RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Farmers Need Markets Too

Last month, I got an e-mail from a reader that wondered what good news we might have to report from the recent interest in food, nutrition and the connection of those to farming. She had been eating local, but the wars in the Mideast still go on and the fossil fuels still spew from holes in the ocean and the weather’s just appalling, there’s a predicted shortage of grain, health care’s a mess, and, well, just what have we solved?

Courage, friend. Breathe.

The amazing interest in where our food comes from is making big differences even if the job of fixing society is still immense. In my little world, a couple of counties where I can’t get lost, there are today farmers’ markets every day of the week. Thank you, organizers, and thank you, farmers.

Twelve years ago, a neighbor and I drove the roads around here looking for local growers. There was more diversity in commodity crops than today; we’d see milo, wheat, corn, soybeans, hogs and cattle. But we were looking for signs that called out “fresh eggs” or “hickory nuts.” We didn’t really care what they grew, as long as we could eat it.

We traveled a ten-mile radius and found eight old-geezer growers. And we live in a rural place. People still kept gardens, but just for their families. By the way, almost nobody raises everything they need. Even our Amish neighbors hitch rides to the big-box store, coming back with vans full of cheap flour and American cheese.

Today, at the height of the growing season, the commodity fields are full of corn and soybeans. That’s about it for the row-crop sector. The hens and hogs are all cooped up in germ-infested buildings, pumped with antibiotics. The cattle and dairy markets are a big worry.

But, if I need an eggplant to make baba ganouche, I just ask my husband what day it is and take off in one direction or another to one of the markets that have sprung up. Amazing to say, even the puniest market of last year, or the brand-new start-up, has 10 or 12 vendors. And in each, someone raises fresh eggs, honey, fresh fish, “clean” meats. The beauty of having the farmer in front of you is that you can ask how they raise their stuff!

If I don’t find exactly the fresh, plump, purple eggplant I want, I’ll come back with a white one. Or a strange speckled one. Or, maybe, I’ll change plans because there’s a nervous teenager with one spaghetti squash. Hi, kid! Thanks for your courage!

Here’s my strategy for farmers’ market shopping: I walk through quickly, looking at every booth to see what they have. Then I buy one or two things from each. On some days I come home with three loaves of zucchini bread, each with a different hand-lettered label. They freeze well and the point is that I’ve made a connection with three farmers and changed their lives forever.

That’s not too dramatic a statement. I remember the first year I sold my ground beef at a farmers’ market. We were four vendors on a hot city street, sitting nervously on lawn chairs, getting to know each other, and wondering if anyone would stop downtown on their way to the box store. Our prices were better than the store and our food was better and we sure wanted to find ways to keep our farms going. I sold only enough to cover the gasoline it took to get there, but the sales and the appreciation from the few consumers gave me courage.

The downtown market moved to a park and my old friends and I are still in business one way or another. One has a successful heirloom seed company, one has a wonderful orchard, another has a greenhouse. And there are a lot of new farmers, smarter and better trained than we were, raising bigger amounts on smaller plots, going for it 100%. I wish you long life, dear ones. You will be growing food for me in my golden years.

On our place, we still have the diversity, but no cattle, and we sell to restaurants exclusively. None of us old-timers is making a lot of money, mind you, most still have day jobs, but, as we say, “we eat good” and we always have something yummy to take to a gathering. And, all the interest in the food system and the studies on nutrition and food miles and how dollars spent locally stay in the community have shown us we were and still are right.

So, if you’re a farmers-market consumer and you’re wondering what you’ve done for the world, give yourself a big hug. You are doing awesome work, taking money from industry and putting it in the pockets of farmers.

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

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2010

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