State Rep Belinda Harris, D-Hillsboro, has a hog farm. And she’s been farming long enough to have seen the changes that corporate farms have wrought in Missouri. In fact, she remembers how worried she and her husband were, back in the early and mid nineties, when they first started hearing–from the Farm Bureau and from various ag mags–that city people were intent on imposing regulations that would stifle farming. They read claims, for instance, that they wouldn’t be allowed to use the manure from their hogs to fertilize their crops anymore. They were concerned because, while they knew that too much manure is toxic, they also knew that, used in the right proportions, it’s the best fertilizer–not to mention being free. The claim was that the feared regulations were being pushed by city folk who know nothing about farming. Those pushing these rumors invented a myth that urbanites visit the country and turn their dainty noses up at the smells that are inherent in farming; that they don’t like the idea of confining animals–when doing so is unavoidable; that they shake their heads over the dust that a combine kicks up at harvest time.
The Farm Bureau was painting city folk as a bunch of prissy busybodies. It was fiction. City people had no interest in restricting the way the Harrises used their manure. Uh uh. What was happening was that sensible environmentalists didn’t want the feces from huge corporate farms seeping into the ground and contaminating the water supply. And various rural residents–not city folk but people who may have lived on that land for generations–objected to the smell from those CAFOs. When one moves in next to you, it’s like living next to a city that has no sewage system.
The claims were lies, then, but the strategy was brilliant, capitalizing as it did on the distrust that many rural people harbor against city dwellers, as well as against interfering government. The fabrications got independent farmers riled up against incursions that in reality would regulate only the corporate farms–you know, the ones that were about to put many a small guy out of business. One of the most common places to see these myths in print was in farmers’ magazines. The advertisers for those publications are … big–organizations like Cargill, Monsanto, and John Deere, organizations that favor Big Ag.
Harris points out that the regulations independent farmers feared never touched them at all. And yet many of them still side with the people doing them the most harm. They’ve bought into the hype. They favored legislation recently introduced in Jeff City that would protect the “right to farm”, as if that were something that’s in any danger. No, wait. I take that back. The right to farm is in danger all right, but not because of needless government regulations. It’s because of the stranglehold corporations have on raising stock.
By the time Harris came to the legislature in 2002, she had begun to figure out what was really going on and her years in the House have clarified the situation for her. She farms in Jefferson County, which is a stone’s throw from St. Louis County. More and more city people are moving in there. And she doesn’t find that their noses are any daintier than country noses. She’s had no complaints about smells from her hog farm.
She even tested her suspicion that the issue was hyped up by questioning several county commissioners about whether they would penalize soybean farmers for raising dust with their combines during harvest. The answer she reliably got was, “No.”
So government regs aren’t threatening her ability to make a living farming. What is threatening her is the vertical integration of the hog business now that the big guys like Smithfield and Cargill control every aspect of it. They have their own slaughterhouses, with the result that there are fewer independent slaughterhouses around the state. That’s bad because it’s not practical to transport lots of animals a couple of hundred miles. The big guys also contract directly with supermarkets, so that even if an independent farmer gets his hogs slaughtered, he may find he can’t sell them for a decent price.
I asked Harris what would help independent farmers in this business environment. She said that the state needs more meat inspectors. Perhaps, too, more of the mobile slaughtering facilities that Blue Girl wrote about last week would alleviate some problems.
That still leaves one major problem for the independent: finding a market for his meat. Harris suggested that people have to keep letting their grocery chains know that they prefer to buy local foods. The chains are starting to get that. They offer some locally grown produce now. They need to take the next step: stocking meat bought from small, independent farmers. Here’s another possibility: the Wednesday Post-Dispatch had a front page article about the resurgence of small, local grocery stores.
I shop at Whole Foods for meat because I refuse to eat chicken pumped full of hormones and antibiotics. I’d love to see Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s get more competition from small grocery stores, especially if one of those independent stores were closer to my house. If I got that lucky, I’d recommend to the owners that they call Belinda Harris for at least some of their pork order. But instead of dreaming about what might happen, I think I’ll dwell in this world and let the manager of the store where I shop know why I don’t buy meat there. I’m going to suggest that the chain might do well to consider carrying at least some chicken that doesn’t come from a CAFO. I’ll ask him to pass the message along the chain of command.