RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Local Governments Sometimes Figure It Out

One of the cool things about America is that when the national government really screws up, there are local governments to fix the problems for their own citizens. So, when mistakes were made and the Iraq war broke out, a number of American cities, urged on by their residents, declared themselves "Cities of Peace" and passed resolutions to say that their city governments were not on board with the feds.

Similarly, mistakes were made and kids became obese and unhealthy, so some cities have declared themselves "trans-fat free," forcing the fast food joints to cook passably healthy food. When mistakes in industrialized agriculture have been made, agricultural areas have declared themselves "GMO-free," allowing organic farmers to farm without fear of crop contamination by nearby genetically altered crops.

And since mistakes have been made in judging the effect of carbon dioxide emissions on the planet, at least one entire state -- California -- is trying to impose standards on car manufacturers for cleaner-burning cars.

Here in Missouri, where mistakes have been made by the Farm Bureau and Republicans in judging what kind of agriculture would be good for the state, citizens have walked the halls of the capitol all session to preserve the right of counties to make their own rules. Under the banner of preserving local control, they have fought a good fight against overwhelming odds.

My good friend Laura was angered at the ignorance of members of Missouri's General Assembly on the subject of Confined Animal Feeding Operations, also called CAFOs. One rep had told her that he thought CAFOs were the best kind of agriculture for his district and he was voting in favor of any and all breaks lawmakers could deliver. He wanted to take away the right of counties to make their own rules and, worse, to take away the right of citizens to file a nuisance suit if a food-related industry impacted their lives.

"And then he said," she told me, "that if we didn't have CAFOs, food would be so expensive that we couldn't afford to eat."

"So what did you tell him?" I asked.

"I said CAFOs have little to do with cheap food. Most of that meat is exported. I told him to look at the web page for the state Department of Agriculture, where they list all the pork we export and where it goes."

"And what did he say?"

"He just burst into a big grin and said, 'I've been wondering about that.' Like I told him something that he'd been wondering about. Those Farm Bureau lobbyists are in his office every day and he never thinks to ask where all that CAFO meat goes. It's ridiculous."

I know the rep she's talking about, and he's anything but dumb. In fact, he's a lawyer with a degree from a good college. But his trust in the Farm Bureau types is inexplicable. Unless, of course, he's on the take.

It's commonly assumed that Farm Bureau throws around a lot of money to get people elected. A shame. This giant insurance firm, once a trusted advisor for rural Missourians, has become a shill for Wall Street's corporate agriculture.

Anyway, the idea that CAFOs raise animals cheaply is one of the top myths about that form of animal agriculture. CAFOs, in fact, get so many tax breaks and incentives that I gave up counting a long time ago.

The subsidies include subsidized feed costs through corn and soybean payments, subsidies on new labor training from the welfare-to-work program, subsidies for exporting meat, and sales tax relief on gasoline. Because they use so much electricity, they get cheaper utility rates to run their fans and aerators.

Scratch the surface of any government agriculture program and you'll find it's tilted in favor of the industrialized facilities, and that they're giving away tax dollars to grow a bad business. Washington's National Animal Identification program will give cheaper rates to herds of animals like those in CAFOs. University programs of all kinds are focused on large-scale facilities where problems like pests and disease are larger threats to public health than in smaller operations.

And then there are the tricks with processing that the large processors play: Adding saline solution to meat as a flavor enhancer, treating the meat with carbon monoxide to keep it red as it sits in the refrigerator case. All focused on making the most from the trusting consumer.

One county in Iowa has reversed the trend, however. Woodbury County has passed a local ordinance that gives a property tax incentive to farmers that convert farms into organic production. They have implemented a local food-buying policy to send food dollars to producers and processors within 100 miles of the courthouse.

Rob Marqusee, the county's Economic Development Director, has figured it out: Spending tax money with local producers means more money in local pockets to be spent with more local businesses, generating more tax money.

Once again, without support from the Feds, the local government has figured it out.

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

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2007

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