RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Waste Not on the Farm

At 10:50 a.m. Missouri time, May 4, 2008, Hillary said the F Word on national TV.

Easy, big fella, she said “food.”

And then she said the other F Word: Farm.

In fact, she said, “family farm.” I hollered out to my husband, “Hey! Hillary said …” but my husband is out working on fence that became saggy as the coyotes tested it over the winter.

Since he’s busy, I’ll tell you. Politicians and pundits have begun to think about where our food comes from. Right now, these thinkers are putty in the hands of the big corporate food producers. Several media outlets have run stories on why it’s thrifty to raise animals in confinement, feeding them lots and lots of grain to grow fast.

We have to move the pundits and politicians to think some more.

Right after Hillary said “food” and “farm” she said “waste”. She explained that since the ethanol and biodiesel production drive food prices up, we should use agricultural waste—corn cobs and corn stalks—to make fuel.

Sorry, Hill, but the earth doesn’t think corn cobs and corn stalks are waste. If we start shearing off that wee bit that we leave, the earth will be bare, and when the winter ice melts or the spring rain falls, topsoil will wash off.

Some farmers know that. They walk rather than driving over fields. Trouble is, more and more farmers have given up walking and looking. They’re raising Monsanto’s corn and Cargill’s hogs. They’re just following directions.

But there is a lot of waste in the petroleum-based farm scheme. If you’ve ever tried to pass one of the new machines on a gravel road, you know that they’re about 30-feet wide. Besides the 30 feet, they have gadgetry that extends from the sides. The extreme width makes them able to work a 40-acre field in a few hours. The cost saving isn’t in gas. It is in labor.

These behemoths pass over each field four or five times a year-plowing, disking, planting, killing weeds, harvesting, fertilizing. University Extension specialists once recommended crops, especially GMO crops, that required passes with a cheap herbicide. Now the herbicides are expensive. Roundup is twice as costly as it was a year ago. And even the University Extension boys are skeptical about the generics, made in China.

But waste doesn’t end with the crop work. Next, the corporates feed the crops to livestock, which consumers eventually eat as meat.

The corporations making the chemicals and machinery subsidize the work of universities. Following directions from the university makes farmers feel smarter when they buy into new discoveries. So, today, farmers learn from Extension agents to depend on chemicals, machinery, exports, imports, and lots and lots of oil.

Here’s a little history. Fifty years ago, every farm had poultry and a few momma hogs. The eggs, chicken and pork was processed locally, maybe by the farmer, and delivered to consumers in town. Usually, they brought a truckload of garden produce as well. Asparagus, strawberries, tomatoes, melons, sweet corn. And consumers looked forward to the seasonal flush of-whatever it was.

Forty years ago, a few farmers experimented with raising one kind of animal, putting them in larger buildings and taking one product to market. This was supposed to give our nation the ability to export food, which we do, but we import as much as we export. And farmers, who never made much money on produce, have given up gardens.

As farmers started making a little money, getting indoor plumbing and sending the kids to college, universities started running experiments that put more and more animals into less and less space, feeding them intensely to make them grow faster.

Faster and fatter became the goals, so university experimenters added fattening chemicals to feed. Hormones to make the animals grow faster. Antibiotics to keep them healthy.

Technology is expensive. Even with the giant machines and cuts in labor, the corporates need government subsidies to keep food prices cheap. To learn more about who gets the money in your county, go to

Where were consumers all this time?

Well, they were in hog heaven. They got all the stuff, with none of the work. Pot pies, hot dogs, white bread, chips, and really bad chocolate chip cookies. I realized as I took a group of college students around the farm a few days ago that these 1984-born kids may have never eaten food that doesn’t come in a package with a logo. They’ve grown up on extruded semi-digestibles from faraway lands. It’s over-sweetened and over-salted, but it’s what they’re used to. They don’t realize that they can actually grow something to eat.

So, politicians and pundits, take note: Waste is the problem, but it’s the waste of corporate strategies and not the waste of mother nature.

Consumers and farmers, take note: We can solve the problem by learning about farming and food. Knowledge is power.

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

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2008

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