RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Buy Food From Your Neighbors

When I moved to the county seat, nearly 40 years ago, everyone had a garden. That was the reason I stayed here, fascinated that a whole place could take care of itself.

This was a place where, as the saying goes, you kept your car locked during zucchini season because if you didn’t somebody would slip a grocery sack full of zukes in when you weren’t looking. There was a week in April when everyone was carrying around packets of cabbage seeds and another week in July when everyone was trying to borrow a slaw cutter. There were little chicken farms in town. Right where the Walgreen’s is now, a guy raised 30 or 40 laying hens and sold eggs. He had his whole backyard fenced, the part that’s parking lot today, and the hens would peck around and keep the bugs away. Nobody complained, and nobody thought it was weird.

If you went to the restaurant for breakfast, which you hardly ever did unless you were one of the downtown business men, you’d ask where the sausage came from because there were two sausage guys. One was a whole-hog man that used all the cuts of the hog to make his sausage and the other separated the meat so that the hams and chops went into one pile and the scraps when into the sausage pile. One was Democrat and rural and one was Republican and progressive. Where the Dollar General warehouse is today, there was a Christmas tree farm. Then the bank hired a man (we’ll call him Bruce) to stimulate the economy and Bruce harassed the Christmas tree farm owner until he finally sold.

The last year he sold trees, he complained more about the cruel treatment of the bank and Bruce than he boasted about the money he made on his land. Months after the DG warehouse came in, with its jobs, its Chinese-made electric fans and vases, a bee keeper living nearby had to get out of business because the lights from the parking lot were so bright the bees were confused so good-by local honey. DG said they’d fix the problem but they never even tried.

It may be that the Carter era, when we were supposed to put on sweaters and save gasoline, just made us angry. We didn’t want to be told to turn our thermostats down and so we just got contrary and uncooperative. Or it might be that the Reagan era, the trickle-down time, convinced everyone that we didn’t need to grow our own. We thought we’d always have money, maybe that was it.

Maybe it has more to do with popular culture. Maybe we bought into the stereotypes and believed that we were stupid, like the women in Petticoat Junction or Green Acres, couldn’t do anything because we might break a fingernail. Or that guy in the comic strip, Garfield, who’s a hick and dumber than his cat. Or, remember Dukes of Hazzard, the show about reckless driving? Maybe we thought that was the only way we could make a good time out of living in such a rural place.

Now the money’s disappeared and we have a bunch of low-income jobs, a meth-lab crime wave and a food bank that’s always trying to raise money or collect cans of factory-made food. Didn’t see that coming, didja eco-devo man?

We have a nuke plant that nobody knows how to clean up when it closes and even if you want to raise food, the weather’s doing us wrong so we completely skipped winter this year, went straight from December to April and now we’re in June some place, don’t know what to plant. But still there’s hope. Because a few days ago a couple of young women came to the food bank talking about how they want to raise hens for their families.

The farmers’ market is doing swell, up to 10 or 12 vendors in the last 4 years, since the Obamas planted their first garden. And some of the college kids are volunteering at vegetable farms, trying to figure out how to establish community gardens and composting waste from their own dining hall. In the next county over, a bit more progressive, there’s an active community garden coalition run by the kids.

Forty years ago, I moved here from a suburban place. I wanted my kids to grow up where everyone had gardens because I could remember visiting my gardening relatives and harvesting tomatoes when we wanted a salad or catching fish for supper. And now I can see it all coming back, the fragile beginnings of local economy.

So, this year, even if you’ve never been to a farmers’ market or local grocery before, make it a point to buy from your neighbors. Plant a pot of herbs and put it on the window sill.

Learn about the fun of doing something — just one thing — for yourself and reject, even in the tiniest way, that stupid industrial paradigm that we all thought was so cool.

Margot McMillen farms and teaches English in Missouri. Email See

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2012

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