Act: Inspiration

Tomato Canning as Protest: How a Community Resisted Corporate Farming

August 13, 2018

This story from the YES! Media archives was originally published in the Summer 2000 issue of YES! Magazine.

It’s mid-August, about 7:30 in the morning, and it’s going to be a hot one, probably in the mid-90s. It’s a good day to spend in a basement. A church basement, for example, where our rural neighborhood is gathering.

This is tomato-canning day, and about 20 of us will pass in and out of the basement kitchen, “working up,” as we say in Missouri, tomatoes for the winter.

Everything comes at once in the tomato business. Our neighbor Lee woke up one day last week to acres and acres of tomatoes, all coming on at the same time. Lee sells her tomatoes at three farmers’ markets in mid-Missouri, but she knew she’d never be able to sell all these. She didn’t have time to put up any herself, but she’d supply the tomatoes if we’d can a share for her.

Free food? A chance to get together with neighbors? Of course we’ll do it!

So I’ve just pulled my pickup up to the building, the bed loaded with boxes, bushels and styrofoam crates of tomatoes. Red ones, yellow ones, purple, pink, and striped ones. Romas for sauce and a fat red slicing tomato Lee has bred over the years and calls Lee’s Pride.

I carry a box into the church where three or four women and some kids have gathered. The whole bunch comes pouring out the door to the truck. They can’t believe how many tomatoes we have. The grown-ups look at each other with delight, but the kids look scared to death. They think we’re going to make them work. Been there, done that, they’re thinking.

In the basement, people have already started washing jars and developing a system. The kindergarten table becomes a peeling station. Teresa and Barb sit on the low benches with a pot of boiling water to loosen tomato skins and start peeling.

At the four-burner stove, Shirley and Nancy are sterilizing jars. When enough tomatoes are peeled to fill a big bowl, a teenager named Asia carries the bowl to the stove. After a while, another teenager, Rene, gets interested in peeling, and soon we have teenagers Rene and Ona peeling and grown-ups carrying. Even the kids have forgotten that this is work. As we get into a rhythm, the jobs just seem to get done.

We dump huge piles of Romas into an electric roaster for tomato sauce and set it out of the way. But it soon becomes everyone’s excuse to stretch their legs. We all poke at it. We’re fascinated by the way the sauce develops. First squishy red balls of individual fruits, then a pulpy juice that gradually thickens. We saunter over to the roaster, peek in and, depending on whim, mash at the lumps or just give the sauce a stir. Then we report back. “It’s bubbling, so I turned it down,” or “It’s not bubbling, so I turned it up.” Then one tells how her mom made sauce and another one tells about a recipe she saw in a magazine. Chitchat, yes, but important in defining who we are. Our mothers have worked up tomatoes for generations, but on the cusp of the 21st century, we get new ideas from magazines.

Canning day is not a church activity. Of the 20-or-so families taking part, only two are church members. For the rest of us, the church is simply the one center left for our community. We once had a school, a store, and two churches. But our neighborhood, existing on the border between prairie and woody hills, has been mostly industrialized by big farmers. The old homesteads, school, church, store were merely nuisances in the path of big tractors that speed over the land, treating 40 acres in a couple of hours. The buildings have been plowed under.

They call it “production agriculture,” and it’s not family farms. When you drive down our gravel road and look down the seven driveways between my farm and the blacktop, you see rundown homesteads. Families once lived here. Now, if the barns or sheds are left, they’re used to store chemicals and machines.

All around the church where we’re working, huge ag operations have taken over the land where families used to live. Each operation is a specialist—hay, or grain, or cattle—one step in the corporate process. Farmers once raised everything the neighborhood needed plus something to sell in town. Now they pursue careers in what might be called agricultural piecework. They’re the next generation of our kids, hanging on to the farming life by their fingernails.

Since production agriculture depends on expensive, specialized machinery and chemicals, production agriculturalists are heavily in debt. To make their machines pay, they have to farm huge acreages. A drought year like 1999 can pull them under, and nobody but a Wall Street corporation has enough money to buy them out. So when the local production agriculturalists go under, corporations will strengthen their hold on the food-raising system. And food produced by these corporations will be the only choice in food, unless we support small farmers like our neighbor Lee with the tomatoes.

That’s the bottom line. Production agriculture is about chemicals, machines, debt, money. Farming is about families and homes. Our canning ritual fights off the industry and brings a little of that community back.

Rural communities have always had a currency that means as much as money. Call it barter, or volunteerism, or neighboring. People take up house-building, music, nursing, cooking, preaching, hunting, or other skills they can use in trade. The trades bring tangible benefits, like when neighbors help put a new roof on the barn or play music for a wedding. But the intangible is as important—the shared optimism and confidence that gets you through winter.

In a community of close neighbors, you all know what the others need. Able people help care for disabled people. Wise people counsel foolish people. You celebrate holidays, you develop a regional sense of food, crafts, music, dance, art. At an economic level, neighborhood life pays off in transportation dollars saved because our needs are met nearby. And we save each other money in hundreds of other ways—passing on clothing, trading cars, picking up stuff on a trip to town, helping with chores.

When we were kids in the 1950s and 1960s, farm families raised food and wood to heat the house and build fencing. I remember my grandfather’s farm: chickens, hogs, cattle, horses, melons, corn, soybeans, fish in all the stock ponds and the creek, a large garden, fruit trees.

Among neighbors a lot of food swapping went on. If you had a good apple tree and your neighbor had a good peach tree, well then, you both had apples and peaches. This swapping and diversity insulated a neighborhood from failures, both the human kind and the crop kind.

