RURAL ROUTES/Margot McMillen

Buy Local for James

One Saturday morning a couple of weeks ago, our first grandchild—a boy—was born. On the same day, hundreds of thousands of folks were evacuated as Hurricane Gustav rolled toward the Louisiana Gulf Coast, the Burning Man Art Festival unrolled itself on the Nevada desert, and the Rs were on defense over McCain’s choice of VP candidates.

I don’t know if any of those events will matter to James, but these relics from his birth date will matter: Smithfield Foods was blaming their major first-quarter loss of $12.6 million on the high price of corn due to the “flawed” US policy supporting ethanol, our county health department lost two valued employees because nearly everyone can pay more than we can, and the Wall Street Journal was explaining how lobbyist wife Edwina Rogers wrapped her gifts in “sheets of real dollar bills,” sold by the US Bureau of Engraving. It was all about lining up the George Washingtons neatly on the front of the package.

I hope that, by the time James is old enough to understand, the culture that spawned those last articles are relics of a backward and forgotten time.

Smithfield, for example, survives by the grace of the taxpayer and deserves to die. The hog industry that puts thousands of hogs in confined feeding operations, or CAFOs, has never made money despite all the subsidies we throw at it. Back in 2006, hog production giants Premium Standard Farms and Smithfield announced a merger. As part of the deal, Smithfield took over $117 million debt owed by PSF. PSF had gone bankrupt two times before the sale, and they owed $4.5 million awarded to its Missouri neighbors in a nuisance suit six weeks before the merger was announced.

Smithfield owns over 1,000,000 sows (mother hogs), controlling 20% of hog production and 31% of pork packing. In much of the United States, and in north Missouri, they own 100% of the hog business because there are no other markets available to farmers.

And, in owning 100% of the hog business, the giants own 100% of the job market, the real estate market and, ultimately, the government. Owning the government, they can join other biggest losers (like Tyson, the giant chicken producer that lost $52 million in the first quarter of 2006) and pass laws that put expenses on smaller producers.

One of industry’s schemes, called “Animal ID,” is to make farmers buy tags their animals, with microchips to guarantee identity. Large producers who truck animals in a mass from one farm to the next would only have to buy one tag for each load. Those of us who move animals in small groups would have to buy a tag for each animal.

Consumers are being told that Animal ID would make the food supply more safe, but meat recalls don’t come from the farm. Instead, problems come from the packing houses. When huge packers run for long shifts without cleaning equipment, thousands of pounds of meat can be ruined. If we want safer meats, consumers and the government need to force the packers to clean up their act.

When a giant company exploits their own customers, you can bet they abuse the environment and workers. And, besides being major polluters, industrial animal raising has been found guilty of exploiting workers, usually immigrant workers that arrive in rural areas without language, contacts or any kind of advocacy. The giants that control the industry ignore the claims.

And the giants exploit local governments. Rural counties are poor. When immigrant populations arrive in their midst, they cannot provide health care or bilingual services. Local populations try to help, but they can’t. My county is not particularly poor, but our county offices struggle to keep employees and we see them leave after a year or two of service.

In the Missouri counties where Premium Standard Farms, now Smithfield, has operated for the last decade, childhood poverty hovers around 30%.

Despite their financial losses, the giants spend money on lobbyists. And one lobbyist has a wife that buys sheets of 32 dollar bills for $55 per sheet and cut them up to use as wrapping paper. And, even more insulting, NBC is planning a TV show to document the wealth. There’s a pilot trailer of PowerHouse on YouTube. Wrapping her gift, Edwina Rogers says, “The effect is fabulous. Especially for gifts to foreigners. They love it.”

If you find this insulting, vote with your dollars and starve the stupidity. Find producers that raise food locally and buy from them. Also a few days after we welcomed James to the world, Cornell University released a study that said the nation can save as much oil by buying local as we could by eliminating our cars. Buying local saves energy and communities.

Tell our lawmakers, present and future, local and federal, that we need policy to support local production.

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

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2008

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