RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Lessons for First Farmers

It was great to see the picture of Michelle Obama and a group of fifth graders working in the first White House garden since World War II. My gardening friends and I have had fun talking about her hairdo, her clothes—at our places, we tie our hair back in rubber bands and shuffle out the door in our p.j.s, or, for the younger moms, old t-shirts from high school.

Of course we don’t want a first lady that gardens in her p.j.s, and we sure wish her well. More than well, we wish her phenomenal success. After decades of thinking about how to reach food self-sustainability, the answer can only be to get as many people as possible gardening, preserving food, learning how to cook.

Just think of the lessons she’ll learn! She’ll have the thrilling opportunity to serve one of her very own tomatoes to a visiting dignitary. This is something that cannot be duplicated in any way I know. The best meals at our house, and the most fun ones, come when I can duck out the back door, pick a pear or a bunch of sage, or something, and put it on a dish.

Next, she’ll learn the lesson about how hard it is to raise food. That pear, or sage, or tomato—it’s only a tiny part of one day’s diet. It’s really good for us to realize how much it takes to feed ourselves for a whole year, and how many people we owe for keeping us alive.

Then there are the lessons of how much we’ve lost. Maybe she’ll stumble on the gardener’s age-old cure for insomnia—stumbling out the door on a moonlit night and snacking on a few leaves of lettuce. There’s something in fresh lettuce, or maybe just the fresh air at night, that brings on peaceful sleep.

Maybe she’ll learn about the tragic loss of the commons when it comes to plant varieties. She’d better check the patent laws before sharing any successful plants with her neighbors. Like if she discovers some kind of excellent rhubarb, say, better than any that grows anywhere along the Potomac, maybe reaching back to George Washington’s time. If it’s patented by one of our major seed purveyors … well, then better not share. The seed companies have more lawyers than they have scientists, and they’re not afraid to make an example of you for your neighbors.

Eight years ago, on Dec. 10, 2001, the Supreme Court ruled 6-2 in the case of J.E.M. AG Supply v. Pioneer Hi-Bred Int’l that plants can be patented. There is no need for the plant to be unique or for the company to invent something special to claim the patent. The ruling, written by Clarence Thomas, protects companies that can claim patents. But neighbors, folks like you and me, don’t have machines to read gene codes and claim patents. So, of course, we wouldn’t know if the iris or peony offered by our neighbors has been claimed by a big company.

Seeds have passed from generation to generation without anybody owning their genes, but the 2001 ruling stops that, and it seems that nobody wins except the patent owner. If Michelle unwittingly accepts some seeds or plants from her neighbors, and the patent owners find out, she can be sued.

Then there’s another lesson for Michelle. The lesson of how powerful the chemical companies are and how they try to drown out the tiny voices of those gardeners that prefer to go chemical-free. And they’re already bugging her. The Mid-America CropLife Association (MACA) has written Michelle to tell her that she needs to use chemicals, which they call “conventional.” They said: “Fresh foods grown conventionally are wholesome and flavorful yet more economical.”

MACA represents agribusinesses like Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences and DuPont Crop Protection. They suggest that “conventionally grown” food saves time for the grower. “We live in a very different world than that of our grandparents. Americans are juggling jobs with the needs of children and aging parents,” the letter states. “The time needed to tend a garden is not there for the majority of our citizens . . . ”

I’ve been trying to figure out how chemical spraying saves time. Let’s see. You get home from work, change into your garden clothes, put on your face mask, send the kids and dogs inside, load up the sprayer, swoosh stuff all over your garden, clean out the sprayer without breathing, continue to try not to breathe while you walk back into the house, strip down and put the clothes in the laundry, take a shower and give the kids a hug.

And then, lest we forget, you wash the veggies repeatedly to get the chemicals off before you eat them.

Stick with organics, Michelle, and you’ll save hours of work. Enough to get your hair done!

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

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2009

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