RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Bean Dicks Afield

A couple of weeks ago, my neighbor looked out the window and saw men in his soybean field. They weren't hunters or ordinary curious city folks. They were detectives and they were looking for illegal beans.

He called the sheriff.

The sheriff said, "So what?" Turns out, those guys were checking everyone's beans.

In the last 10 years, the big guys have made huge gains in every part of agriculture. Contracting with farmers to raise, say, hogs or eggs, they promise security by promising a set price for his products. But the contracts skip over the essential ingredient of a free market economy -- the market.

And when the market disappears, its benefits disappear. For consumers, the end of free markets means the end of choices. If Tyson, say, provides all the chickens to all the stores, then every chicken will be raised the Tyson way. And if you don't like the way Tyson raises chickens, then buy something else. Like turkey. No, wait, that won't work. They own the turkeys, too.

And, increasingly, the ducks, the hogs and the cattle.

OK, so markets are important because they provide choices to farmers and consumers, but there's more. Open markets encourage dialog and argument to the behemoth corporations. Dialog and argument, sometimes beginning with words like, "What the **** are you doing in my bean field?"

When industrialization first edged into the markets, every farmer provided dialog and argument to the behemoths. One famous study of 259 farmers in Greene County, Iowa, found that six years after their introduction in 1928, only 16 of 259 farmers had adopted hybrid seeds.

As farmers gained evidence that the new seeds were better than the home-saved varieties, a bell curve of adopters appeared. By 1941, all but two farmers in the study had adopted the seed.

Today, we've tossed away the markets, with their rich tradition of arguments and dialog, in favor of marketing experts. Modern farmers jump on industrial growing techniques very quickly, just on the promise of benefits.

The hustlers behind GMOs promised farmers security but the promises haven't panned out. In fact, the only thing that has really changed is the farmer's expense. Farmers who had enjoyed low or no chemical bills now have the privilege of paying for chemicals and royalties.

GMO technology was promoted by ag magazines, university extension agents and seed salesmen. Only a few of the most stubborn farmers refused to go along.

But what nobody said was that farmers were not only buying a new kind of seed, but a whole new kind of business. Because the seeds are patented, farmers have to pay royalties to the corporations that invented them. And they are supposed to pay those royalties every time a patented gene is found on their land.

This means that if Farmer A's field is pollinated by a patented crop from Farmer B's field, and the corporation finds it, Farmer A can be sued as a gene stealer. Don't believe it? Check out for the stories of farmers all over North America who are being sued for gene patent infringement even though they didn't want GMO seed in their fields.

So today, we have private detectives on the landscape, collecting plant samples from unknowing farmers. "We've done nothing wrong," said one lifelong farmer. "Let them try and find something."

Back in the days of argument and dialog, that would have been a fair statement. Today, patent holding corporations are the big bullies of the neighborhood, shaking down farmers for their lunch money.

Corporate domination of the food supply is as bad for consumers as it is for producers. GMOs are being produced with virtually no testing as to long-term effects on the environment, and we're still waiting to hear how our bodies digest the GMO corn and soy in our food. Some studies have suggested that GMOs, with their odd mix of genes from other plants, don't break down during digestion like the old soybeans and corn. Maybe they're responsible for increased allergies in kids, or cancer, or heart problems.

Which is why it's so important that we keep markets and choices alive by patronizing local independents who raise food outside of the industrial system. Those farmers question the health aspects of the new agriculture, just like you do.

Don't know any independent farmers? Go to one of your state's farmers' markets and meet them. Take a list, while you're at it, and stock up on the things you use. If you don't see things you like, ask who raises them. I've been in markets from coast to coast and, by asking around, found everything I've needed for three meals a day.

It's almost autumn and harvest will soon be over in much of our nation.

Your consumer dollars are the best way to bring argument and dialog back to our markets.

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

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