RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Local Yokels

Just the other day, a friend told me that her church group had been studying social justice issues and stumbled across the plight of rural peoples around the world. Investigating, they found out that their church organization had made lots of policy regarding sustainability and helping the local community, but none of the policy had gotten to the congregations. She asked about animal confinements and farmers losing markets. "Why don't we know about this?" she asked, "we want to help."

Praise the lord hallelujah.

It seems to me that 30 town families, spending $50 per week each for food, adequately support one farm family ... and eat well. I mean that if these town families spent their grocery money for veggies, meats, bread, honey, and eggs produced in the local community and purchased directly from local farmers, the effect would be that one more farmer could pay for seed, animals, taxes, equipment, and other expenses, stay full-time on the land and raise a family.

These same town families are keeping Wal-Mart and Kroger and fast-food places in business, and supporting agricultural practices that keep farm animals confined, topsoil eroding, agricultural chemicals like atrazine washing into waterways, child labor in poor countries, and American farmers on the brink of bankruptcies. And, these same families are limiting their own opportunities because if they want to become producers, and open bakeries or restaurants or farms of their own, they'll find they can't compete. They can't compete with the establishments that their own consumer dollars built.

And we have proof that, besides limiting markets, industrial systems are failing to deliver healthy foods. Americans are plagued with an obesity epidemic, a cancer epidemic, a diabetes epidemic, and dozens of new strains of infectious bacteria that end up resistant to antibiotics because we've created the resistance in our very own industrial CAFOs and feedlots. Every time we shop at industrial food places, we bring that misery home in our shopping bags.

But, my friend's church group wants to start buying local. "Isn't it really hard?" she asked.

My mind flashed a memory of walking through a grocery store pushing a cart in front of me. It doesn't track straight. I bump into people, say "Excuse me" a million times. The floor is hard; it hurts my legs and feet. The air smells like disinfectant. It's too cold. The loudspeaker croons a man's desperately cheerful voice: "This weekend, invite the gang for a barbecue. Don't forget the charcoal briquets and the potato salad. And check out our values in the meat department. MMMMM. And remember that the crowd always loves our apple pie ..." I feel like I'm in a bad sci-fi novel. And the checkout lines are a mile long.

Then I imagined walking up the grassy driveway of a local community-supported produce farm, or "CSA", which stands for "Community-Supported Agriculture." CSA members pay a certain fee per year and receive a share of what a farm produces. Some CSAs deliver to town, but others invite members to the farm where they can feel like pioneers in a fresh new world. I'm walking toward my friend's CSA, and the air smells like freshly-cut grass. The old farm dog waddles up to meet me, wagging its tail, its whole body, in greeting. Some of the other members pass by, carrying sacks of strawberries and flowers.

Then, I imagine approaching the farmer's market, the farm trucks lined up with their bright-colored awnings and displays; I feel the same adventure and suspense as walking to a street fair. Will Bonne Femme Farm have any eggs left? Is this the week Charlie brings his sweet corn? Will Fiddler Bee be here with the best ground beef on the planet?

Shopping local is hard work? Don't make me laugh. Compared to slogging through the grocery store, shopping local is a blast! And you'll meet the hardest-working people ever, the local family farmers working toward sustainability in our communities. And, no, they're not all old geezers. In fact, most of them are youngsters trying to pass their ideals on to their families. Some are working old family lands; some are trying to pay off loans for new places. But all of them are counting on you to be there.

There's no question that the grocery store is easier to find than the CSA or farmer's market or CSA. The grocery store is on a major intersection, and it's open all the time. There's a 20-acre paved parking lot. Taxpayers have paid for extra lanes from the road to allow cars go in and out the entrance.

The CSA is on a back road, and the first time you try to find it, you drive right past two or three times. The Farmer's Market is in a parking lot or a park --but you'll have to figure out where. It might be in a part of town you rarely visit. And, for CSAs and Farmer's Markets, the hours are limited.

But, if your goal is to buy local and re-build markets for family farmers, you'll be one of the pioneers. Some day, it will be easier.

Like any paradigm shift, you might take things slowly. Buy a few familiar items the first week, or try a little from each of several sources. And ask questions.

Where, Dear Farmer, was this grown? How far has it traveled to get to me? What variety is it? How do you eat it? How was it raised? What chemicals were used? When? Where did you get the chemicals? Are you, Dear Farmer, concerned with how you treat your land, plants, pastures, animals? Do you care about health issues? If I get a bunch of buyers together, will you deliver to my house or workplace?

At some farmer's markets, only producers are allowed to sell. They arrive with displays that answer questions, describe their processes. They have pictures of their farms, and may even welcome tours. They are proud of what they do and want you to know why their way is best.

At other farmer's markets, only local products are sold, but not always by the people who raised them. This means that a group might get together and send a truck of products, or take turns bringing products into town. A market like this is a big improvement over the grocery store, but it puts a little distance between the consumer and farmer. A neighbor might not know how things are done on someone else's place or just when crops will be coming.

Other farmer's markets allow anybody to sell anything from any place. So truckers can drive several states away and load up at warehouses. It's important to ask these sellers the same questions you'd ask farmers, because you might be paying for meat and produce that comes from the same places as the grocery stores.

To be honest, my friend's Sunday School group has an unfair advantage. In our community, a food circle publishes a directory. All the large towns around here have farmer's markets. Several independent grocery stores, health food stores, and restaurants feature local foods. As my friend will find out, it's just a matter of making a move.

For you, it might be a little harder to buy local. But, for many reasons, it's worth the effort.

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

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