RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Life in Hell

If I go to Hell I know how I'll spend eternity. While Sisyphus rolls his rock uphill and the Devil sends Bill Gates back to fix Windows 2000, I'll be sitting on a living room couch with four friends watching Don Rickles on Johnny Carson.

I remember it vividly -- the grey TV curtain behind the grey TV bald man, the grey audience almost palpable in front of him. I'd just finished college, so it must have been 1971, and he's hurling insults, and I'm thinking, "Why is this funny?" and then it seems the audience agrees with me, and nobody laughs.

"What are you -- a bunch of farmers?" Rickles hurls, and the crowd breaks up.

And now, on the couch, four real, human faces turn to me, saying, "What does he mean?" and here's the thing that gets me to Hell -- I shrug.

"I don't know," I say, not even trying to figure it out.

Out of the group in the living room, I was the only one who could sleep later than 4 a.m. the next morning. Rich had to get up to milk 60 cows, Mary Ann had to make him breakfast, then help with the milking, then get two kids up for school. Vern and Terrie would feed their hogs, then harvest soybeans -- Vern driving the combine and Terrie trailing him with the truck. These farmers worked dawn to dusk, and then they listened to the insults of TV comics.

Farmer-bashing is part of our culture. Comic strips, from Garfield to Far Side and TV shows from Petticoat Junction to -- oops, there are no current TV shows set in rural America -- exploit farmers. While it's politically incorrect to make fun of "Polacks" or "little morons," farmers are fair game.

Every farmer has a horror story to tell. Rhonda Perry, chic and good-looking whether she's exiting a New York cab or slopping hogs on her Missouri farm, once flew to the city with a co-worker to receive The Harry Chapin Award for humanitarian work with Missouri farmers.

Seated at a table with real New Yorkers, the Missourians convinced the city slickers that farmers had brains. Then Rhonda accepted the award and said a few words.

Rhonda has no trouble expressing herself, and she tells it like it is. She gave a kick-butt speech. But, when she returned to the table, the New Yorkers accused her of being an imposter -- no farmer could speak as well as she did, they declared.

Another farming friend remembers talking to a consumer group and hearing, "Why do we need farmers when we have grocery stores?" Apparently, the asker thought that grocery stores manufacture food in the back room, using who-knows-what as a raw material. To give the asker credit, much grocery store food is tasteless as plastic and might as well be extruded from industrial paste. So, what are farmers for?

For a couple of years, I took baby pigs to St. Louis to celebrate Earth Day. This was always an eye-opening experience for both me and the pig. Barnyard piggies are real clowns, and people lovers. They accepted friendly pokes and pats, snuffled happily in the grass, touched noses with dogs and napped when the sun was high.

People wanted pictures of themselves, their dogs or their children with the little squealers. They considered the pig a rare breed. "What kind of dog is that?" one man asked, a question that gave me the shudders. A girl, tattooed and pierced and scary-looking, pleaded with me to sell her the pig, to save it from its eventual end as bacon. She was sure she could keep it in her apartment. I had a hard time convincing her that the 25-pound sweetie would weigh 250 pounds by October.

Urbanites love their green space, but they don't use it to raise pigs, even chickens. This puts them at a disadvantage in understanding food. One of the most laughable trees every invented -- the Bradford Pear -- is rampant on urban lawns. It does everything a real pear tree does except produce fruit. It blooms, grows into a nice shape, turns a pretty autumn color, with none of the mess or labor required of a real pear tree. Imagine that!

So we learn that, even within a hundred miles, America is a whole bunch of nations, each operating without much understanding of the others. We need an exchange program, so that every year for a week or two, we'd live in each other's houses, pay each other's bills, appreciate each other's ways.

Thanksgiving, a holiday remembering the first time Europeans feasted on new-world foods, is an opportunity to reflect that we're all -- farmers and eaters -- in this together. Whether you believe Thanksgiving celebrates historic friendship or historic exploitation, it's all about food. At my house, we name and call to mind the farmers that raised each item on the table. Bless them.

Other countries are more aware of their food heritage. A local-foods meal in Milan or Rio is worth the trouble it takes to get there. Experienced travelers remember forever, and tell us interminably, about the fabulous meal they found in a tiny place mid-nowhere. That, folks, is good eating, and we've lost it.

Many countries defend their food heritage, and as a result they have food cultures worth defending. When French farmer José Bové drove a bulldozer into a McDonald's to protest Fast-Fooding, ten thousand eaters came to his trial in support.

Such a protest would never happen here. With hamburger stands on every street corner, we've come to a time, in our deeply consumer culture, where food is plentiful but farmers are inconsequential.

This is changing. Food processing and industrialization have finally gone too far, and American consumers are waking up. The huge jump in vegetarianism -- an effort by consumers to take control of their food supply -- is proof that people are struggling with the puzzle.

Vegetarians get full credit for effort, but they haven't discovered the answer. Today, virtually all grocery store veggies come from outside the US, from places where banned chemicals like DDT are used without safeguards and labor is treated like slaves. Even foods raised in the US may have ingredients banned from human consumption. Corporations have no idea how the indigestible StarLink, a biotech franken-corn unfit for humans, appeared in fast-food and grocery store taco shells.

C.E.O.s at processors like Philip Morris, Con Agra, General Mills and others have proven that what they want in raw ingredients is low cost. Dose animals with unhealthy chemicals, mutate veggies artificially through genetic engineering, ship everything from slave-labor fields, radiate it all -- just keep the profits in the 30% range. And, the government complies. Until the very end of the Y2K Presidential campaigns, national politicians didn't mention farm policy. Finally, Ralph Nader, who isn't afraid of the F-word, forced the issue into the Gore campaign.

Nader also forced Campaign Finance Reform onto the table, a reform that would get industry out of politics. Again, this is a food issue. Industry makes regulatory agencies into a joke: In the last year, we've seen new "regulatory standards" that force inspectors to pass meat laden with tumors and allow fresh meat to be injected with saline solution. Industry says: To make the unhealthy palatable, add salt, sugar, MSG.

Finally, consumers are striking back. Greenpeace has published the True Food Shopping List, a brand-names list of products made with genetically-altered ingredients. Find it at or call 1-800-219-9260. Taking the worst brands off your shopping list is a step in the right direction.

If you eat at restaurants rather than your own kitchen, a new group called Chefs Collaborative has chapters in several states. They're working on lists of restaurants that buy locally and agree to principles like "Good, safe, wholesome food is a basic human right," and "Good food begins with unpolluted air, land and water, environmentally sustainable farming and fishing, and humane animal husbandry." On the net at

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

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