A few weeks ago, Jenny and I had a caller to our radio program. The subject was industrialized animal raising and the caller had heard about all the things that can go wrong when animals are raised in great numbers in confinement. Here are a few of the facts:
To prevent sickness, they're fed huge amounts of unnecessary antibiotics, which lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria discharged into the air and water;
Manure pits often overflow into the public water, killing fish and polluting the water supply; frustrated and exhausted workers often abuse the animals;
Neighbors are subjected to high amounts of hydrogen sulfide, which can cause permanent brain damage, and ammonia;
Communities suddenly incur the cost of workers that earn minimum wage, need services, and do not speak English;
Farmers who want to raise animals sustainably are put out of business because the factories have their own marketing system and, therefore, public markets close.
The caller asked interesting questions, "How can anybody be so silly as to sign up to raise these things? How can a state be so silly as to want them?"
Our guest, Dr. John Ikerd, had an equally interesting answer. He said that rural communities are competing for all sorts of things that nobody else wants, and doing it because they think the options are narrowed down. The community either takes the thing offered, no matter how repugnant, or thinks it will die.
Ikerd talked about communities in Ohio that are competing for a prison. A prison! And about communities eager to take in landfills, toxic waste incinerators, nuclear power plants, casinos. All because the promoters promise jobs. Several mid-Missouri communities are delighted to have been selected as the sites for giant warehouses where stacks of stuff from China await distribution.
The counties or towns think they'll benefit, but do they really? If you think about the tax base of a 40-acre pasture, granted it's not much. But the pasture doesn't get in fights and call the sheriff, or create kids that overcrowd the schools, or demand that the roads are paved, or turn up sick in the emergency room.
And it's equally important to think about what happens when our farmland is paved over or polluted to build the mega-facilities. Food security, for all of us, rural and urban, becomes lessened. While we now import food for choice, we may eventually import because there's no place on this continent to raise it.
When a giant warehouse came to our county seat, the promoters harassed the property owner into selling. His property was serving him very well -- raising Christmas trees and housing beehives. It provided a wonderful place to visit, and most of the town made annual trips to buy a tree and some honey and have an annual, usually lengthy, visit with the owner.
He paid his taxes, because he knew that the school taxes supported the next generation, and he kept the place up, because he was proud of it and wanted his neighbors to know.
Now the property holds the giant warehouse and parking lots, with lights so bright that several neighbors moved out. The low-wage jobs support the usual array of people, many of them very good and a few very naughty.
There's a nearby cheap motel and quick shop, and a bunch of fast-food places that give off the most appalling odor of grease, threatening another neighborhood. If you wonder, when you drive through charming neighborhoods that are almost abandoned, why that is, just look around and see if there's a fried fish joint nearby.
And, to add insult to injury, the giant warehouse company has protested against paying property taxes. Looks like the county will have to take them to court.
It's very doubtful that any rural places benefit from the development the promoters bring to them, but we certainly benefited from the self-sufficient traditions of the old communities. Until a very few years ago, our dollars circulated five to nine times through the community before leaving it. That means that if you bought a tree from the bee man, he'd spend the money at, say, the restaurant, and the restaurant owner would buy sausage from a farmer, and the farmer would buy feed from the feed store, and the feed store man would buy corn from someone else, and that guy would buy fertilizer from someone else. And, at that point, the dollar would leave the community and go to the fertilizer company and their CEOs and stockholders and suppliers.
Today, of course, that network is different. You buy a tree at the giant store, and the dollar's left the community. Your five-spot spent at the fast-food place pays the help and flies to corporate headquarters. The operators of giant animal factories don't own the animals, choose where to buy the feed, or even have the right to weigh the feed that's delivered to them or the right to ask what's in it. All the trust that we put in the bee man, farmer, restaurant owner, feed store owner and so forth, the trust that came from looking them in the eye and saying, "Thank you! And, anyway, how's your mom doing?" all that trust is gone.
But, hey, let's not get gloomy! There are still people trying to do the right thing and to create a new system. In our community, there's a "food circle" of consumers and producers. The producers try to raise food the way consumers want -- animals on pasture, vegetables in naturally-fertilized gardens, and the consumers agree to help with their dollars, and sometimes their volunteer hours.
You can find a good system in your community. Doing so, you'll help rural America survive. And the future of food security will be insured.
Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.