RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

USDA: Treat Farmers Like They Matter

Everyone is writing open letters to the president. The first I saw was Michael Pollan’s letter in the New York Times Magazine. He suggested that the President plow up part of the White House lawn and put in a vegetable garden for the neighborhood. Great idea!

Pollan’s open letter to the president was followed by letters from Alice Walker, Ralph Nader and nearly everybody else. If you haven’t written yours yet, better get started.

I’m not going to write the president. Instead, I’ll write the future Secretary of Agriculture who has truly the most important office in the land. Nobody has paid much attention to this post, but with a budget of over $94 billion you’d think the Department of Agriculture would make the radar screen. But nobody notices. There was one website where you could vote for your pick, but the vote’s over now. Like most sane people, I voted for Jim Hightower, although if he won I would have missed his column in The Progressive Populist.

The Department of Agriculture decides food policy for America. And food policy for America decides food policy for the whole world. Who eats. Who doesn’t. Because our food system depends on imports from other continents. That’s how bananas and chocolate get into school lunches. Also processed cheese, tomatoes and beef.

If you think we raise all our own cheese, tomatoes and beef, check it out on the USDA website. We import increasing amounts of food from other continents and raise less. With tomatoes raised in every state, you’d think we could eat our own. But, no. We import more and more, and not only from North America. We’re importing tomatoes from the Netherlands and Belgium.

When we eat those things from other continents, it means that those farmers are growing for the United States, not themselves and their own kids.

But my letter isn’t about that.

Dear Mr. Secretary:

If you’re ever in a cabinet meeting and other Secretaries start talking about the financial services mess, please point out that there are lessons to be learned from rural America. And, because people with problems have the solutions, you guys could listen to us instead of the financial geniuses that have gotten America into this poor condition.

We have been neglected and marginalized for decades, and some of us are still hanging on. The way we make it is by working two or three jobs, learning how to fix our own vehicles and homes, and doing our best to throw work to each other and keep money in the community. We eat well because we trade apples for pears and labor for a side of beef. Small farmers are by instinct sustainable farmers, locating inputs like fertilizer from nearby and minimizing our trips to town.

We have gone to Washington, D.C., many times to ask for help and, while USDA hacks have listened, they don’t work for us. It’s as if we don’t matter. While we’re very impressed by the neatness of the gardens in the capital, and the beautiful gilded moldings in the buildings, we wonder if you ever think about us and the taxes we pay. And we wonder if you ever think that you might owe us something.

Because, while we know that the shagginess of our own property makes it look like we don’t care about appearances, we’re very proud of our place in the American fabric, and we’d like you to defend us against the corporate interests. They refuse to obey the laws, like the ban on packers owning livestock or the ban on packers hiring illegal immigrants. As one of his last presidential acts, George Bush exempted their giant Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) from following the Clean Water Act. That’s the water we need for the future and there’s no excuse for ruining it. The Department of Agriculture could help.

Some of our neighbors have signed on to corporate schemes, like building CAFOs or ethanol plants. They think these big operations will align them more closely to industry but then they figure out that the schemes really only benefit industry, and not rural America. The contracts put the risk on farmers while corporations make the profit. That’s good for the stockholders, but not farmers. The USDA could help.

These corporations have been consolidating for years. In every sector, there are only two or three corporations operating. Tyson. IBP. ConAgra. Contrast that to the number of financial firms that we thought were Too Big To Fail. When the food companies start to tumble, people will starve.

Now, the food corporations are so big, in fact, and their voices so loud that consumers rarely understand what they are eating. Consumers are so deafened that they make lousy decisions based on what advertisers tell them. Think of the price we pay for poor nutrition. School kids too obese to play, and too tired to learn. Adults dealing with diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure. The Department of Agriculture could help.

So, dear Secretary, with the most important job in the world, you can help. Treat us like we matter, and we’ll try to help you out of this mess.

Best wishes in this cheerless time,

Margot McMillen,
farmer and fan.

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

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2008

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