from RURAL ROUTES (Farm Issues)

Happy New Year! And, for me, happy new decade. It’s been ten years since my first column ran in The Progressive Populist.

While I haven’t resisted commenting on a few front-page topics, like what the war in Iraq is doing to our future, I’ve mostly concentrated on food and agriculture. I like thinking about stories that are featured way back in most newspapers, like on page 10. And since it’s the month of Janus, the god of doorways, bridges and passages, looking backward and forward with his two faces, it’s time to reflect on the surprises of the page-10 stories over the last ten years.

My first column was about Food Circles, and about building a local economy by connecting consumers with farmers. Today, that subject has enough traction that John Edwards mentions it – repeatedly – when he’s campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president. There are several new books out on eating local, and the big grocers are trying to mimic the personality of small brands with cozy new “natural” or “USDA organic” products. We know better, of course. The only way to really learn about your food is to talk to the folks that grow it. That means shopping at farmers’ markets or locally-owned groceries, and learning what questions to ask. How did the farmer raise this? What chemicals were used? How far did it come? How long was it warehoused? How was it processed? We’re becoming educated, and we’re building better communities at the same time. Surprise!

Here’s another surprise: The 2007 Farm Bill debate. Unlike other farm bills, this one has engaged consumers, who are finally making the connection between farm policy and the food we can buy at the store. The new surveys of obesity and obesity-related disease like diabetes and cancer prove that diet determines health. Today’s consumers know that if you subsidize corn, farmers raise corn. And ethanol? Don’t get me started. Debate on this farm bill is moving the fresh, local food movement to a new level.

And what about those icky hog farms? They’re one of our nation’s sleaziest businesses, but they’re in deep doo doo. Doctors are beginning to pin responsibility for MRSA, the antibiotic-resistant staph, on the confined livestock industry. The biggest hog raisers, Smithfield Pork, was challenged this year by workers rallying for union rights. The shareholders’ meeting on Aug. 29 was interrupted by a worker presenting petitions that eventually forced the bosses to the table. The bosses might have been grateful for the interruption – Smithfield has so much debt that it’s bleeding red ink.

And, here’s a shocker: The Trans-Texas Highway. This story has been so far back in the newspaper that few people get the implications. Long story short: Industry is building a 6-lane corridor highway from the Pacific coast of Mexico across the central United States and into Canada. The port in Mexico will handle ships from China, but the toll road corridor will carry truck traffic plus gas pipelines, and electricity. It’s not being built with public money like the highways of old, but under policies where governments can condemn land for private use, it’s crossing land just as a public work of the old days. If you use your imagination, you can conceive of a future where only certain truck lines, carrying certain products from certain places will be allowed on the corridor. This is an even better reason to build local communities where products can come from our own creativity.

And here’s a story that I never anticipated: The End of TV. The good news is that TV is dying. The bad news is that as it dies the entertainment is being supplied by internet sites like Facebook. And, in the never-ending race to figure how to make money from the Internet, Facebook figured out that if a Facebook member bought something from a cooperative Internet site, like Travelocity or The Knot, Facebook could send a message to all the member’s friends. So those on your contact list would get a note about what you bought, making your privacy pretty much a moot issue. launched an anti-Facebook petition drive and forced the online tracking to be modified so that members have more control.

That story shows how easily these Web sites can move your private information into the public arena, but if that’s not creepy enough, personal data has gone missing in other ways. In November, there was the British loss of data on 25 million people – nearly as many as the personal data on 26.5 million stolen from the US Department of Veterans Affairs in 2006.

It’s the end of the year, and the newspapers will soon be full of “Best of” stories. I’m betting they all feature a paragraph on the War in Iraq, oil hitting $100 per barrel, the crisis in sub-prime lending, a woman running for president against a black man.

Those are big stories all right, but we know from experience that other important stories won’t be on the list. The page-10 stories are the ones that will change our lives forever.

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