RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Rural People Fight for Rights in 2011

One year ago, I started a blog at, thinking I could cover the struggle of rural peoples to hang on to their lands and their cultures. I never guessed that 2011 would be the most robust year for activists in 25 years. That year, 1986, farm foreclosures reached an intolerable level, and a group of farmers in Chillicothe, Mo., took over the USDA parking lot and demanded change. And got it.

In 2011, protests were back and everyone was included.

In Tunisia, the outrage began. Two weeks before New Year’s Eve, a street vendor set himself on fire on Dec. 17, 2010. Mohammed Bouazizi was trying to support a family by buying produce on credit and selling it, but the game was rigged — rows of booths selling the same bananas and oranges. To compete for customers, sellers had to offer the lowest price — a race to the bottom. Only the lenders made money. The Mideast was quickly inflamed with protests by youngsters that recognized Bouazizi’s story.

With protests in Egypt dominating the news, in Washington, D.C., Farmland pushed through approval of GMO alfalfa over the objections of 200,000 consumers, farmers and even the Supreme Court. Kathleen Merrigan, the deputy secretary of the USDA who was conducting the hearing, allowed approval because Farmland, a part of Purina, testified thousands of bushels of GMO seed was stored in warehouses, unplanted. If it was illegal, Kathleen, it should have been destroyed. Alfalfa, compressed into those pellets that folks give hamsters and feed to cattle, is America’s biggest agricultural export and GMOs are unwelcome in much of the world. “No problem,” the US attitude seems to say, “we’ll force approval from other governments when we need it.” A coalition of farm organizations is suing.

On March 12, farmers drove their tractors to the capitol at Madison, bringing attention to the desperation in America’s Dairyland where costs have been higher than income since at least 2008.

Most dairy farmers have one market — the multinational one. They have to send their milk to processors and accept a price set by corporations.

The milk processors also import MPCs — milk protein concentrate — which is dry and easy to ship, from all over the world. If the farmers could sell raw milk, which a lot of consumers want, the public could buy directly from farmers and help out. But selling raw milk is illegal most places.

Japan. On March 11, an earthquake and tsunami destroyed a complex of nuclear plants. For days, the government insisted that radioactivity had not escaped and that food from the area — crops and ocean fish — was safe. Nine months later, we learned that the ocean took a hit of radioactive water, leaked right through the massive concrete walls. Who’d a thought? Well, to be honest, everyone but the industry’s engineers.

Meanwhile, back in the grain belt, a different kind of mass ecological change was happening.

To plant corn and take advantage of predicted high prices, farmers ripped up trees, pushed dirt into ponds, tore out fences and plowed every piece of land that was anything like level. Why the high prices? Ethanol. We feed as much corn to vehicles as we feed to cattle or ourselves. But converting pastures to corn fields means the end of pastures and the end of cattle. For American consumers, more imported beef.

Vancouver and Berkeley. In early June, Adbusters founder Kalle Lasn and editor Micah White, wondered how to inspire Americans to get involved.

On June 9, Lasn registered as a domain name. By Sept. 17, the movement was a force in New York and a month later it had captured the attention of the 99% in most major cities. In Chicago, a trader posted a sign in a Board of Trade window: We are the 1%.

Back in Washington, on Oct. 21, Obama found another way to inspire protests by signing three new trade agreements — Korea, Colombia, Panama. Farmers in the trading countries are the losers; cheap foods will be dumped on their markets, ruining their chances to sell their own products in their own country. When they go out of business, and emigrate to new places, we hope they get a warmer welcome than the US gives Mexican farmers after we’ve destroyed them in their own land. As of this writing, Korean farmers are still protesting.

In November, environmentalist Bill McKibben’s protest against the proposed pipeline through fragile land drew enough attention to bring thousands of people to D.C. With the Chamber of Commerce and the Koch Brothers in opposition, the protestors circled the White House. A win? Time will tell.

The media covered the Tar Sands protest, but more dramatic reports were coming from the Occupiers as police cleaned out the encampments. The violence made Americans even more sympathetic to the Occupiers. In December, 300 supporters of OWS marched in Brooklyn and liberated a foreclosed home for a family. Bloomberg reported, “Similar demonstrations were scheduled at more than 20 American cities as the Occupy movement turned its attention to the U.S. housing crisis.”

Maybe the best part about 2011 is the reawakening of the media. Reporters tagged along with OWS as they marched through Brooklyn, after years of ignoring the effects of foreclosures on families. Next big story? Dare we hope for policy change?

Margot McMillen farms and teaches English in Fulton, Mo. You can email her at See

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2012

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