RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Don’t Write Off Detroit

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with the New York media. I love the poetry cartoons in The New Yorker, and the short bits called “Readings” from Harper’s. It’s comforting to know that the Wall Street Journal can maintain its confidence in the bankers and traders and that the New York Times still thinks US fashion and Broadway shows are important.

So I’m sorry the media is having financial troubles. But, even while I’m snuggling up to the glossies and the newsprint, or dozing off in front of Thirty Rock or another corporate TV show, it feels like I’m just consuming another version of The Onion, but with more advertising and more corporate ropes tying it down. Amusing, yes, breezy and fun, but nothing you’ll carry to the next day. Certainly not like this read, the one you’re consuming now, with real content to nourish your mind.

Maybe it’s the attitude toward food. The coastal writers seem to be eating well enough, and in mid-February all the corporate news outlets reported that snow storms had closed schools, leaving kids without their school meals. Leaving them, that is, to starve. “The two snowstorms . . . deprived tens of thousands of children from Virginia to Pennsylvania of the free or reduced-price school lunch that may be their only nutritious meal of the day. The nonprofits that try to meet the need when school is not in session also closed their doors for much of the week . . .” the news stories agreed.

Or maybe it’s the attitude toward farming. Sure, the media all reported the suicide of Dean Pierson, dairy farmer in Copake, New York. But have any of them followed up, even to find out what’s going on with today’s dairy? Have they reported on how many dairy farmers and for how long have been living on credit cards and donations from relatives? It turns out, if you look into it, that we’re losing dairies at an unprecedented rate.

Some of the blame for the farm bankruptcies should fall on changing tastes—the clever nutritionists that run the corporate kitchens have learned to make milk-like products that contain no milk. Modern “shakes” may be blended from oils and flours with coloring and flavoring. Cheeses may be made from powdered “milk protein concentrate” and flavorings and color.

Then there are the factory farms that pack thousands of cows on pastures that once supported merely tens of the beasts. Every industry that has been concentrated in this way — eggs, poultry, hogs — has left a wake of broke farmers. Then, when farmers go under, their kids leave the farm. Duh. And consumers end up with corporate food, high-calorie, low-nutrient mixes extruded into microwaveable trays.

Folks, we’re in a crisis, and the coastal media, God bless ‘em, could do much to repair the culture of ignorance that has disconnected consumers from food and farming. Instead of the snide and largely uninformed references about agriculture, the subsidies and environmental degradation, they could actually celebrate the few remaining farmers that do stuff right.

Or, when they stumble on city or suburban families tending a vegetable garden or raising a flock of hens, they could give those folks a pat on the back.

Instead, taking an example from the March Harper’s, a magazine I will truly mourn when it goes away, the literati ignores the achievement of a fellow who has created, from the urban cinders, a garden. In a eulogy titled “Nobody’s Detroit,” the poet Philip Levine mourns that his childhood Detroit is gone. He quotes Giuseppe Ungaretti writing about Alexandria, “My city destroys and annihilates itself from instant to instant.”

I like Levine enormously and, yes, I realize he’s writing more about his own childhood than about a city, but would it kill him to give credit to the folks transforming rusty old Detroit to a self-sufficient food provider for its remaining residents? Dropped off by a bus with hours to kill, Levine finds everything is changed. The old factories are gone, leaving fields of nettles, weeds and abandoned cars. Then he stumbles across a garden brilliant with tomatoes, corn, squash and zinnias, and he meets the gardener, Tom, a retired autoworker.

Instead of seeing Tom’s garden as a triumph of survival, Levine waxes nostalgic about the missing houses on the block, the illegal chickens, and the shacks. He imagines that they’re all on a “great ship sailing us all back into the 16th century . . .”

What’s missing, I guess, is the “gee whiz” factor. How to get the media’s attention? Make it cool, even if it’s unsustainable. Replace the old guy with a well-groomed technologist in a Pierre Cardin lab coat, analyzing the fields with a cool new computer program. Then, replace the old guy’s shovel with a GPS-directed robot tractor, and his garden with a monoculture raising corn destined for the ethanol industry.

Then you’ll have your story.

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

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2010

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