RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

What a Kroc!

(With A Happy Ending)

The local media have finally figured out that things are desperate for farmers. The day hogs hit 11 cents a pound, three newsmen called Food Circle Central wanting to interview a small farmer with hogs. I only had one good contact for them, a neighbor named Gary. I knew he had 12 hogs ready to sell. The reporters tried to track him down, but Gary was in town, job hunting.

It's gotten so bad that Mr. B., the owner of the local McDonald's has come up with a plan. To increase demand, he lowered the price of sausage buscuits and McRib sandwiches. "I feel the family farmers are my partners," the local paper quotes Mr. B., "Someone needs to make an effort to help our friends and neighbors."

My first reaction upon seeing this was outrage. Mickey D buys from the factories. Our farmers can't sell to him. His increased demand wouldn't go to any of the "friends and neighbors" I know. In fact, every bite he sells is one less for the family farmer.

But as I saw more on the plan, my heart softened. He's dead center when he notes that prices at the checkout are way inflated compared to prices for farmers. Maybe he really can help. Or maybe he just doesn't know where his meat comes from.

His half-page ad in the local paper says, "I feel volume in time can bring the price up. I will keep my prices down until the market returns to normal. I was raised on a farm and understand how serious the situation is."

So maybe, I thought, he'd consider taking the next step and buying local. No family farmer has a clue how to produce a McRib, of course, but our local farmers and locker plant make sausage that's second to none, and they sure could use a boost. So I called Mr. B.

Me: Is Mr. B. there?

Mickey D's manager: No. His office is in Jeff City.

Me: Oh. I was just wondering about his meat sales. You know, if you'd be interested in buying meat locally. Since you're trying to help local farmers and all?

Mickey D: Oh, yeah. His plan. He's real excited. He wants to raise awareness in all the McDonald's. Because demand is really low, because of the situation in the mideast and all that.

The manager hadn't read the part in the econ book where they explain cheap gasoline and war are good for business, but I didn't go into that. I just asked for the Jeff City number.

I spent the rest of the day dialing and listening to the phone ring. No Mr. B. No secretary, no answering machine. I called the manager to check the number again. There was, I told him, nobody home in the office. This didn't surprise him.

Then the manager told me that Mr. B. doesn't really select the meat anyway. He just orders it. The meat really comes from the distributor. It has to come from "approved sources."

"Approved sources?" I said, "How do you get approved?"

"Beats me," said the manager.

So now I'm thinking that maybe Mr. B. won't really be there for family farmers, but maybe he could go around the rules and buy Gary's hogs just once in a while, like if they ran out of stuff at the factory.

Mickey D: Well, yeah, we can buy other places if it's, like, an emergency.

Me: So, in an emergency, you could get sausage at the local locker plant, or tomatoes from the farmer's market or . . .

Mickey D: No. In an emergency, we go to the grocery store.

And, of course, the grocery stores, like Mickey D., get their foods from distributors.

So, what I needed to do was to phone the distributor directly. "Urp Meat," said the manager. "Really. E-A-R-P. That's their name." And he gave me their 800 number and said ask for Ray. "They're over in Kansas City."

Kansas City! That's about 150 miles away. Think of the gasoline they could save by buying local. And, knowing Gary raises his hogs the old way--outside in the woods and the corn field--I knew that in Gary's sausage there won't be any antibiotics or hormones or wacky diseases we've yet to discover.

That means that I, who never eat factory meat, could eat there. It's been years since I've even been in that McDonald's, but now I'd be Customer #1. I could even write a letter to the shareholders in support of Mr. B.

I called Ray, and I think he liked my idea. But it was out of his hands. Distributors, it turns out, are only trucking companies. They supervise trucks and a warehouse. Like the store manager and the owner, the distributor doesn't really make the selection.

They could only "take product" (that's what he said: take product) from approved sources. Approved by McDonald's in Oak Brook, Illinois. I should call them direct.

So I called them and had a conversation with Lynn, who works for John, the buyer. John was on vacation.

I told Lynn about the low prices for hogs, which she hadn't heard. "But I believe it," she said.

Fifty years ago, anyone in Oak Brook would have known. Oak Brook was rural, fifty miles from Chicago. Now it's a suburb known for its laked and wild-goose-littered, sprawling industrial "campuses." These campuses, accessible only by highway, have replaced office space in Chicago's high rises.

Still, Lynn was sympathetic. There were guidelines, she told me, and people who had "been with the system" for a long time. I told her how much gasoline we could save the corporations if they'd buy local and she sounded confused. Not on her job description, I guess. Finally, she gave me John's direct line phone number to call when he came back from vacation.

Which he has, and I've left messages, and he hasn't called back. In all fairness, O'Hare's been socked in by the "worst snowstorm in 30 years." So maybe he's stuck in the Bahamas.

The sign's still out in front of McDonald's, but I have no idea whether Mr. B. knows that it's nigh on impossible for a family farmer to work with his company.

But, now, here's the beauty part. All this time, I've imagined Gary with his twelve hogs loading and driving to the sale barn and competing with the thousands of other poor farmers who are trying to make it against the corporations. The image was so appalling and vexing that I didn't want to hear about it.

But I was still answering the phone, and he called me. He was elated. "I was just awash with hogs," he said, "and now I wish I had more . . . "

It was our local community to the rescue. Folks were calling Gary and buying direct. Saving themselves some money and helping him out. He sold too cheap--small farmers still think they should undersell the big boys--but he made a little money, and he kept up hope. Gary's still in business, and that's what counts.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email: For more information on food circles, contact Ben Kjelshus P.O. Box 30271, Kansas City, MO 64112; phone 816-444-4168; email

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