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 Writer's Desk 

January 23, 2006
Vol. 3, No. 36



Circle of farmers, urbanites sustain healthy food production

By Rich Heffern, editor of The Celebration E-series

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Since I was born in Missouri, you must -- as the old saw has it -- show me. By tradition Missourians lust for hard data, tangible evidence. Abstractions make us uneasy. A Missouri farmer, the story goes, once visited his Texas cousin. “Look at my ranch!” the Texan exclaimed, indulging in braggadocio. “We could pack into my pickup before breakfast and not reach the other side until way after midnight!” “Yup,” commented the Missourian matter-of-factly, “I had a truck like that once.”

Freewheeling political abstractions often fill the air. “Welfare reform” and “family values” are two we still often hear. A recent candidate for a high state office touted his allegiance to “good old Missouri values” -- whatever those are.

When I hear these terms bandied about, my Missouri nature looks for nitty-gritty specifics on exactly how we get there from here. Some years ago my wife got the two of us involved in a local, homegrown effort that, to me, demonstrates exactly what I mean.

The Food Circle is an endeavor by folks in our city to build a local and sustainable food system, one where small family farmers in the area can find markets in our city of a million plus, and where city dwellers, in turn, can find readily available regionally and organically-grown vegetables and meat from humanely-raised animals. We urbanites need food that is safe, nutritious and tasty. Out beyond the sprawling suburbs, small farms struggle, lacking reliable markets for their vegetables, eggs and meats. They need us; we need them.

Here’s the larger problem the Food Circle addresses: In 1940 there were over six million American farmers; now there are about a million, with that number expected to show a continuing decline in the next census. High-profit enterprises that resemble vast factories replace small farms. Crops grow in regimented rows, sprayed liberally with harmful herbicides and pesticides, fertilized by chemicals. Animals are packed tightly into cubicles for efficient production. Many never experience sunlight or breathe fresh air their whole brief lives. They are shot full of antibiotics to prevent diseases easily spread by such tightly-packed living conditions. Every year uncountable acres of topsoil are wasted through erosion caused by poor farming practices.

In the city the problem shows another face. A generation or two ago we shopped down the street at a locally-owned store where the proprietor might even have greeted us by name. How we buckle up two tons of rubber-shod steel to take us to shop at a MegaSuperPriceBusterShopper where aisles shelved high with expertly designed cans and boxes stretch off in perspective-boggled rows under fluorescent dazzle. Contact briefly occurs when the checker who passes our bar-coded purchases over electrified mirrors offers us that 21st century koan-type riddle: “Paper or plastic?”

Human and earth connections are suffering here, and the over-processed food just isn’t tasty, adding insult to injury.

What then must we do? Some years ago a group gathered in a church basement. They palavered, brainstormed, dreamed and then fashioned the beginnings of a grass-roots organization that would bring together small farmers and city consumers. Better markets make it possible for small farms to thrive once again. Over the years I’ve watched this effort bring together the retired with college students, Republicans and Libertarians with Unitarian church-attending Democrats. Secretaries and janitors serve on marketing committees with doctoral candidates. Co-op supporters and capitalists co-write press releases. Farmers and yuppies pitch in on fund-raising. Since 1994, the group has published a yearly directory that details everything a consumer needs to know to get local, tasty food.

This group shares a common dream and has the best potluck dinners in town. The dream looks like this: Small businesses, such as salsa, pickle and ketchup factories, open in the inner city, hiring unemployed young and former welfare recipients to tend the cookers and pack the crates. Our dream features neighborhood canning centers, servicing community and backyard gardens that have become widespread throughout the city. Summer evenings block dwellers come together over steaming vats and jars with the heady smell of stewing tomatoes in the air.

Cafes, bakeries and mom-and-pop grocers back in every neighborhood replace the local Fast Belch Emporium, the Get ‘N’ Hurry, the crack house or the boarded-up storefront. Vacant lots turn into community vegetable gardens. Kids plant seeds and watch them grow. Neighbors snap green beans and shell peas together. Every neighborhood has a small tavern and a cozy restaurant that serves dishes lovingly prepared from fresh in-season vegetables and meat, with handmade beer from local microbreweries to wash it all down. The food tastes good and is safe to eat. Local farmers raise their crops with the assurance they will get a fair price in the nearby markets. The food is fresher. Our money makes the rounds within our own area, rather than off to McFastBuck’s corporate coffers.

Impossible idyll or just a tough challenge, at Food Circle meetings you can sink your teeth into “family values.” I guess down deep we feel we won’t ever get our American civilization back until we get our neighborhoods and farms back, that the struggle will be fought block by block, acre by acre. Solutions will come from the bottom up, not from the top.

Is this spirituality? Sure feels like it to me. We sleep good at night after getting out mailings or helping draft grant proposals. All the proof a Missourian needs that maybe God’s at work here, renewing the face of the earth.

For more info, go to www.farmprofitability.org/research/kccircle/communsupport.htm

Rich Heffern's e-mail address is rheffern@ncronline.org. The Celebration E-Series, NCR sister publications, are Internet resources for parishes: The Catechist's Connection, Parish Life and The Reflecting Community. For a preview, follow this link: The Celebration E-Series.
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