RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Weariness at Summer's End

The end of summer brings an inevitable exhaustion to all my farmer neighbors. I don't know why this is -- the dwindling light? The adjustment to taking kids back to school? Or, maybe it has something to do with harvest. All the grasses and flowers are going to seed, the land seems finished and we are, too. Whatever the reason for the fatigue, everyone I see talks about quitting.

One thing seems certain: This exhaustion has nothing to do with the current political situation and the War In Iraq. Yet our attention, through the media, is focused on War, War, War, taking just a bit of time off to hear the pundits launch gossip-column style personal attacks.

So we have to educate ourselves on the issues-health care, education, government waste, appointment of Supreme Court judges and, yes, income and relief for family farmers.

It's been a good year, weather-wise, cooler than usual and a little wetter. Long days in the fields have been more tolerable, water bills have been lower, but the fatigue runs so deep. "Even if I could clear a thousand a day," one fellow told me, "it wouldn't be worth it." To this guy, father of four school-aged kids, that's a stretch.

For consumers, the loss of family farmers in our neighborhood would mean that we'd have to go farther away for our food. Our growing fields would be, rather than here in mid-Missouri, somewhere in South America or China. And that means that, rather than becoming less dependent on oil, we'd be more dependent.

Bottom line: If we're going to get away from this cycle, we need to make things better for our neighbors who grow food. Not the big-winner guys who raise commodities to sell to the big processors like Cargill, Con-Agra and Philip Morris. Those guys deplete the land and water, then get plenty of government subsidy. Check it out on

I'm talking about the farmers who pursue sustainability. That means enough food for everyone in every neighborhood forever. Improved land condition, clean water. We need to pay those guys enough to allow them to hire help and make the hard labor worthwhile. Or we're gonna lose them.

The USDA says that the number of farmers' markets has gone up 63% in the last 10 years, a sign that younger farmers recognize the value of raising fresh foods for local markets. Last week, I visited New York City, where the fuel shortage of the 1970s resulted in the founding of 31 Greenmarkets in all neighborhoods. I had only a vague map of the city in my head, a shapeless map with a few names I had heard -- Central Park, Greenwich Village, Harlem, the UN, Ground Zero -- but after seeing the place, recognizing that there are only a few bridges to and from this metropolitan island, I realized how fragile their food system is and how important are the farm trucks that roll in from New York State, New Jersey, Pennsylvania.

That fragility can serve as a metaphor for the entire nation. Food is flown in, trucked in, bearing the appearance of freshness and ripeness and sold at the big-box stores. Through the magic of chemical treatments, fresh items may be weeks old, but they bear the appearance of freshness. The processing, packaging, transportation and marketing, including the TV ads, pump up the energy use and cost of food by 75% to 85%. All the waste, of course, stays around in our landfill, but little of that money stays in our communities, or even our nation. In contrast, when we buy local, all the money is re-spent by the growers, reinvested in our local businesses and governments.

Since the 1970s, many politicians have taken shots at the corporate growers who have taken over our food supply. At the same time, the markets have really consolidated, especially during the Clinton and Bush years. Today, just a few huge corporations control all the choice for consumers in the largest chains, most notably Wal-Mart.

And if you believe that shopping at those chains will save you money, do some research. I took my list to Wal-Mart and found that many fresh foods cost twice as much at Wal-Mart as at the Farmers' Market, and some preserved items were similarly overpriced. One notable example: Whole black pepper, available everywhere, was labeled "gourmet" at Wal-Mart and priced almost three times as high as at the independent store where I usually shop. More on this in a future column.

This market consolidation is not inevitable, nor is it a sign of progress or of the dwindling interest in food production. Rather, the consolidation has been driven by government policy that rewards the corporations at the expense of the taxpayer.

Neither the Ds nor the Rs have been on the right side of this issue, but it looks like Kerry/Edwards at least have a clue. Get informed about the issues you know best and care about, do your research and tell your neighbors. We are responsible for change.

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

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