RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Where Did Your Grain Come From?

While the world is going a little bit crazy over the election and inauguration of The Donald, there’s a true revolution going on in the food world. The sleeping giant of “where did this cereal come from? How was this bread made? Who made the pasta and was s/he paid fairly?” has awoken. That’s right, Midwest … chefs and eaters are finally focused on grain. And the alert corporate giants are scrambling to catch up.

After all, local yokels have had years to work on meats and veggies, and the story there is good. Farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) are thriving. Like all trends, this one is easy to see but hard to track. It’s been going on for years, very quietly. Now it’s easy to find meats and veggies raised within 100 miles of your place, even if you live in midtown.

But grain is the basis of our society and for industry the biggest financial winner.

So, the story on grains is a little trickier because, with industry’s blessing, virtually all the grain handling infrastructure has been driven out of business. That happened with the advent of GMOs and patented seeds. In 1996, when Monsanto-patented GMO soybeans first raised their heads, the critically-important grain-cleaning business went to zero. In years before GMOs, there were seed cleaners in every neighborhood and traveling seed cleaners that went from farm to farm. Their machines would send grains through screens and strains out the weed seeds, so the farmer can plant the saved ones the next year.

But it’s illegal to save GMO seeds. They’re patented and unique. And then, in 2001, the Supreme Court with Clarence Thomas, former Monsanto attorney, in J.E.M. Ag Supply, Inc. v. Pioneer Hi-Bred International ruled that ANY seed can be patented, whether it’s GMO or not. Is it wrong for Thomas to rule on Monsanto cases? Check the Monsanto website for the answer to that one.

Now, consumers and chefs are getting a clue: The system’s rigged in favor of the monoliths.

Farmers adapted to the patented seeds rule as long as USDA subsidizes seed and chemicals. Nowadays, they’re beginning to worry because seed and chemical prices are going up at just the time that we’re in international competition with growers from less-abused land. Maybe, the farmers are asking, we made a bad deal.

One thing’s for sure: With the end of seed cleaners, there was no way for small mills to get pure grain to mill to make flour. And along with them went a whole slew of food traditions. There was no more malting to make malted flours or beer, and no more rolling machines to make rolled oats for oatmeal. So, little by little, markets for barley and oats disappeared.

Wheat growers—and the US still grows a lot of wheat—were reduced to shipping their product to the giant mills of General Mills and Pillsbury. Our imports of wheat end-products, especially pasta, are creeping steadily up.

Now I know as well as you that most of the mills, malters and rollers had disappeared with the first wave of industrialization, back in the 1950s and 1960s. Home bakers had adopted cake mixes and refrigerated biscuit dough. But, today, rebellion! The young chefs and consumers want to know more!

Consumers are asking where their food comes from and the story isn’t good. The U.S.D.A. has put most of their subsidy dollars into only two crops: Corn and soybeans. Check out for the big winners in your county. And of course they’ve subsidized ethanol plants to consume corn, concentrated animal feeding operations to consume soybeans. Those facilities benefit from subsidies for building the factories, making the products, exporting and even selling them to consumers. In some states, the hunger for federal subsidies has created networks to get facilities approved in spite of obvious environmental dangers. The Clean Water Commissions and other federal watchdogs have become rubber stampers for industry.

Meanwhile our little local food movement is plodding along, one baby step in front of the other, despite administration changes and unfriendly state governments. Young bakers and pizza makers are building their own mills and demanding tasty, clean grain to grind up. Young brewers are learning how to malt ... first on a basement-vat level and next on a large scale. At a local farmers’ market here in mid-MO there are two pasta makers on any given Saturday morning, vying for your locavore business.

Where does their wheat come from? Well, here in the heartland we have a lot of rain so we probably won’t be raising durum, the type of dryland wheat needed for pasta. That might work in Montana or Colorado. But here comes a gluten-free pasta maker, using rice and corn flour! Those, the Midwest can raise!

So, okay, you’re sick and tired of hearing about the Donald and what we’re going to lose. Start working, dear eater, on something we can fix! Ask where your dinner’s coming from and support your local farmer!

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, February 15, 2017

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