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Thursday, November 1, 2007

Green Market Cooperatve, the Beginning of Glasgow's Food Utility?

Fifty years ago a group of forward-looking individuals came together to discuss Glasgow’s energy future. That group came to the conclusion that electric power would be a lynchpin in the success of Glasgow over the coming decades and they reckoned that local ownership and control of the electric power grid would be the best way to make sure that Glasgow’s energy resources were properly developed to serve the local citizens instead of the stockholders of some distant power corporation. After a while that discussion crystalized and became the Glasgow Electric Plant Board.

After a really rocky process of gestation, the Glasgow EPB was born and then took over the facilities formerly owned and operated by Kentucky Utilities and began the process of building and operating a power grid with the purpose of assuring abundant and low-cost electric power to serve our population. Now, it seems like a very simple idea that no one would quarrel with, but in the late 50's, it was quite controversial. Still, the idea of operating an electric grid as a tool to spur local economic development and to facilitate a sustainable and durable economic future for Glasgow finally won all the arguments, and most of the local citizenry would now agree that it was a great idea.

Twenty years ago the EPB started discussing the idea that robust broadband networks would likely be another crucial element in the future success of our local economy. Like the discussions fifty years ago which lead to the creation of the EPB, those discussions started small but soon developed into a full-blown vision of a new way to assure the long-term vitality of our local economy. As that vision was adopted by the EPB and recommended, controversy, not unlike that which accompanied the initial birth of the EPB, came rather quickly. A locally owned and operated broadband network meant full-blown competition with incumbent cable television companies and telephone companies. They howled and complained and, filed lawsuits. Still, the EPB built the first municipally-owned broadband network in the US, and it is still building it and refining it today. This network, like the electric network which proceeded it by thirty years, has become an essential element to our local economy and to our daily lives.

However, electric power and broadband telecommunications cannot, by themselves, provide us a safe and happy existence in Glasgow. Other commodities like water, food, and jobs are also necessary. It is certain that the fine folks at the Glasgow Water Company are doing a great job on making sure we have a plentiful supply of water. It is also certain that, if we provide a robust electric power network and broadband network and water/sewer systems, industrial and retail jobs will continue to come take advantage of those systems. But, have you thought about our position relative to assuring our food supply? Well, until recently, I’m not certain any of us were really thinking about that, but the same genetic strain of good will and intelligence that started those folks fifty years ago thinking about Glasgow’s energy future is still alive and flourishing in our community!

There is a group among us, lead by one Kimberly Page, that is worrying about sustaining our food supply in the face of a future fraught with great change and uncertainty. We should all be thankful and supportive of the work they are doing. Just to help illustrate how important this work is, let’s just review a few startling facts about the way we eat today. It is certain that everyone reading this is painfully aware of the spiraling cost of gasoline, diesel fuel, and electric power. However, did you realize how all of this comes together to threaten our food supply? Did you know that average bite of food that we eat has traveled fifteen hundred miles before it reaches your lips? Well, it is true, and therein lies the reason that communities like Glasgow should be looking at establishing local ownership of a food delivery system which is not solely reliant upon super farms in remote areas growing and processing our food to be shipped to us on a truck. Thankfully, this local group, which is now calling itself Green Market Cooperative (, is taking on this problem on our behalf.

A few months ago a friend recommended that I read a book by Bill McKibben, Deep Economy. I recommend you all do the same thing. It is available at the Mary Wood Weldon Memorial Library. But until you take in the whole book, let’s share some information from it just to whet your appetite.

