RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

The Smell of Someone Else’s Money

It was the typo that did me in. I had spent a Sunday in bed, reading. Enjoying a pile of New York publications, picking them up from the left, dropping them, finished, in a pile on the right.

The magazines and newspapers were crammed with articles about Donald Trump. Here are some of the words that writers use to describe him: Acela Corridor billionaire (tackier than most), alien, crony capitalist, deeply weird, hyperbolic, jeering, misogynist, narcissist, rich, self-absorbed, well-connected, wheeler-dealer, xenophobic.

Some words that are never used are caring, careful, thorough, thoughtful. And those are the words we want for the person that inherits the mess of a planet we’ve built.

So, it was in that frame of mind that I came across a typo. In the New York Times book review. In an excerpt advertisement on page 3—an ad that cost thousands. In paragraph one, sentence four of a heavily promoted book. How many eyes had reviewed it?

The author had written it. His agent, editors, publicists, publishers had read it. The ad agency had reviewed it, and how did it get by all those eyes? It felt like the Universe was Speaking. Like Acela Corridor billionaire Donald Trump, in his haste to get the helicopter to Iowa, let the typo go into print. The Universe said: Elect this guy for a future of unintended consequences from East Coast Money.

Almost as stinky as the political jokesters, the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) a couple of miles from my house has been venting. One day, it’s hydrogen sulfide mixed with ammonia from the manure pit. The next day, the air wafts a combination from the crematorium—sort of a charred hair, charred bone smell. My yard smells like Iowa, the state Donald Trump is courting. And, yet, even in Iowa, industry’s effect on families and communities, the pollution and the profiteering, is never mentioned by these Presidential wannabes.

To Wall Street, the reek is the smell of money. In a CAFO, where hogs are raised on metal floors with slats, the manure drops or is pumped into a pit. It sits around for months at a time, the pits open. But, on Wall Street, the poo is converted to stockholder gains and rural America is ignored.

And the job of hog-house janitor is dangerous. In August, the Des Moines Register reported that a father and son farm team, so devoted to each other that they were “like glue” died in an Iowa hog manure pit, trying to retrieve a piece of equipment from the goo. They were overcome by the gasses. Less than a month earlier, another father and son had died in a Wisconsin hog manure pit while trying to retrieve a broken wheel. Industry experts say the men should have been wearing oxygen masks.

That wouldn’t have helped the two workers killed in June. In a Minnesota CAFO, they died in a fire in an empty hog CAFO. The pit had developed a gaseous foam and they were trying to power wash away. Somehow, that action created an explosion. Last year, the same thing happened in a CAFO in Iowa and burned a past president of the Iowa Pork Producers Association.

The CAFO owner in our neighborhood used to sell to Cargill, formerly #4 corporate hog butcher. Cargill was recently purchased by a Brazilian company, JBS, for $1.45 billion, moving JBS into the #2 butcher position. The Department of Justice should analyze this purchase carefully, especially as it follows the September 2013 sale of Smithfield (#1 hog butcher) to a Chinese-owned corporation.

As the world’s largest hog farmer and processor, Smithfield’s brand names include Smithfield, Eckrich, Farmland, Armour, John Morrell, Kretschmar, Curly’s, Carando, Cook’s, Margherita, Gwaltney, and Healthy Ones. Consolidation of all these brands by one corporation hasn’t resulted in better prices for consumers. In fact, from 1985-2013, the retail price of pork has increased 113% from $1.71 to $3.64. At the same time, a farmer’s take has decreased 39%, from 49 cents to 30 cents.

The Cargill-JBS merger may make money on Wall Street but beware the unintended consequences. Just before the August break, US Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, sent a letter of protest, and several rural advocates have joined the chorus. “Continued mergers and acquisitions in an already consolidated pork industry could reduce competition.”

That’s an understatement, Senator, and this is a problem that won’t solve itself. The food industry needs new policy makers. I mean, wouldn’t you think, with the unpleasantness of working in a hog barn, and the danger, and the dwindling chance to make a profit, that guys would stop signing with these profit-grabbing corporations?

You might think that, but you’d be wrong.

The farm economy what it is, and always has been, farmers are always looking for a way to pay bills. Unlike wage earners that put in their 40 hours and collect a check, farmers need to borrow for the equipment they need, borrow to buy land, and then, if their business plan doesn’t work out, they look around.

That, for Wall Street, is an opportunity. And, for rural America, unintended consequences.

Margot Ford McMillen farms near Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2015

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