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The Crash: We've Seen This Before

RURAL ROUTES / Margot Ford McMillen

Last weekend, the big social event in my world was helping a friend move from her duplex apartment, in a complex that had been foreclosed, to a new apartment. The bank, who now owned her unit, didn't want to be in the rentals business, so they were moving everybody out. This is a short-sighted plan, in my opinion, because I believe that new buyers would want renters with good track records, but I'm not a bank. Maybe they had plans to upgrade the places, or maybe they had buddies that wanted to live there.

Anyway, we were moving her into a new place with, we hope, a solvent landlord.

Under the conditions, the entire block was moving, and there were pickups and vans all over the place, carrying volunteers pressed into the moves. Our little clump, professors close to retirement, chatted nonstop about Wall Street. I felt a little swagger in my voice when I said, "Let 'em all (meaning the big banks) go down."

Everyone rushed to correct me because each had lost money in their 401Ks. I've never made enough to qualify for a 401K. "Being low-income has its benefits," I continued to bluster, "because my Social Security check will be just a few dollars less than my teaching salary."

"You have no idea what this means," they dismissed me.

And they're correct. I have no idea. And neither do they. Nobody does.

But I do remember the 1980s, when the same foreclosure winds passed through farm country. It seems like a dress rehearsal for the big show that's going on now.

Farmers had taken on too much debt-for land and equipment to build their businesses-and when land prices fell because of (choose one) 1) drought, or 2) manipulation, farmers couldn't make their payments, and the loan guarantors-the government, represented by the Farm Service Association (FSA)-sold their places out from under them. Quite often, the places went to speculators that bought and sold and made millions.

One group of Missouri farmers held off foreclosures as long as possible, then went to the courthouse on auction days and stood in solidarity with those who were losing their places. Nobody dared to bid because the moods were so black that you'd never know what those crazy guys might do. The places went unsold.

Then the farmers staged a sit-in that dragged on for more than 5 months. They demanded that the foreclosures stop. And that the government sit down with the farmers and figure out how to fix the mess. And that the management of the FSA offices would be fired. And that the laws were changed, regulations put in place.

And they won.

That was one battle, but the wars go on. The government forces one law or policy after another on farmers. Each time, the new scheme puts a bunch out of business. The latest folly is the National Animal ID System, or NAIS, which would charge family farms to put microchips on their livestock. These microchips would cost family farmers thousands of times more than the charge to corporations.

For small farms that sell in the local community, the cost would be prohibitive and it's doubtful that consumers would pay the difference. And then, presto change-o, we'll all be buying chicken from Pilgrim's Pride and pork from Smithfield, two companies that have received dozens of policy advantages, from subsidies to tax relief. We'd be buying from them because there'd be no meat left in the local system.

Today, if there's one place where the market is growing, it's in the local food system. Farmers markets are jammed and consumers are clamoring for home-raised foods. Of course, local farmers don't make much money. We have always been low-income and we've all carried two or three jobs for as long as we've been growing. This means we're poor consumers and we don't have lobbyists.

But we've got the passion of being associated with a just cause - producing good food for our communities.

One problem with Wall Street is that they're just traders. They don't produce anything, and they have no respect for producers. They just juggle, and take a cut for every toss of the ball.

Check out the charts for any stock or commodity. Some kind of news will kick off a run, and it will go up. Three, four times its original value. Then reality takes over and the price falls. When there's a chance for another profit, up it goes again. When the news came out on Sept. 29 that Congress had rejected W's proposal to save the banks even though the banks had done nothing to deserve saving, stocks took the biggest plunge in history. Then, seeing prices so low that there was a chance to profit, the traders jumped back in and sent it up to regain half the loss. Supply and demand? Ha.

Nobody knows where this rampant speculation will end up. But we all know we'll be paying for the Wall Street debacle, and then we'll pass the debt to our kids.

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