Modern agriculture produces a lot of food, and produces it cheaply, two feats that people have spent all of human history trying to achieve. The engine of this achievement has been, for a century, relentless consolidation and concentration, a process that is by now very nearly complete in the United States and is still accelerating elsewhere. Four companies slaughter 81 percent of American beef. Cargill, Inc., controls 45 percent of the globe’s grain trade, while its competitor Archer Daniels Midland controls another 30 percent . . . Eighty-nine percent of American chickens are produced under contract to big companies, usually in broiler houses up to five hundred feet long holding thirty thousand or more birds. Four multinational companies control over 70 percent of fluid milk sales in the United States, and one Ohio “farm” produces 3 billion eggs per year. Four firms control 85 percent of global coffee roasting, and a small group of multinationals handles 80 percent of the world trade in cocoa, pineapples, tea, and bananas. The merger of Philip Morris and Nabisco in 2000 created a food conglomerate that collects nearly 10 cents of every dollar an American consumer spends on food. Meanwhile, five companies control 75 percent of the global vegetable seed market, and their grip on the market is tightening as the seed companies patent more and more genetically modified varieties and prevent seed saving. As a former Monsanto executive boasted not long ago, “What you are seeing is not just a consolidation of seed companies, it’s really a consolidation of the entire food chain.”

But there’s also another potential cost to our food system, one we’ve just begun to understand in the wake of 9/11: any enterprise so centralized is exquisitely vulnerable to sabotage.

. . .We assume, because it makes a certain kind of intuitive sense, that industrialized farming is the most productive farming. I mean, if I sit on my porch whittling toothpicks with my Swiss Army knife, I can produce a hundred in a day. If I install a toothpick-whittling machine, I can produce a thousand in an hour. By analogy, a vast Midwestern field filled with high-tech equipment ought to produce more food than someone with a hoe in a small garden. As it turns out, however, this simply isn’t true. If all you are worried about is the greatest yield per acre, then smaller farms produce more food. Which, if you think about it some more, makes sense. If you are one guy on a tractor responsible for thousands of acres, you grow your corn and that’s about all you can do: one pass after another with the gargantuan machines across your sea of crop. But if you’re working on ten acres, then you have time to really know the land, and to make it work harder. You can intercrop all kinds of plants: their roots will go to different depths, or they’ll thrive in each other’s shade, or they’ll make use of different nutrients in the soil. You can also walk your fields, over and over, noticing. As one small farmer recently wrote in Farming magazine, spending part of every day in the pasture gives you a “grass eye,” “a keen awareness” of where small seeps of water are muddying the fields, or whether “earthworms and other soil life are properly disposing of cow pies.” Yellow clover leaves signify a sulfur deficiency; an abundance of dandelions means a shortage of calcium. “Every spot or plant in the pasture,” he says, “is trying to tell us something.” Does this sound like hippie nonsense? According to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture, smaller farms produce far more food per acre, whether you measure in tons, calories, or dollars. They use land, water, and oil much more efficiently; if they have animals, the manure is a gift, not a threat to public health. “In terms of converting inputs into outputs, society would be better off with small-scale farmers, “writes Brian Halweil. “As population continues to grow in many nations, and the amount of farmland and water available to each person continues to shrink, a small farm structure may become central to feeding the planet.”

I quote that much of the book to make a point. Just what is Glasgow surrounded by? We are surrounded by an abundance of fertile and beautiful land which is generally split up into small farms. We have been granted this marvelous natural resource and this new initiative by the Green Market Cooperative folks here in Glasgow may be just what we need to capitalize on this asset. Their initial idea is to create a place where local produce and customers can come together for commerce. But the hope is that this will become the catalyst for a new relationship between local consumers and local producers. Hopefully the place will give way to new decisions by local farmers to change production from corn, tobacco, and other products which are transported great distances and return little of the final product cost to the producer, to the production of fruits, vegetables, dairy, beef, poultry and grains that can be sold locally and directly to the end consumer. That will cut out the WalMarts of the world and preserve most of the money for the producer instead of an endless row of middlemen. Such a system would help us declare independence from the Cargills and Archer Daniels Midlands of the world. Instead we might create a system which would give Glasgow a locally owned and operated food utility which could become just as important to Glasgow's success as the EPB has been for electric power and broadband communications.

So, be thankful for the folks at Green Market Cooperative. Go to their web site at and read more about them. Become a member. Help them become the next great idea that results in a durable future and comfortable lifestyle for our community. While it seems hopeless for us to convince the whole world to think like we do, it is completely possible for us to operate sensibly in our own back yard. These dedicated folks are already out back mowing it and planting flowers. Let’s all pitch in and help!

Read more about this concept at