And our grandpas raised something to sell in town. “Cash crops” gave you money to buy the things you couldn’t raise on the farm, such as tractors, sugar, coffee, chemicals, and gasoline. And, of course, “pretties”—those shiny rings and candies that came from the store.

But modern life takes money. Our love of pretties now extends to high-tech items such as the computer I’m using right now. So we work “off-farm,” breaking our connections to the neighborhood.

Now hard-working farm kids stream out of here. For much of the 20th century, government policy has favored urbanization and industry rather than family farms. Some of our kids become CEOs at the same food corporations that consolidate the industry. When their parents can no longer farm, the home places are sold off to neighbors. The urban population first became the majority in 1930 and has risen steadily. Today, farmers are less than 2 percent of the population.

Some of the kids who leave the farm can’t make it. I attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. My apartment in Chicago was cheap, and my neighbors were mostly displaced rural people. They ran extension cords through the windows of the apartments into pickups parked in the alley, providing a place for relatives to sleep. I didn’t understand it then. I understand it now.

So, even though advertisers still use images of Old MacDonald climbing off a battered old tractor to sell fast food and grocery-store packages, the number of farm families shrinks every year. Between 1992 and 1997, we lost 9 percent of our farms. Then the USDA changed the definition of farm to include rural acreage owned by urban landowners. So the agency can now report that the number of farms has risen, but that doesn’t mean families are coming back to the land.

Instead, the urban landowners hire someone to work their fields. Sometimes, this means that a crew of strangers brings their own machinery from far away, works the land for the maximum yield, and leaves. That’s production agriculture writ large.

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Still, farm life in my Missouri neighborhood was fairly self-sufficient until about 1970. That was when big egg companies and big chicken companies big-shouldered their way into a major small-farm cash crop. Eggs and chicken routes had meant prosperity to some of our neighbors, especially the women.

The big companies have the advantage of delivering to the grocer a week’s worth of eggs at a time, off one truck instead of the assortment that came in from the country. And the eggs are uniform. The 1970s consumer was already choosing machine-made rather than homemade furniture and clothing, and these factory eggs look as consistent as something from a machine.

Poultry factories were just the beginning. Producers in year-round summer climates such as California and Florida began raising and shipping strawberries, melons, tomatoes and lettuce. Then, about 10 years ago, consolidation in the hog market hastened the disappearance of the farm-raised hog—once called “the mortgage lifter” because farmers used hog money to pay mortgages and taxes.

We remaining families make it in the country with jobs off the farm. Still, we love the rural community and the rhythm of life that acknowledges the seasons. We think that if we work together, trade with each other, support each other, we can make our way of life survive.

Back in the church kitchen, neighbors pass in and out to work a few hours or just visit a bit. Glenda brings another bushel of—gasp!—tomatoes. Julie brings plates of barbecued beef. We’ve all brought a little food to share—fruit from our orchards, bread from a commune down the road, hard-boiled eggs from Linda’s hens. We try to keep it local, but we’re showing off our best, too. The noon meal turns into a feast.

We’re a diverse assortment of people. Judy, Lisa, and Eleanor are young moms, Lisa with a tiny new baby. Laura and Wilma are grandmas, Fred’s retired from a career in construction maintenance. A couple of us are, for the most part, housebound, and have ridden here with other people. One woman is in mourning for her dear mother. Another is excited about launching a new business. Barb, a night-worker, is exhausted, but she’s having too much fun to leave. Walker is beginning a career as a professional chef, and he bubbles with ideas. There are a half-dozen kids, no two the same age. Our incomes range from the lowest end of the working poor to self-employed and well-paid.

Almost everyone has a story to share. Remember the neighbor lady who made tomato wine every year? Have you ever had green tomato pie? So is the food the most important thing going on in this kitchen? Or is it the friendship? Or can we separate the two? Where the closest grocery stores are miles away, food is a great equalizer. We all need it. We all appreciate it. We don’t want it to go to waste. And working together is how, as Teresa puts it, “We all get to know each other.” So what’s going on in the church basement is a sort of re-creation of an older kind of life, but it’s also a beginning of something new. Part of the story is that we’ll use the tomatoes in the winter, opening jars and smelling the wonderful fresh smell of summer produce.

Another part of the story is that we’re building new traditions on the old. Buying or trading with our neighbors creates a friendly tide, lifting all our ships. For our younger neighbors, this is a way to learn skills and become a little more self-sufficient. And it’s fun. The word spreads. As it turns out, we’ll have a bigger group of participants in October for applesauce season.

In fact, we have young people coming to our gathering because they want to live in our neighborhood, get to know us, and look for a place to buy. When a historic place came up for auction two years ago, two young women with plans for an organic lettuce farm won the bid against a guy who puts up huge hog buildings and manure lagoons. Needless to say, we were delighted. We helped them build their greenhouse and we eat their lettuce.

We neighbors have made a commitment to support small farmers, and we’re working it out in this kitchen. We are finding new ways to pass on the old food traditions. Two of our elderly neighbors have made their livings with chickens, selling eggs to people in town. Linda is learning from them, so the tradition will be passed on. At the end of two days, we divide up hundreds of jars of tomatoes and sauce, load our pots and pressure cookers in the backs of pickups and wave adieu.

Job well done.

Margot Ford McMillen

Margot Ford McMillen raises livestock on a small farm and teaches English at Westminster College in Callaway County, Missouri. She writes extensively about Missouri culture and history, produces and hosts “Farm and Fiddle” on KOPN radio, and is a regular columnist for Progressive Populist

Tags: building a resilient food and farming system, building community resilience, small farmers