RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Know What You Eat, At Home or On the Road

Visiting California, I persuaded Holly to go with me to the Central Valley, a place that produces a whopping 50% of the fruits and veggies that come to midwestern grocery stores. It’s tomato season, and we passed truckload after truckload of tomatoes, the parade broken by occasional truckloads of garlic, both probably going to processors to become sauces. We passed miles and miles of orchards and vegetable fields, on hills that were dry as a bone. Where the irrigation stopped, the hills were brown. There’s a drought going on and there were a lot of roadside signs defending water use by the industry. Provides JOBS!

We also passed miles and miles of stinky feedlots. As far as you could see, cattle penned into lots with food and water, putting on the high-fat pounds. The temperature was in the high 80s, and there were canopies, with cattle crowding each other for places. Most of them didn’t fit, and lay in the sun, between piles of manure. I thought of the cattle on my Missouri farm, hotter, but with plenty of trees. They mostly spend all day lying in the shade, going for water early morning or late evening. These feedlot cows have no choice but to spend the day baking in the sun!

As for the manure, it was headed to the fields that fertilize organic veggies. Organic standards allow inputs from feedlots and concentrated animal feeding operations. Even when the grains that go into the animals are GMO grains, the manure is organic. So, when you buy products marked “USDA organic” in the big-box store, you can bet there’s a CAFO involved, supplying the manure, which they call “nutrients.” As you might guess, any hormones or antibiotics that go into the animal and come out the other end can pass through into the organic nutrients, although there might be some breakdown if the manure is composted. This is, by the way, the same stuff you buy when you want to feed your organic garden.

We stopped for lunch at a touristy old restaurant. It was on one of the very few exits, and it had a re-charge station for electric cars, the first I’ve ever seen. There were a bunch of Teslas lined up, getting charged while people ate.

In the restaurant, signs promoting local meats were everywhere, and since I’m a locavore, it was a perfect place for me to order a nice steak. But the steaks in the meat case were swirled with ugly white fat. I eat grain-fed at home. It wasn’t hard to continue my vegetarian on-the-road diet!

Back in Berkeley, at the farmers’ market, I saw fruits and veggies galore, some from the same fields and orchards we had passed. But other farms were selling there also, so we could ask about their size and how they raise their foods. Of course we chose to buy from the smallest growers, and those that had a diverse operation and make their own compost.

And there were homeless people, Berkeley has a lot of them, selling a newspaper produced by American Friends Service Committee. Street Spirit is written and produced by homeless people who are almost invisible in the community. You pay $1 for it and the sellers get the money, a win-win because it’s full of articles about their otherwise unpublicized community.

One article was about rural homeless, who follow the harvests in the very areas we had visited. There is no housing for them. They are raising their kids in cars. Some bosses allow them to take the kids to work, leaving them at the end of the rows while parents harvest. The older kids look after the younger ones. When the oldsters hit their 50s, they can’t work any more and the youngsters take over the work of their parents.

According to the article, some companies take Social Security payments out of the paychecks, using Social Security numbers that might be phony, stolen, or made-up. Some workers never get to collect, though, because they are undocumented.

More on the water use later … but that’s the last I’ll say about the JOBS!

But never mind the human aspects. Big Ag is all about profit for the guys with the Teslas. Big Ag has done a good job of consolidating the food system and the arguments. The truth is, however, far more complex. While tomatoes and garlic trundle to processing in California, the same produce is ripening all over the United States. Most of the states in the U.S. could be raising and processing the same crops, and we’re not in drought.

Instead, farm fields are crammed with just a few grain plants. In the lower Midwest, it’s mostly corn and soybeans. The grains are trucked to California to supply the icky feedlots and CAFOs, other big water users. In the upper Midwest, you’ll see more wheat, which at least goes to feed people.

To fight this system and open more markets for farmers, shop at your local farmers’ market, local grocery, or other source. Don’t be shy about asking farmers how they raised their crops. Food goes into your body, nourishes you every day. Eating is the most intimate act you perform.

You deserve to know.

Margot Ford McMillen farms near Fulton, Mo., and co-hosts Farm and Fiddle on sustainable ag issues on KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2016

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