RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Cities Need Farm Aid, Too

This column should begin with gratitude to the several alert Progressive Populist readers that pointed out that I had, for the first time ever, made a mistake.

One finds the circumference of a circle by multiplying the diameter times pi rather than by multiplying pi times the radius squared. When you goof up, I always say, make a mistake that glares.

I found solace and even joy at Farm Aid, an annual benefit concert for farmers that has been going on for more than two decades. Founders are Willie Nelson and Neil Young, with John Mellenkamp and Dave Matthews on the board of directors. Every year they find a dozen or so bands willing to donate their time to put on a show. This year the highlights included Jerry Lee Lewis, Gov't Mule, Shelby Lynne and Los Lonely Boys. Good stuff, and they donate all the proceeds to farm organizations and their own hotline (1-800-FARMAID) for farmers in financial or other crises.

The site for the concert, Camden, N.J., was an old industrial town that fell on bad times, started the decline to ruin and has rebounded. The major engine pushing the recovery is a state-of-the-art arena on the waterfront. An interesting comment on America, eh? From producer to entertainer.

Missouri Rural Crisis Center goes to Farm Aid every year to sell their Patchwork Family Farms products to concertgoers. Turns out that east-coast people have never eaten real barbecue. They came back for seconds, thirds and fourths, to the point we wondered whether there should be a cutoff.

There's always a press conference before the show. Last year, it was all about the effects of Hurricane Katrina. Many farmers from Louisiana, mostly black farmers, had lost their crops, their animals and their markets when the hurricane hit. It was only a couple of weeks after the storm and it seemed to me that they were still in shock, but they told their stories well. Other farmers, some sponsored by Farm Aid, responded by sending food, supplies and animal feed. This year, some of the Louisiana farmers were back, and reported that things are much better and that they are even seeing a few farmers' markets reopen.

Hope is a wonderful thing.

This year, the main subject of the press conference was the 2007 farm bill. Again, there was a hopeful tone kicked off by Willie's statement: "We started Farm Aid to save the farmers. Now it seems the farmers are saving us." He elaborated by saying that as corporate logos are overwhelming the planet, a local-foods movement is emerging to challenge the corporate growers.

Several speakers pointed out that the scare focused on the spinach fields of California had brought a new level of alertness. Did the E. coli come from tainted irrigation water? Improperly composted manure? How will we ever know? The answer is that we won't and that it's impossible to trace specific inputs with ingredients that are shipped all over the nation or the world. Bottom line: You need to know your farmer and to ask questions about production methods.

Several speakers pointed out that the 2007 Farm Bill may begin to shift tax money from global suppliers to local sources. Speakers from national farm organizations had suggestions that they are taking to Congress. Among the ideas were:

• Change the subsidy system. The current subsidy system keeps farmers raising corn, soybeans, wheat and a few crops that industry turns into cereals, breads, soda pop and other products. Industry wants to pay a super-low price so they can sell their products cheaply, but industry pays below the cost of production so the government makes up the difference with a check to farmers. This prevents farmers from moving into new crops, like produce. To learn more about subsidies, look at on the internet.

• Stop giving tax breaks to confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that pollute the land and produce meat that is full of chemicals like antibiotics and hormones. Stop lending government-guaranteed money to them so that defaults come down on the taxpayer rather than the corporations that benefit.

• Allow moms that qualify for the WIC program (Women, Infants and Children) to get some of their food at farmers' markets and from local producers. Help farmers' markets take WIC coupons and food stamps without having to buy expensive credit-card machines.

• Put some money into education of young and minority farmers in sustainable and organic programs. At present, for example, the University of Missouri-Columbia has no certified organic acres in all their system to teach young farmers about organic farming. Instead, Missouri youngsters are getting an education in raising food with chemicals and genetic alterations through the "Life Sciences" program. And Missouri is not the only state in this position.

Congress has already started hearings about the 2007 Farm Bill. Get educated and let your senators and representatives know where you stand.

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

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2006

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