RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Why Local Crops Matter

Here in mid-Missouri, our industrial farmers grow one grain that feeds humans. It’s called “soft” wheat. It’s used for cookies, muffins, cakes, pie crusts, crackers and lots of other crumbly products. The large farms also produce oodles of corn and soybeans for ethanol and biodiesel, and animal feed for confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). In an emergency, those corn and bean crops could be processed for humans, but they aren’t raised for our uses or safety. So, what if there’s a crop failure in the one locally-raised grain we consume?

This year, we’ll have a chance to find out. Missouri wheat is nearly 100% unusable. The heavy rains, which came at bloom time for the wheat, caused it to develop fungi and their companion toxins. Vomitoxin is the primary culprit. The FDA says it’s safe to consume 2 parts per million. The wheat has been coming in at 4-8%. And this toxin can’t be cleaned out. The cleaner I talked to said he has a 50% chance of getting rid of 50% of it. Not very good odds.

And Missouri is not alone. Wheat from Kansas, Illinois and Iowa have also been affected. Early in the season, the terminals that buy wheat from farmers were taking it at a drastically reduced price—about one-third of normal. But now I’m hearing from neighbors that their wheat is being rejected.

And we have no local alternatives. In other words, if we depend on grains from local sources, we are facing at least a year without. This is what happens when decades of industrially processed foods have developed a narrow band of what is raised. And when it’s raised in large monocultures dependent on huge machinery for planting and harvest. The wheat has been developed to fit the mechanical system, rather than fitting what humans need. Today’s wheat is all planted at one time and killed with a glyphosate spray just before the combines come through on their move from Texas and Oklahoma up to North Dakota and Montana. To fit the mechanical system, it was hybridized to be shorter than wheats of the past, so that giant combines can reap it easily.

So, where will Nabisco and the other giants get the flour they need for their products? It’s anyone’s guess. Soft wheat is raised in a lot of places and can be imported. But the failure points out a weakness in the industrial system which depends on one kind of grain for a multitude of products. Agriculture that raises a variety of grains for humans—wheat, milo, quinoa, teff, rice, buckwheat—would be a better plan.

Industry’s recipes are increasingly clever at pandering to what we crave, and we don’t ask whether it’s good for us, good for the environment, or where they come from. For example, the flavoring industry makes us believe that crackers with garlic or onion flavorings are the same as crackers made with garlic or onions. The crunch per square inch is calculated to exactly satisfy our love of crunchiness.

And, as we assume that food can be shipped to us when we need it, there are increasingly few places where grain is stored for emergencies. While we can quibble over whether soda and cookies are really food, we can agree that a shopping center isn’t really a food storage facility. When there’s a weather “event” such as a snow storm, grocery stores run out in a few days.

Bread disappears first, vanishing in hours. Then milk, water, meats and dairy products are gone. In New York City, in last January’s storm, there was a run on kale! By the time roads are cleared and supply trucks roll, shelves are vacant.

Transportation is the key. Most grocery store foods come from a couple of thousand miles away. In 2005, Rich Pirog, at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, found that the milk, sugar and strawberries in a carton of strawberry yogurt collectively journeyed 2,211 miles to the processing plant. After that, they go by truck to the warehouse to the retailer. A few years earlier, Pirog’s team analyzed the transport of 28 fruits and vegetables to Iowa and estimated the journey of produce in the industrial system traveled an average of 1,518 miles.

Whether you’re following the trail of a box of cake mix or a banana, you’ll see it moving over land, sea or air from producer to buying terminal for storage, then by truck to a distribution center, then by another truck to a retailer. The retailer is the only one with the facility you can point to in your neighborhood.

And, compared to the past when there were dozens of regional suppliers, industry’s foods come from a disturbingly small number of giant processors. Destruction of the banking system is nothing when compared to destruction of the too-big-to-fail food processors.

We all hope the weather pattern of 2015 is an isolated event. Maybe, just maybe, it’s a chance for farmers, processors, and even consumers to build diversity into the system.

Margot Ford McMillen farms near Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2015

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