RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Notes of the Season

What with trying to simplify and all, it's been an interesting holiday season. I was sweating how to tell the family -- read my lips, no new gifts -- and, from your emails regarding Buy-Nothing Day, you were worrying about it, too.

"Christmas has been, unfortunately, less than stellar for us," went one, "... nothing horrible, but just the overwhelming din of it ... we both really love the city, but it's a bit tough if you're just living a regular, slim-walletted life. I've been trying to imagine outside the box this year -- we might splurge and go on a cruise after the Holiday, so that might sort of pad things ... or run off to the Catskills for a weekend in a cabin. As you can see, escape is the operational mode! But we do enjoy shopping for our friends ... just good books and things that they'll love, cooking for them and they for us. We get through it with a certain amount of wryness, I'd say. Again, thanks, and avoid those malls. I think they are Alien breeding centers."

That's right about the malls. Alyce, a college freshman, convinced her boyfriend that they could save lots by getting up at 6 a.m. for the sales, but they were disappointed. "It's a ripoff," she wrote, "Best to learn it while we're young. Never again."

It's impossible to win the corporate's mall game. At the same time, we want to demonstrate that we love the people we love, and appreciate the people we appreciate. The conundrum goes like this: As long as the corporates continue to exploit workers, trash the environment, steal resources from poor people, and tantalize us into indebtedness, we don't want to buy from them. But that doesn't mean we have to ignore the holidays and withdraw from society.

Winter holidays are deep in our culture. We grew up with them, and we can't give them up completely any more than we can quit singing "Happy Birthday To You" to our friends. Giving to those we love is probably genetic -- part of the hunter/gatherer instinct that moved a primitive mother to bring roots and berries back to her children rather than hogging them all. We moved from roots and berries to warm woolen mittens and, today, to video games, but the instinct is sound.

The desire to simplify has to do with reclaiming our intelligence about the holidays, not to give them up completely. We can give things that improve our communities.

I was resolved to extricate myself from the spend-a-thon, and as I steeled my resolve to write my family a "thanks but no thanks" letter, there was a note from my little sis: "In lieu of gifts to me this year, may I ask that you join me in making a contribution to HOPE Of Rochelle (PO Box 131, Rochelle, IL 61068)? This is a domestic violence program which does good work. (I know -- I've been a client.) Their monthly caseload is over a hundred emergency phone calls, 140-150 shelter nights (that's 4-5 women/children every night of the month), and 10-12 orders of protection."

And that note, in the email way, was joined by notes from my mom, my daughters, each naming a charity they cared about. I asked for donations to our community radio station, because without independent media, we're lost.

So here's a prediction. If you tried to get off the holiday sleigh this year, I bet it was easier than you thought. And if you didn't, well, there's always next year!

Now to the farm bill news alert. As we know, family farms -- those grossing between $10,000 and $249,999 -- are under siege. Larger agricultural operations -- about 7.2% of ag operations in the nation -- sell a whopping 72.1% of the products. Increasingly, therefore, food at the supermarket comes from factory farms rather than family farms. And that means that, increasingly, grocery-store meat comes from confined animal feeding operations -- or CAFOs. And, those factory farms are the mega-polluters in the ag sector, dumping manure into streams and creeks, and noxious gases into the air

Adding insult to environmental injury, family farmers have lost markets to these mega-polluters and, worse, find themselves actually paying to build the industrial behemoths through export incentives, federally-guaranteed loan programs and other tax-financed industrial bonuses. (To learn about the big winners in your county, look at the website, and click on your county name.) These tax-financed programs are supposed to help build the industry but family farmers are locked out. The giants raise their own meat, thank you very much, and don't need farmers.

Now a program that once helped family farmers has been altered by Congress so that more tax money can go into CAFO coffers. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program -- EQIP -- was introduced in the 1996 Farm Bill to provide farmers with incentive and cost-sharing funds to protect the environment. Farmers could apply for money to terrace fields, which prevents run-off, or fence creeks off from grazing livestock.

The cap of $50,000 per farmer in the 1996 Farm Bill ensured that the money went to family farmers, and helped re-build local food systems. To provide further guarantee, it was written into the 1996 Bill that EQIP funds could not be used by CAFOs. But, in the fight over the 2002 farm bill, the lobbyists for industrial agriculture won a big battle -- CAFOs can now get $450,000 of public money over seven years. That's your tax money and mine.

EQIP is administrated by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a USDA agency. While many of the guidelines for EQIP are clearly mandated by the Farm Bill or left to administrators in D.C., there is considerable room for flexibility at the state level.

We need to tell NRCS that this is not the time to provide incentives for new or expanding CAFOs. Livestock production through CAFOs is not sustainable, whether in the short or long term. Family farm livestock production, on the other hand, has the potential to provide a sustainable economic and environmental future.

There is a national goal of placing 60% of EQIP funds in the hands of livestock producers. Tell your NRCS office that EQIP funds should be prioritized to independent family farm operations, and that new or expanding CAFO's should not receive EQIP funding.

Minnesota has adopted this policy already. Tell your farm leaders that the money needs to go to sustainable farm operations, not the big pigs.

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

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