RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Thoughtful Choices

Winter is here, and besides the daily feeding and wandering about there's not a lot to do on the farm. Even seasonal chores like breaking ice on water troughs or helping a baby lamb get a start in life seem to happen in slow motion. Maybe it's the quiet, the snow absorbing traffic noise and the bugs and critters hunkered in their dens somewhere. Maybe it's the brevity of daylight. When ideas come, you consider them and save them away for meditation after dark. It's a season ideally made to sit down with pencil and paper, write down what worked, what didn't, what was fun, what wasn't.

But here comes my neighbor, Gary, with his list of meetings and conventions. The Soils Conference. The Bovine Practicum. The Horse Corral. The Beekeepers' Rendezvous. He's worried about getting to all of them, and his face is pulled tight with the stress.

He's put up a hydroponic greenhouse, and he wants to get into year-round vegetable production. I know his place well, and I know he's got production worries, but there's only one gathering he needs to attend. I tell him, "Just go to the Food Circle meeting and find out who buys our products -- the consumers."

Kansas City has the world's oldest, and most successful Food Circle. Legend has it that, about twelve years ago, founders of a fledgling 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 it out. If we buy mostly from neighbors, we can be mostly independent from the oil-guzzling, chemical-intense system that re-defines work from "useful interaction that benefits the community" to "care of machinery." The conferences that Gary's worried about are sponsored by the problem-makers. At the soils conference, for example, farmers are told how to use genetically-engineered seed in combination with chemicals and machinery that plows deeply. That's exactly the recipe for pollution, erosion and soil loss, but the sponsors of this conference won't answer that question. The last year I attended a soils conference, our Extension Agents sat mute while a seed salesman handled the Q and A.

These conferences are all about sit-down-and-shut-up-we're-the-experts. In the 1950s, the theme was "Work Smart, Not Hard," encouraging farmers to trash their horse-pulled equipment and buy tractors, use chemicals to promote growth and defeat pests. The downside: Community life took a hit when the new techniques made it possible for one or two men to do the work of a dozen. Tractor-owners became independent of their neighbors, and the country suffered a major exodus as young people went to the cities for jobs.

In the 1960s, the conference leaders promoted fescue pastures hemmed in by "living fences" of multiflora rose, bringing two major non-native species to the landscape. Nobody thought ahead: fescue is only nutritious part of the year, and its dense growth keeps native grasses out. Worse yet, multiflora roses spread like crazy and have no enemies, becoming the farmer's bane.

In the 1970s, it was "Get Big or Get Out," the unfriendly advice that said that as equipment gets bigger, farmers need bigger fields, so the neighbor that goes broke is an opportunity for the neighbor with money. Debt was promoted as a positive, and farmers told to "leverage" and borrow all they could.

In the 1980s -- you guessed it -- farm prices fell and farmers couldn't pay off debt. "Oops!" Said the conference organizers. "Your fault -- you're a bad manager." Now the advice was "Sign a Contract for a Secure Future." Corporations started cramming livestock into Confined Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, trashing centuries of old-timer wisdom about how to keep animals thriving and happy. CAFOs force animals into lives of misery, kept alive by antibiotics and kept growing with hormones. And, as the number of CAFOs has risen, the corporations have paid less to the growers. It's the rush to the bottom.

And, in the 1990s dawned the brave new world of "Life Sciences." At the last Equine conference I went to, sponsored by horse feed and medication manufacturers, the speaker said to use feed that had a protein content so high that I knew it had animal by-products in it. "How do they get such a high protein count?" I asked. The speaker, a feed dealer, didn't know, but told me he had visited the plant himself and it was very clean. As proof, he offered the observations that everyone in the plant wore white overalls.

That's nice, I said, but they're adding blood meal or something to get that much protein in the feed, and they're masking the taste by adding all that molasses. And sure enough, there it was, right on the label, "Animal protein." No, thanks. My herbivores are vegetarians.

As "Life Sciences" has ripened, farmers are being told that the REAL future is in patented plants -- available only from the conference sponsors.

That's why farmers need to skip the industry conferences and go where they can meet consumers. At the Kansas City Food Circle meeting March 29, there's a chance for farmers and consumers to learn about each other. How do you want your beef? Extra fat, the way the feedlots do it? Or extra-lean, grass-fed? Do you want blue corn? Golden potatoes? Heirloom tomatoes like Grandma enjoyed? Your local farmer can raise them for you.

When consumers buy from neighbors, we don't need semi trucks to ship produce from South America or China. We can wear wool caps made from a flock in the next county, knitted by someone who needs to work at home. We can put the Confined Animal Feeding Operations out of business. Pastures would be too valuable to turn into sprawl, and urban land important enough to rehabilitate.

As Kansas City Food Circle member Margie Eucalyptus once reminded me, industry's raw materials come from the earth. And that can mean earth from here, or far away. A sign spotted at the January 18 war protests asked, "How did OUR oil get under THEIR sand?"

Americans have many choices, and the choices of today make the world of tomorrow. We can choose the import/export system, buying from companies that accept the lowest bidders. The trouble with that system is that our children will be limited to bidding the lowest for jobs at the importers -- Wal-Mart, Kroger's, Con-Agra. Our kids will no longer be able to dream of a business of their own.

The other choice is supporting each other. Consumers supporting farmers. Farmers delivering what the consumers want. The result is vibrant, sustainable rural life, and places for the next generation to find meaningful work.

Simply stated: "Act Locally". Draw a circle, the smaller the better, around your home. Two hundred miles, or one hundred, or five miles.

And buy things produced in your local community.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email: For information on the March 29 Kansas City Food Circle meeting call 816-374-5899 or email

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