RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Stop Subsidizing Big Ag

As I mentioned in the last column, mid-Missouri is ripe for plunder by giant agriculture industries that want to harvest fresh water and clean air, then ship the resources off to faraway places. The water and air, by the time it gets to the airport, leaves in the form of pork chops and boneless chicken, while we keep the pollution.

In fact, according to the industry, the pollution is one of the benefits of their Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) system. Needing places to spread it, they offer farmers FREE FERTILIZER. Never mind that it’s loaded with (1) liability if it runs off into nearby public waters and (2) chemicals that the corporations have invented to raise hogs—antibiotics, hormones, heavy metals and (3) bacteria and viruses that turn out to be antibiotic resistant.

Don’t blame the farmers that take the FREE FERTILIZER, though. They’re in debt, remember, paying off the land they bought from a broke neighbor and, oh yeah, the latest GPS-monitored John Deere or Ford combine. And, oh yeah, the fuel, herbicide and pesticide bills ... and the banks.

An unthoughtful person would jump to immediate blame — it’s the banks! The chemical companies! The government policies! The university ag schools that teach kids there’s only one system, and it’s modern! In truth, however, the answer is all of the above, plus our culture of cheap food, convenience and plenty of it.

Enjoying the last few years of cool weather and good rain, mid-Missouri has had some high-yield years. Much of the US is in a drought. Grain prices are climbing while we’re enjoying record yields. The global climate change scientists disagree on what the future looks like, climate-wise, but some models show the Midwest benefiting from disruption in other areas. California visitors are shocked that our pastures are still green in August. Truthfully, I’m shocked also.

For the long run, however, we’re not making policy that keeps resources in our hands—the hands of citizens. Rain, chemicals and hog manure can bring temporary prosperity even if the soil is ruined. The lessons of banana republics—that soil becomes poisoned and that home folks lose control of their land and cannot take care of themselves—are the lessons Americans never learned. We have, after all, always been the conqueror and not the conquered.

Buying the story that transnational corporations create jobs in the nations they colonize, lawmakers are working to change laws that have protected family farms. Water and air regulations have tumbled and benefits for conservation have disappeared. Now, here in Missouri, there’s no need for a corporation to obtain a building permit from the Department of Natural Resources to build a Confined Animal Feeding Operation. They build it, it’s standing, then they obtain an operating permit. After a couple of months of public comments, and by this time the neighbors might have given up, here come the hogs. Last week, three more CAFOs were approved in the state.

The saddest part of this struggle is that Missouri is unusual in the number of independent family farms here — second most of any state in the union.

Just ten years ago, the number of independent family farms in Missouri was growing, and by “independent” I mean the farms that are managed by individuals making decisions about cropping and sales on their own, not dictated by corporations. The number was growing thanks to renewed interest in local foods. The number fell between 2007 and 2012, the last two agriculture censuses. Fluctuations should probably be expected and I look forward to seeing the next numbers, after the 2017 census.

But let’s look beyond my mid-Missouri neighborhood. The current push for industrialization could mean the end of independent farming in America, one of the few nations of the world where farmers can own their land and make their own decisions. On one continent after another, corporate control of the food system has stolen land from local people. Bananas, cane sugar, coconuts, coffee, chocolate — the system has starved and impoverished people as they have lost their land to plantations owned by multinational corporations.

Bottom line, we need to change USDA and national policy that rush to export food to other continents. US policies give financial rewards to farmers that want to export — and, according to, the landowners that want to build the CAFO in my neighborhood get more subsidies than any other landowners in the county. We’re talking millions over the last decade. The other big winners are the guys who sell chemicals!

For the complete list of winners in your neighborhood, look at and note that the payments may be much higher, since not every branch reports to

In addition, if the CAFO is built, the family will get loans guaranteed by taxpayers, so that if they default we’ll end up with the clean-up, the abandoned buildings and the polluted land.

These are the policies that need to change.

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

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2014

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