RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Food Security Needs Local Markets

So I stop at the auto store for a part for my ageing hybrid, and the counter man says he also has a hybrid. A 1988 Mustang.

“Wow,” I say, “did you modify it yourself?” I’m thinking he’s the guy to turn my pickup into a hydrogen-burner.

“It’s a hybrid,” he cracks, “it burns oil and rubber.”

Snark snark.

So are consumers really worried about gas prices? It depends. For some summertime moms and dads, there’s renewed dedication to the environment, and the bank balance. And to be honest, there’s relief that they don’t need to travel. No more whining from the back seat, “Are we there yet?”

One family I know has put “Stay-cation” on the calendar for one week a month, keeping everyone at home to read, weed, take walks, and enjoy their neighborhood. The mom plans projects and she says, “It’s like summer camp.”

But for every mom planning craft projects made from stuff in the basement, there are a couple of college students driving across the state to save $50 on a new I-phone. Trust me. I know these kids.

And, the media says we should be upset about gas prices and, just like Pavlov’s dogs, we get upset. Then, like Pavlov, the media feeds us more. Rather than see high gas prices as an opportunity to live without travel, the media looks for hardship, even stupid hardship. In their Aug. 1 feature on unhappy Americans, British-born Economist notes that petrol prices “hurt nearly everyone.” Their example is a former football player forced to trade his pickup truck for a Honda Civic. “I’m 350 pounds,” he tells them, “I feel like I’m in a clown car.”

They couldn’t find real hardship? Ask a family farmer!

The media need to focus on how to use these final drops of petrol—to build windmills, solar panels, figure out hydro and geothermal power.

Journalists are scaring us. Again. They should be talking about local markets, promoting the end to the export/import model. The petroleum-based economy is a dinosaur, if you see what I mean.

One of the reasons we’re in such a pickle is that we believe we’re dependent on the corporate-based markets. These are the name-brand marketers we see in the big stores—Hormel, Green Giant, Con-Agra, Kraft. Their prices are going up because they’re dependent on an international shipping scheme that uses a lot of petroleum. We need to get over it.

Example: Rather than use local milk to make cheese, like a small producer does, Kraft brings in cheap dried milk from all over the world, then mixes it up and extrudes cheesy stuff into molds.

This is a fragile system for several reasons. Production depends on a lot of shipping. That demands lots of ships, trucks, highways and so forth.

Less obvious than the transportation infrastructure is the manipulation of prices that happens at several stages of production. Because these big factories need big quantities of raw materials, so they buy from several sources, like the milk from dozens of countries.

Each time the materials are traded, there’s a bump in the price.

Local markets mean more money going directly to producers. Here’s an example: My plum tree is loaded with plums right now, which I can pick and put into jars.

But let’s say I sell the plums to a trader. Let’s say that last winter, I sold my whole crop of plums to the trader, even though they weren’t on the tree yet. Virtual plums.

And let’s say he sold them to someone else who would preserve them and sell them to the world. Maybe he made money on them by re-selling them at a higher price.

The trader and I would now be at a stage past production and consumption. We would be speculating, guessing at the physical supply that was to come in the future.

And, as more money came into our relationship, and more people buying and selling our virtual stuff, you can see how easy it would be for someone to abuse the power of their dollars. Or Euros or yen. They could artificially drive the prices up or down by manipulating the supply. This is what’s happening as wealth becomes concentrated in the form of hedge funds, pension funds, university endowments and other big players.

When the supply is insecure, or the trading item is rare, the market is even more subject to manipulation. If, instead of plums, we were trading the rarest mineral in a vein deep under the orchard, we would dig up mountains to bring it up.

The commodity markets have always worked by buying and selling a future physical supply. Wheat, oil, pork bellies. When we buy things like that from the international corporate market, we pay for the item plus the speculation.

Now, new markets are emerging to trade things that have never been traded before. Iron ore, rhodium, lithium, wood chips, chickens and fertilizer. And, probably, plums.

But not my plums.

We can only win this game by building local markets. Supporting local markets is the only way to get food security, and that’s the long and short of it all.

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

From The Progressive Populist, Sept. 1, 2008

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