RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Acting Locally

This column will reach you about the time we celebrate Earth Day and stick the latest "Think Globally, Act Locally" sticker on our cars.

Also on Earth Weekend, global economists are to meet in Quebec City to discuss a hemispheric open-borders policy giving global industry free rein -- or is it reign? -- over small, local economies. Who elected these globalists, anyway, and how can we get them deposed?

For the rather boring answers, we're going to Food Day in Kansas City on March 31, 2001. Welcome to the way we can really change the world.

We'll leave the house at around 8 a.m. to pick up our friend and neighbor LeeAnne at her vegetable farm, a CSA. CSA stands for Community-Supported-Agriculture, and the idea is that CSA members buy a share of what the farm raises. LeeAnne's family raises a huge variety -- about 50 different crops, each with their own growing requirements -- so the customers can look forward to new varieties every week. Lucky customers, this CSA uses the strictest no-chemical methods possible. LeeAnne trained with Rodale and takes seriously her mission as a better-than-organic farmer.

It takes about 400 customers to support a CSA and make a living -- around $30,000 a family -- for the farmers. So marketing is a constant problem, and one that farmers don't usually enjoy. For the CSA closest to you, look at ( or call the Alternative Farming Systems Information Center at 301-504-6559.

It's around 8:30 a.m. and LeeAnne's family is planting potatoes. Husband Bart drives the ancient tractor slowly down the rows, turning the earth so that Mom and Dad -- Helen and Bob -- can follow behind, dropping chunks of organic potatoes into the trench. The rather slow parade had just begun, and they'll be at it almost all day. Back rub, anyone?

From LeeAnne's, we'll drive to town and meet Sarah, a University researcher, who's rented a car (thanks, Boss) for the trip. Sarah's hoping to interview "successful alternative" farmers, looking for models in a research project that spans several states.

As we're leaving Sarah's, a Farmers' Market grower, Eric, asks LeeAnne to take a look at his onion plants in his backyard greenhouse. The plants are kind of scraggly and off-color. Eric and LeeAnne are competitors, but LeeAnne studies the plants closely. She asks about soil mix and moisture, and she makes a few suggestions. She's clearly puzzled and the question stays with her. About an hour into the trip, she asks Sarah about the soil pH and concludes it's too low.

Soil pH isn't the only thing we talk about on our drive. We wonder about competition versus cooperation. Should growers try to help each other? What kind of atmosphere is promoted by Farmers' Markets, where farmers are set up next to each other, sometimes trying to undercut one another, or to disrespect the work or techniques of each other?

I'm the oldest one in the car, which gives me the longest perspective, right? But I have to admit that my kids have taught me that cooperation and fair dealing always comes back to help us out. Now that they're on their own, I see them turn cooperation into business wisdom. But it all depends on support from the local community.

In the 1970s classic, Small Is Beautiful, E.F. Schumacher advises community developers not to open one business and expect it to thrive, but to open 12 cooperating businesses at the same time. When one of the businesses captures a dollar from outside the network, they will trade it over and over, enriching each other.

Sarah and LeeAnne promise to read Schumacher, but LeeAnne can't do it until after the growing season and Sarah has to finish her research project first.

Our conversation turns to debt. Should farmers do without something even though it might make their work easier? On the other hand, how many farmers are living off debt, borrowing anew before every crop year? Of course, we agree, the same question could be asked of any credit-rich American.

We bat around the questions, "What is success?" and "What is a successful farm?" Is success raising a family? raising a crop? being able to travel? feeding your customers well? Is the goal to make all the money we need from the farm? Is that possible? Must you also have a job off-farm? I had just come from a meeting at my job where we discussed professional development and been asked to think about our vacation strategy for becoming better teachers.

I listed my goals: "raising good meat for my customers, who are also my friends," "improving our depleted land," "reading about global foods and the environment" and "promoting local farmers." For a political science colleague, a young father, I suggested, "going to concerts with my kids" and "fingerpainting in the backyard." Doesn't teaching have something to do with being a whole person?

Questions of professionalism, success, and goal-setting seem to be eternal but they're not. Fifty years ago, grownups talked with the same earnestness about which moon sign was right for dental work and how fat a hog should be and, oh yeah, the existence of God and the meaning of life. Two hundred years ago, people gathered to debate the advantages of sweet over salty and argue over how many angels really could dance on the head of a pin. And, after the debates, they made their own music and danced!

OK. So we've driven for two hours or so. Now we're pulling into the driveway of the school where Food Day is being held. There are a couple of big signs saying "Meet the farmers." The parking lot is jammed. People are coming out of the gymnasium carrying boxes of plants, sacks of potatoes and lettuce, and, of course, bulging packets of literature. I'm getting very excited. This is a good idea, this Food Day.

Inside the gymnasium, 30 booths have been set up for farmers, CSAs, farmers' markets, environmental groups, and fair-exchange marketers. There's a vegetarian society, a meat-eater's society, the Green Party, and a local food store. LeeAnne spends most of her time with CSAs and veggie growers, while I'm drawn to the bison producers, dairy farmers and pasture-raised meat ranchers. Sarah looks for successful farmers to interview for her project.

Score another hit for the Kansas City Food Circle, a pioneering group of consumers and producers that support each other. By the end of the day, 700-800 consumers walked through the gymnasium, many of them getting an "Act Locally" education for the first time.

How did the Food Circle begin? Legend has it that, about ten years ago, Ben Kjelshus and other members of the newborn Green Party drew a circle with a hundred-mile radius around Kansas City and said, "Let's see if we can get everything we need from within that circle."

They'd figured out that, if we all bought from nearby producers, we'd reduce the need for semi trucks that ship our produce from South America or China. We'd be independent from that whole infrastructure -- from the chemical-dependent growing fields plowed from former rain forests to the filthy, fumigated warehouses to the chemical baths to the industrial grocery store.

Buying meats from neighbors, we'd put the Confined Animal Feeding Operations out of business. Pastures would be too valuable to turn into sprawl, making urban land important enough to rehabilitate. As Kansas City Food Circle member Margie Eucalyptus reminded me, most of the world's raw materials come from farms. Vibrant, sustainable rural life means that the next generation can find meaningful work.

So, this puts new meaning into "Act Locally." Draw a circle, the smaller the better, around your home. Two hundred miles, or one hundred, or five miles.

And buy from your local community.

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

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