RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Report from Farm Aid

Please excuse the mess. Just got back from FarmAid last night--celebrating 15 years of raising money for family farmers, the brain child of Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp. More info on the web at, a web page in need of update because the staff is so busy actually trying to help. Beware of organizations with up-to-date web pages.

The concert is flanked by a convention, press conferences and panels: I have seven hours of audiotape to review and quote for you, but no time yet, so here are impressions:

Last things first: Sitting in John Ashcroft's D.C. office on Monday morning, waiting to talk to his agri-staffer, heard on Fox News that Alec Baldwin threatens to leave the country if George W. is elected. I'm snickering, "that's news?" to the receptionist, then realize I'm in the office of a Republican Senator when the announcer says that somebody has discovered banned biotech (aka genetically altered, GMO, transgenic, franken-) corn in taco shells at Taco Bell. The talking head said the corn had been banned because people had allergic reactions to it.

Hope we all know the full story by the time you read this, but the Qs are: Who discovered it? How did it get there? What's a "banned" biotech corn? Who banned it? When I got back with my farmer buddies, nobody knew the answers.

What made this more intriguing was the source--Fox--better known for tracking Alec Baldwin than real news. On Saturday, September 16, Farm Aid had sponsored the "Farmer's Summit on Genetic Engineering in Agriculture" and we'd heard Jane Akre, investigator with husband Steve Wilson, both formerly of Fox, tell about the lawsuit that she'd just won after the network refused to broadcast their report on BGH.

BGH, or bovine growth hormone, is given to dairy cows to increase milk yield. It's hastened the deaths of cows since the beginning, and now it's blamed for hastening sexual maturity on our own kids. Fox had buckled under pressure from Monsanto, who makes BGH.

Progressive Populist readers already know a lot about this story because it's been followed closely by A.V. Krebs, who made a very elegant introduction for Akre at the Summit. So now, maybe Fox will start to report on biotech? Let's hope Jane and Steve write a book, sell it big, and make a ton of money.

Many dairy farmers refuse to use BGH, and at the Summit we heard from Jenny Nelson, one of many Vermont farmers in attendance. Those dairy folks who don't use BGH find that they can't label their products "BGH-free," because the FDA has ruled that BGH milk is "substantially" the same as old-fashioned milk. With consumers refusing to buy milk, Jenny Nelson is afraid that nature's most-perfect food, is taking the rap for the corporations.

Rural Vermont has produced a readable booklet about BGH which you can order by calling 802-223-3504. Like other farmers at the Summit, the dairy men are tired of fighting, and tired of hearing that these modern chemicals are the only way to profit. The enemy on this one is the mega-dairy where cows are treated as parts of a giant profit-making machine.

Want to know if there's BGH in your milk? Call the milk company and ask. But here's a cruel trick: Companies have figured out that they can get themselves off the hook by writing a form letter to the mega-dairies saying they'd prefer milk to be non-BGH, but the companies never follow up. So the companies can truthfully say, "we've asked our dairymen not to use BGH." If you get that answer, find a small, local dairy that controls what goes in the bottle and buy from them.

The Farmer's Summit is Farm Aid Executive Director Carolyn Mugar's little-known spin-off of the concert and deserves more attention. It brings farmers from across the nation together to hear panels that include farmers, scientists, reporters, and activists telling their stories. Michael Sligh from RAFI talked about seed company consolidation. Mardi Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists spoke from a scientific perspective about the science of biotech and the lack of testing before new products are brought to market. Michael Hansen of the Consumer's Union talked about effects on uninformed consumers.

The word "consumer" came up again and again, and that means that we're all involved. I was reminded again and again how lucky I am to live in a place where I can buy everything I need from close neighbors who care about the land and what they grow. I thought of Holly cradling in her hands the first oakleaf lettuce of the season, saying, "Isn't it beautiful?" and DeLisa picking a patty-pan squash, saying, "It's my favorite." Does your Big Box grocer care about the veggies you eat?

Then I remember how hard my neighbors with their organic, holistic, biodynamic or sustainable farms work and how little money they bank at the end of the year. They don't want to be rich, but they want enough to pay bills and they deserve some kind of return on investments. Is that unreasonable?

Back at the Farmer's Summit: Grain farmers George and Peggy Naylor with attorney Elizabeth Cronise gave a brief explanation about their lawsuit against Monsanto. On behalf of the farmers of the world, they're uncovering how Monsanto has cajoled, co-opted and coerced farmers into planting genetically altered seeds. Learn more at website

Dan McGuire of American Corn Growers talked about the loss of foreign markets, because foreign consumers--there's that "C" word again--don't want GMOs in their foods. Bill Christison of National Family Farm Coalition talked about the farmer's extra costs of using GMOs, and Todd Leake of the Dakota Resource Council talked about the resistance of wheat farmers to planting GMO wheat.

Unfortunately, when it comes to planting decisions, farmers are often squeezed between banks that lend the money to plant and seed companies. If the salesman offers free seeds, you take them even if you worry that it will pollute your whole crop.

If you're a "limited resources farmer," the problem is even worse. Felder Freeman, of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a mostly African-American group, told us about his experiences in the southeast. He kicked off his talk by saying that, as time goes by, all farmers are falling into the "limited resources" category.

Will Allen, of the Sustainable Cotton Project, spoke on cotton farmers that have transitioned out of GE cotton, saving millions of gallons of petrochemicals per year. The petrochemicals--pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides--benefitted the companies that sold them but left farmers with no bottom line. Last year, Allen introduced organic cotton t-shirts manufactured by Patagonia bearing the "NO MO GMO" logo--Frankenstein with a corn cob through his head. I'd gotten one last year, and now, just in time for Halloween, I bought two more.

So wasn't there a concert at Farm Aid? Oh, yeah. I got to that, too, but spent most of the day with the stupendous staffers and volunteers from Missouri Rural Crisis Center selling polish sausage and bratwurst to the crowd. We all got a thrill when Neil--yes, that's THE Neil, Mr. Young--wore one of OUR "Stop Factory Farms" t-shirts through the whole set and beyond, and when the Bare Naked Ladies--they're really guys--announced that they'd strolled through the food court and found real sausages raised by real family farmers.

The performers were great, and I hope you donated a bunch of money as you watched the show on your TV. Next column, I'll try to have excerpts from the Presidential Candidate Forum. Nobody from the George W. camp showed up, by the way, which sent a clear message to the farmers, but we heard from Dems, Reformers, and Ralph Nader.

So, next column, I'll share those remarks, both the formal and Nader's "off the cuff" musings when I found him back of the media tent flanked by Al Krebs and our old friend from home Kevin Webb, all dressed up so I didn't even know him. By the way, any candidate who can take a boy out of farmland and make him wear a suit and shoes every day is worth a second look.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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