Petition calls for small-farm support

Wednesday, December 8, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:51 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

The Missouri Rural Crisis Center wants state lawmakers to put their mouths where their money is.

The Columbia-based advocacy group has started a petition drive calling for Jefferson City legislators to pass a bill requiring the state to buy 10 percent of the food consumed in government buildings and institutions from Missouri farmers.

“This would create a market of millions of dollars of profit that farmers could then use to sell and market their products,” said Bryce Oates, spokesman for the Missouri Rural Crisis Center and leader of the petition drive.

The farmers would then boost Missouri’s economy by spending the money in their local communities, he said. Oates calls this a bubble-up economy.

“It would stop out-of-state corporations from being able to make a profit off our own state tax dollars,” he said.

The petition also calls for an increase in the annual amount of grant money given to small farmers through the Missouri Sustainable Demonstration Award program. The award program originated in 1995, giving out $69,000 in 23 grants to Missouri farmers who were interested in either researching sustainable farming techniques or marketing to new consumer groups.

Almost a decade later, the program’s budget has been cut in half and was threatened with elimination last year.

Something like that would be disastrous for Missouri farmers, according to John Ikerd, professor emeritus of agricultural economics at MU, who led the 1995 campaign.

“We are moving quickly to where every farm is going to be under contract with a corporation that will decide what the farmers should plant and what fertilizers and herbicides to use,” Ikerd said. “The farmers will become hired hands to the corporations.”

There are only 2,500 farms left in Missouri, down from 11,000 a decade ago, largely because of corporate farms run by meat-packing corporations, according to Oates.

These corporate farms are lowering market prices of crops, like grain, corn and livestock, by raising large numbers of their own crops and livestock, Oates said.

In effect, this cuts the farmers out of the process, at least until a lack of buyers drops market prices for the small farm’s products to lower than it costs the corporate farms to raise their own crops and livestock. Then the meatpacking companies buy from the farmers, according to Oates.

“Farmers have begun working off the farm in a huge amount because otherwise they would be going broke,” said Oates, who has to work full time at the Missouri Rural Crisis Center to support his poultry and produce farm in Callaway County.

Walker Claridge, owner of the Root Cellar, used a Sustainable Agricultural award grant to build a greenhouse to research techniques that would extend the growing season in hopes of providing his store with a continuous supply of vegetables.

“Few farmers are willing to grow outside the season because the cost of natural gas is so high that you don’t make a profit,” Claridge said.

In 2002, Claridge developed a greenhouse in Callaway County that used no natural gas and grew thousands of start plants including lettuce, broccoli and carrots that he sold to other farmers. They then grew the plants and gave him a timely return on the products.

Joan Benjamin, coordinator of the Sustainable Agriculture Program, is working from within the state’s Department of Agriculture to increase the amount of money given in grants.

“Once the legislators and the governor sees how much consumer support there is for grass-roots farmers, we hope that they’ll put more money into the program,” said Benjamin.

The Department of Agriculture produces a monthly magazine called Small Farms, Big Dreams that features the results of farmer’s research. Past issues have highlighted 9-year-old Jessica Powell’s development of a piece of land on her family farm in Laclede, Higbee farmer’s use of solar power to control temperature in watering systems, and the creation of underground freezers without electricity in Hartsville.

“I’ve been continuously amazed by the effort and enthusiasm of the farmers to create farming solutions that are healthy for the environment and the community at large,” Benjamin said. “Hopefully, legislators will recognize the programs’ benefits for the community and support the petition.”

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