RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Eating Local and Eating in Season

Regarding places in hell, there must be one for people who crush the hope of others. In this abyss will go advertisers that persuade high schoolers that you'll fit in if you wear the right sneakers, salesmen that sell get-rich-schemes to welfare moms, lenders who issue credit cards to college kids.

At the center will be the guys who've spent the last 50 years industrializing farmers. Thanks to these industry flaks, government suits and university tinkerers, the age-old hopefulness and renewal of the rural year is being replaced by year-around drudgery, debt and despair.

Don't tell me it's "Economic Development." All around my rural home, friends are going out of business. My neighbor Lewis just sold off all his hogs, sending them to slaughter and ending generations of selective breeding. He had taken a traveling job to support his farming habit, and "it just wasn't right to leave my wife with all that."

And so, another voice leaves the choir. Around here, everyone used to have hogs. The come-n-get-it--"Soo-ey!"--cries of farmers were once part of a twilight symphony, blending with the sounds of peepers, crickets, dogs and coyotes. The day after Thanksgiving, families butchered--and many still do-- "one per person and one for company" to take them through winter.

Lewis liked the diversity of his old farm--cattle, hogs, grains, hay, dogs and a lot of cats. But rural America depends on consumers, and consumers have chosen to listen to advertisers and buy at grocery stores and restaurants that only offer industrially raised foods.

Don't tell me this is "Progress." In contrast to the family farmer, who survived by raising for his family and customers in town, the industrial producers survive by exhausting the land, dumping pollution on taxpayers, and gouging consumers. The industrial giants--like ConAgra, Cargill, IBP, and others--make huge profits which they pass on to their CEOs and use to build facilities on fresh land overseas.

Our industrial food choices, from factory sausage to processed cereal to veggie burgers, put family farmers out of business. Even worse, we eaters have lost control of our own food supply. Buying at the grocery store, we have no clue where our dinner stew was harvested or even what the ingredients are. Big ships and big trucks haul food to our stores from all over. We don't even know what ripens in each season. Strawberries in January? Asparagus in November? No problem!

This consumer revolution has created a stir in some of the world, but Americans? In Business We Trust. From confined animals to genetically altered vegetables--let's eat! At least in part, our ignorance comes from our suburbanization. We raise lawns, but each census reminds us that fewer people raise food. In 1995 the number of farmers was about 2%.

And, farmers don't have good access to eaters. Like alligators in the sewers, Rural Legends flourish. One guy remembers being told, "You ought to put a Nascar race track on that hay field. Then it would do somebody good." Or, "We have grocery stores; we don't need farms." Or when USA Today asked how many farmers we really need and decided we have too many. And that, farmers think, sums up the prevailing policy.

Don't tell me the change is "Inevitable." Industrial desires move the present food system. It's supported by government policies to create jobs, which can be conveniently taxed.

We consumers play our part. We bought the system one bite at a time, and we can darn sure change it. Eating "local" and eating "in-season" puts consumers in control, increases our choices, and cuts the petroleum used to bring industry's foods to the grocery.

A couple of months ago, I attended a symposium sponsored by the Kansas City Greens and their Food Circle. All morning long, speakers reported on the depressing state of the industrial food system. Animal abuse. Social injustice. Chemical dependency.

The KC Food Circle, founded by Ben Kjelshus and the Greens, has been around a long time. So the afternoon presentations featured speaker after speaker with their success stories. Organic vegetable growers and humane animal raisers told how they worked and how their systems benefit the land and consumers.

At the end of the day, one of the audience raised his hand. "As a consumer, how do I get started?" he asked.

Today, this minute, now, make a plan to get started. Factory foods are not Economic Development, Progress or Inevitable. You can help family farmers, the environment and yourself by buying local. Here's how:

Find the nearest farmers' market. Go to it. Take your shopping list.

Buy something. Talk to the growers. Talk to the market managers. Learn the market rules because some markets allow sales of non-local foods. Find out if there are networks, food circles, delivery systems that can make it easier to buy local. If there are foods on your list that you don't see, ask the growers how to get them from a local producer.

Learn how to cook what you've purchased. Some people won't eat local foods until they taste exactly the same way as the fast food places. I am proud to say that I can now make a local-ingredients pizza that tricks most Pizza Hut palates.

Read about food issues. There are probably a hundred websites you can tap into. National Farmers Union, Families Against Rural Messes, In-Motion Magazine, to name just three. And check out the homepages of your favorite brand names. How do you feel about buying Oscar Mayer XXX XXX--all products of Phillip Morris. .

Buy more. Traditional farmers can raise meats without antibiotics and hormones. Our family-owned locker plants don't use radiation. Local farmers develop networks with community kitchens to preserve things we grow. Buy more. Buy more. Buy more. We can't rebuild the local system without your dollars!

Patronize restaurants that buy local. Those chain eateries with plastic signs cheering the local high school Tigers or congratulating Joe and Suzy on their 25th ought to have a warning label: "Eat here and put family farmers, fishermen, oceans and rain forests out of business."

Finally, and this is the advanced version of the game, learn to substitute local for industrial--like using local honey instead of processed sugar. And, learn to preserve local foods for out of season. The first year, buy a freezer. Next, a dehydrator.

But, first things first.

Find that Farmer's Market. Go to it. Buy something.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email: For information on food circles see "Food Circles Help Develop Sustainable Food System," 7/98 Progressive Populist, or contact Ben Kjelshus, coordinator of the Kansas City Food Circle, P.O. Box 30271, Kansas City, MO 64112; phone 816-444-4168; email

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