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Lessons of the land: Margot Ford McMillen

Margot Ford McMillen sees no place for
industry in the
farmer-land relationship
Sunday, August 17, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:11 p.m. CDT, Sunday, June 29, 2008

Margot Ford McMillen watched farming change from a family-operated holistic system to a massive industry. But she never let go of her feeling that the old way, no chemicals allowed, was the best way. On most Wednesday evenings, she co-hosts a farm issues radio show on KOPN.

I grew up in a suburban area outside Chicago, and then I spent my summers with my grandparents and cousins and all my father’s family outside Decatur, in Taylorville. I just loved being there because of the self-sufficiency of it. Where I would come from my suburban home, if you needed something you went to the store. At my aunt’s house, if she needed something, she went out to the garden. That from the beginning — it made total sense to me. It was the way that I preferred to live.

The field in front of my granddad’s was always in production of some kind or another. It’s sort of the standard in my head when I think about the wise use of the land. It was about five or 10 acres, not a very big field. But it was a hay field. And the farmer would move the farrowing crates, which is where the mother pigs have their babies, onto the hay field after the hay was cut, late fall. The pigs would actually build sort of nests in there and they’d have their babies in it. After winter passed, they would be separated and the babies would grow up and be sold to market.

The field would grow up in hay, and he would actually plant cantaloupe in the areas where the manure was the thickest. He would raise cantaloupes to take to the market, and he was very well known for his cantaloupes (laughs).

To me, it was just a great use of the land, it was always in production and it was making lots of different things. He’d make a little bit of money from the hay, a little bit of money from the cantaloupes and the hogs. He’d use the hay in winter for the hogs. And the whole farm was like that. The ponds had fish in them. Every piece of it was that way.

One of my very first memories was riding in a soybean truck. As I grew up, the soybeans and corn became more of what the profit, the center of the farm, was. Little by little, the hayfield became a cornfield. So I kind of lived through all that evolution of farming. As I got older, it just seemed to me that it didn’t make that much sense to just be raising a couple of crops on a monoculture. It takes a lot of spraying and a lot of fertilizer just to keep the land in production. The way before was easy and natural and wasn’t very labor-intensive. Didn’t take a lot of petro-chemicals or fuel.

In the ’70s, when I was first having my kids, there was a lot of talk about, “We’re going to run out of oil.” And I felt like, “Yeah, duh.” Yeah, we’re using it at an incredible rate and we’re using it to raise and transport food at an incredible rate. Well, living here in Callaway County, we could still get everything from our county. We had friends raising eggs and hogs. The restaurants would be serving local sausage. Those things I really loved about Callaway County.

And that started to change dramatically as the USDA had different rules. (The farmers) hadn’t been used to following the rules, so it was very intrusive to them, having to follow these regulations. We really lost a lot of that local production.

How do you get that back? You don’t have the advice, you don’t have the market because people aren’t used to it — they’ll just go to the grocery store, to the restaurants that are serving what you call, maybe, imported food. So we started a food circle and we just published the names of all the people who were still in business.

And it just happened, timing-wise, that there were some young families interested in getting back into it. We’ve kind of learned to support each other. We’ve learned that when we go to the restaurants, to say, “Now where did you get your lamb? Where did you get your chicken?”

When Margot and her husband, Howard, bought their farm, they decided to do things naturally.

I would say that everything we do is organic, but if I was to be certified organic, I’d have to start buying organic grain, and there’s just hardly anybody raising it. So, I don’t have a name really for what we do. But just the idea of not putting chemicals out is more to me an idea of not patronizing a system that I know isn’t in it for me. That system is in it for a chemical company. When I look at what the land wants to do, the land wants to give back to me. We want to have a relationship with the land.

The community is probably where everything has been lost. And that is the hardest thing to rebuild. It’s just like all of these houses, maybe six or eight houses, have been abandoned and the land is now being farmed by a big industrial farmer who raises corn and soybeans, and he’s got those big hog barns, stinky, stinky places.

Though I just think it’s amazing how many young people are coming back and trying to farm. You know, putting all their heart and soul into it. And I think there’s a lot of hope there.

Lessons of the land: Phoennix Conway


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