On Wednesday I took a train over to St. Louis to join up with Hotflash so we could attend the National Rural Summit on Thursday that was held at Jefferson College in Hillsboro, Missouri.
Rural areas have, for years, faced challenges that are out-of-sight and out-of-mind for the vast majority of the people in this country. That is because of a demographic shift that I typefy. I was the city kid who went to the grandparents farm for the summer to learn about the place from whence I came and to internalize the values of tradition, responsibility, hard work and stewardship of the land.
Then I grew up. By the time I was an adult with kids old enough to send to the family farm for the summer to learn the same lessons and develop a relationship with their food, Grandpa had passed on and Grandma had moved to town. My parents never went back to the farm, so the ties lasted one generation. And if I had not learned those lessons, it would never have occurred to me to make the opportunities to do those things and teach those lessons as best I could with a small garden plot and 30 days a year to take them back home for some hunting and fishing and mingling with cousins who never left.
My story is far more typical than you might think. When I was born in the sixties, farming was a family enterprise and each farmer fed, approximately, 15-20 people. A steer took about three years to get to marketable size, new chicks were ordered every spring to replace the “menopausal” hens that no longer produced eggs and they were butchered en masse and went into the freezer. The garden was practically an acre and we canned and froze enough fruits, veggies and berries to feed Grandpa, Grandma and all comers all winter long. My grandmother’s trips to the grocery store consisted of purchases of flour, macaroni and oatmeal.
No more. Not only are our parents not on the farm, they don’t even own the land. The behemoth we call “agri-business” has bought it all up as the generation who lived on it and worked on it and made their living from it aged, retired, and started dying off. Now “agribusiness” has all but pushed the little guy out of the game entirely, and now the average farmer feeds 155 people.
Hog farms used to dot the landscape, and pastures used to be populated with black angus steers. Forty-cow dairy operations were common, and farmers saved back enough seed every fall for the next springs planting. Forget that! The seed companies forbid that and will sue you and take your farm and make you a pauper if you try something like that. Hell, Monsanto sues people who don’t plant their seed but the pollen from Monsanto corn drifts over to their fields! And since they own a Supreme Court justice in the 5-member conservative bloc, in the form of one Clarence Thomas who used to be a corporate attorney on their payroll, they get to act with impunity.
Now most steers live in a feedlot and stand in shit up to their knees for their entire life, eating grains that make them sick if they don’t lace the cow-chow with antibiotics so they can get to market weight in about 13 months instead of 3-4 years.
Hogs never see the outdoors or wallow in the mud. They are raised in concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. A sow lives her entire life in a small pen that has a slotted floor so her waste falls into a big pit that stinks to high heaven and destroys the air quality for miles around. The pit is so toxic that should the lights go out and the fans stop functioning, the animals start dying within a couple of hours from the poisoned gas that builds up in the enclosed factory “farm.”
The good news is, not everyone has succumbed. In the area that my husband and I call home because our parents were raised there, steers still populate pastures and some lucky hogs get to live their lives outside, rooting and wallowing and doing the things a hog ought. Chickens may be confined to the barnyard, but they get to come and go from the chickenhouse at their own pleasure, scratch in the dirt and peck for earthworms. (Earthworms are like chocolate to chickens.)
The better news is, there are people in other areas resisting, and even pushing back a little bit. People like these guys:
While Hotflash went on to a breakout session after lunch, I hung around for the Secretary of Agriculture’s press conference, so when I left for the breakout sessions, it was in a much smaller group and I saw a display set up outside the doors directing me to the trailer in the photo and I went over to say “hi” and see what was up.
I was impressed.
Here is how it works – a farmer who raises grass-fed steers without antibiotics and hormones calls them up and schedules a time for the mobile slaughterhouse to come to the farm to set up. The animals are killed and bled outside the trailer, then winched up a platform where they are gutted and skinned, and the offal removed from the processing area through a hole in the side of the trailer. The dead animal is then laid in a rack to be sectioned and hung from meathooks, then moved to the next section of the trailer for custom cutting and processing.
The farmer then has several options. The meat is market-ready for a farmers market, or for sale to nursing homes, hospitals, local restaurants, or to local school districts for their lunch programs. Rural schools don’t have Taco Bell where the cafeteria used to be. They have Fern, Lenore and Velma cooking mostly locally-grown food from scratch. That’s how it was, and still is, in the school I graduated from, anyway…the possibilities aren’t endless, but they sure aren’t as limited as one might think, once the product is there to sell, the market materializes.
Especially among people who remember what food is supposed to taste like.