Country Fried: Food Circles

Special to The Progressive Populist

If you're ever traveling on I-70 in Missouri, you might want to pull off and cruise through my neighborhood. Like many others in America, my self-sufficient rural area has changed in the last twenty, ten, five, two years. We have been discovered by ag industry, and they value us for our good transportation, clean water, clean air, and dispersed population. After the farm crises of the seventies, eighties and nineties, most of the farmland here has gone to the Big Boys.

Driveways that used to lead to homesteads with houses, gardens, barns, chicken coops and smoke houses now lead back to empty fields. Maybe there's a metal machine shed left standing to shelter a combine, but Agribusiness has bulldozed and burned everything else that used to support our hardworking neighbors. The general store, the church, the school, even the trees are gone, so that the Big Boys can plant soybeans, milo or corn right up to the ditch and to hell with the top soil. Let it run off, and we'll just use more chemicals. Those soybeans, milo and corn don't go to feed the hungry in the third world, by the way; they go to feed confined animals living their sorry lives out in metal buildings.

The problems that these Prolific Agri-Boys bring with them are well-known, and if you're unacquainted with them, read Jim Hightower. Bad air, bad water, bad food. And farmers forced off the land. There's not many Little Guys left to raise a protest.

In our neighborhood, we want small farmers to survive. So, every month, a bunch of us get together at a neighbor's place or at the one remaining church in the neighborhood. We read, we talk, we share information. In the great American tradition of gatherings, we eat.

One September evening, I was fixing treats with a neighbor, shucking the little "Dole" stickers off a banana, when I realized there was something wrong. "Barbara," I said, "I thought all bananas were named 'Chiquita.'"

"Used to be," she said, eyeing a cracker named Ritz and some cheese from Philadelphia.

At that moment, Bob walked into the room, carrying a sack of pears. "Guy on the corner is selling these ..." he said, and we all realized at the same time that what we needed to do was to eat pears instead of bananas, and home-made cookies instead of Ritz crackers. I mean, this is a rural neighborhood and our business is growing food, right? Except that the dominant farmers are growing food that's shipped off, processed and fed to livestock.

So, we began gathering the names of neighbors who were growing food to sell -- not to industry, but to people. To our surprise, there were several neighbors going to farmers' markets and trying to sell to grocery stores and restaurants (most of whom have contracts with industrial suppliers). Our neighbors were producing vegetables, fruits, pasture-raised meats, eggs, and all kinds of value-added products like fancy cakes, breads and pies. And what did they want? Fair markets. That's all. Fair markets.

Competing with the grocery stores is a tough way to make a living. Our bakers stay up all night to fill orders, and people complain that they charge too much. One of our greenhouse gardeners, who works sixty to seventy hours a week year round, estimates that he made just $8,000 last year. Still, he's saved enough to add another greenhouse.

At about this time, the University of Missouri Department of Rural Sociology called a meeting of people interested in starting "Food Circles" in their neighborhoods. These groups bring producers and consumers together to share resources and ideas.

So, to make a long story short, we began working toward our own Food Circle. We produced a catalog of producers to distribute among consumers, and we have started planning things like farm tours and fund-raising dinners. We have great hopes, but it's a difficult fight. One of our ideas -- to start an Internet site -- is terrifying to our producers. "I'm going to have to fill orders for people in California?" one of them asked. We explained that she doesn't have to do anything, but she's still unconvinced.

And, maybe you're unconvinced that spending your food budget with a local producer will make a difference. Trust me, you can't single-handedly take an 18-wheeler off the highway, but your money will make a difference to the producer. The food budgets of three four-person families can keep a small farmer in business.

Changing your food habits is the most meaningful thing you can do to improve the condition of Mother Earth. Eat a hot dog, even a veggie hot dog, and you're supporting a system that uses too many petrochemicals as fertilizer and -icides, too much gasoline for transportation, too much packaging, and too many minimum-wage or illegal-immigrant workers. You're pushing small farmers, who can't (and don't want to) produce hot dogs, off the land.

There are alternatives. Ask your grocer or favorite restaurateur to buy fresh food from small farms; if they can't, ask them why. They may say the health laws prohibit it; this is a common excuse. The truth is likely that they're under contract with industrial suppliers. Patronize a new place.

And, find a personal farmer. Go to your local farmers' market and make a friend. Small farmers have found many creative ways to survive -- by offering delivery, or by trading your labor for fresh food, or by growing unusual products you can't get from the grocery store. These people want to serve you. They've learned the hard way how to survive in rural America, and they're looking for your support.

Finally, keep on learning, and share your knowledge with others. To truly eat locally, you'll need to know how to preserve foods by drying, canning, or freezing. But don't be afraid -- it's fun, it's better than TV, you'll save money, and, best of all, one day you'll realize that you've completely forgotten what the inside of a grocery store looks like. Now, that's freedom!

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

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