to land and traditional farming seeds and methods.

It may seem that a shortage of American market farmers is a small worry, even an elitist concern. If our farmer's markets are sold out, consumers can simply go to the big grocery stores and stock up. Let's see how the grocery stores treat us.

On January 8, National Farmers Union released a report on the "Consolidation in Food Retailing and Dairy." The report was prepared by Mary Hendrickson, Bill Heffernan, Philip Howard and Judith Heffernan, rural sociologists at University of Missouri. It's available on the National Farmers Union website (

In the last three years, according to the report, five retailers have taken over 42% of the food sales in the US. In 1997, they had 24% of the market.

When consumers shop at stores owned by Kroger, Albertson's, Wal-Mart, Safeway, and Ahold USA, we support the race for cheap ingredients. The cheap products are cheap because they are made without consideration of human health impact, environmental damage, animal welfare, or human rights.

The giant grocery chains have snuck quietly into the neighborhood, buying up familiar stores like Jewel, Osco, Stop and Shop, Fred Meyer, Dillons, Smiths, Quality Food Centers, Ralph's, Food 4 Less, King Sooper Hughes, and Keith Uddenberg. This is only a partial list. Check with your grocer to find out who owns the store you patronize.

In many, many markets, the giants have squeezed out competition, so you have no choice but to shop at one of the big chains.

As the chains have become more powerful, they've struck deals with processors. Kroger buys from Cargill, Wal-Mart from Tyson, IBP, Farmland and Smithfield. Thanks to their grocery store sugar daddies, each of these major industrial powers has become more powerful. They are so powerful that they can move entire industries out of the United States. They do this when environmental and labor regulators try to enforce environmental and labor laws.

In other words, grocery store fresh fruits and veggies are raised in huge monocultures by the most helpless, uneducated workers in the world, using chemical applications of fertilizers, insecticides, and weed killers. The produce is picked green, trucked to a warehouse, ripened in gas chambers, then trucked to grocery stores. In their corporate homelands, no laws have been passed to protect workers or to limit chemical applications such as DDT.

Bottom line: Agricultural growers have moved south of the US border. Sometimes, the growing fields are oceans away from us.

Here's an interesting exercise: Find out where your favorite fruit or veggie was grown, then draw a line between your house and the growing field on a map. Now, figure out how many miles it traveled, how many days it took, how many bridges it crossed. And if that route was disrupted by nature, God, or man? Where would the food come from?

But for now, we believe the price is right. Remember the organic farmers back in paragraph #3? The ones who are getting three times the money for their greens? They're in competition with the corporations, too. In fact, the big boys are setting the pace. As they gain power, prices go up. They have a good scapegoat: They'll say prices rise as they pay more for petrochemicals and transportation.

And, speaking of petrochemicals and transportation, this entire story might remind you of our imports of that American necessity. Bonus question: Which is more important: food or oil?

Smart consumers have figured it out: We need to continue to support our local farmers. If we know kids in FFA or 4-H, we can encourage them to learn how to raise food. Compared to fast food or quick shop jobs, teens can make a bundle selling food at farmers markets. And anyone with access to land can get in the business, raise a patch of sweet corn, tomatoes, or honey.

It takes years to learn how to raise a substantial crop, especially a crop that survives without petro-chemicals. It takes years for the land to recover from intensive farming and find its productive balance -- the microbes, earthworms and critters that put nature in charge. So we need to get busy.

Consumers are making a huge difference, just by using our spoons.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:,

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