Dan and Joanne Nelson grow 35 different varieties of tomatoes outside of Moberly, Missouri.
Photo: Celia Pernot

I just got back from the Missouri Farmers Union annual meeting. Even though our headquarters is in the state capitol, Jefferson City, we’ve been trying to hold each convention across the state in a different rural community. This year it was in Moberly.

As I left home for the 215 mile drive toward the center of the state, I was stricken again, with the stark differences that I always encounter when traveling in Missouri. From areas like mine where industry is nearly non-existent, I found roads that steadily grew wider and better kept. Roads and bridges have been a challenge for our state.

Recently the incumbent governor, Matt Blunt, announced his solution to fixing our deteriorating infrastructure. He planned to turn the rebuilding of hundreds of highway bridges over to one or two large contractors who would do all the work over a period of five years without ever collecting a dime. Governor Blunt said he would “make it worth their while” if the work was completed on time, or sooner, by making their lump sum payment reflect their investment in time and capital. We may never know how his contractor friends would have made out on bridge reconstruction, because this weekend Governor Blunt suddenly set the state on its ear by declining to seek a second term.

But that’s the way it goes here. We go from cracked pavement and old bridges to political fixes, four lanes, and factories.

To get to Moberly I traveled south on Langdon’s claim to highway fame, I-29. When the interstate system came to Atchison County most residents worried that it would bring too much change. They needn’t have been concerned, because whatever enters the county via the 4 lane leaves equally as well. A lot of travelers never even know they’ve been here.

From I-29 in St Joseph, I looped onto Highway 36. Highway 36 has a reputation for being one of the longest lasting highway construction projects in Missouri. It’s a 2 lane turned four-lane that traverses the northern half of the state from the Missouri to the Mississippi River. It’s a scenic drive in the daytime. Old farmsteads still rest alongside the right of way as well as some pretty impressive new homes. The old filling station where I bought gas on a hog buying trip 30 years ago is still standing, the building anyway. An earlier energy crisis in the 70’s closed up the gas station for good and the structure stood vacant for years. On this trip I noticed that it’s now a thrift shop.

Highway 36 goes by some of the biggest names in rural Missouri’s small towns — towns like Chillicothe , Marceline, Brookfield, and Macon. These are not the Ozarks, but the green hills of Missouri, cattle country, and railroad towns, where big rumbling diesel electric locomotives bellow through the countryside. It’s a gritty, down to earth, working part of the state with a history that is as storied as any in the nation. As I passed the Hamilton exit I was reminded that JC Penney, one of the nations greatest retailers was born in Northern Missouri.

At Macon I turned south on another 4 lane, Highway 63, that runs straight south through Columbia and Jefferson City. But this trip I would only go as far as Moberly . Taking time to drive through town I saw that Moberly still has a strong downtown business district. There were lots of stores, but like most small towns there were some empty storefronts, too. Still, it was refreshing to find a mixture of retailers, including clothing stores. Big clothing retailers, like the fabled JC Penney’s and others, have made it difficult for small retailers to compete over the last 20 years. Here around Langdon, we rely on mail order or sixty mile drives to replenish our clothes closets.

NFU meeting

Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon (left) and MFU member Rob Meyer.
Photo: Amy Meyer

Moberly has a wonderful Municipal Auditorium. That’s where we held our Missouri Farmers’ Union meeting. It was built in the 30’s as one of the great public works sponsored by the Roosevelt Administration to help bring prosperity and confidence back to rural America. It is really a beautiful and well kept reminder of another time, and a brave time. A friend and fellow member of MFU, Barbara Ross, grew up in Moberly, and remembers attending dances and other public functions there. Her memories were so strong I could almost see them myself.

We had some great speakers. After Mayor Don Burton welcomed us to town, two Farmers Union members, Nancy Smith and Russ Kremer, talked about marketing and innovation in the food industry. That’s something both of them know quite a bit about, because they’ve both been working to develop markets for sustainable, locally-produced food.

Then Bill McKelvey moderated a panel discussion between reporters Mary Nguyen of the Columbia Tribune and freelance writer Repps Hudson, formerly of the St Louis Post Dispatch. Mary talked about how her mother would travel to farmers market to buy live rabbits and chickens, which she slaughtered herself for the family table. She said that she learned from that not to be afraid to eat anything. As a result she gained an appreciation for the different textures and tastes of locally grown and prepared food. Repps commented that leaving behind the restrictions of a job with regular hours has made him appreciate being a house husband. He said that shopping for food for the family is one of the things he enjoys most about his new situation, and he commented that people are forgetting how to prepare a meal from basic ingredients. As an example he said that while he still buys whole chicken and cuts it into pieces himself, many people buy chickens that have already been prepared. They’ve never learned to do it themselves.

The meetings went on the rest of the day. Harwood Shaffer of the University of Tennessee Agriculture Policy Analysis Center spoke at the noon luncheon. It was a familiar topic for someone like me who has grown used to driving through beleaguered rural communities in search of hope and prosperity. Harwood urged the farmers in attendance not to bet the farm on current high grain prices because of both new and old farm land being brought into production as a result of higher commodity values. Places like South America, and even Russia, China, and Africa are poised to bring huge new supplies of grain onto the market, and the farm bill offers no protection from falling prices and higher production costs. “Save your money” Harwood said. “You’re going to need it.”

We heard from Emil Ramirez of the United Steelworkers about health insurance options. Steve and Joe Maxwell talked about the MFU development of Heritage Acres Pork and the Ozark Mountain Pork Cooperative. National Farmers Union president Tom Buis stopped in to share his knowledge of the farm bill and the political climate in Washington.

At our banquet on Friday evening we had two honored guests. The first was Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon. Jay has announced that he is running for governor. For the first time in his campaign, Nixon outlined some of his plans for the Missouri Department of Agriculture and rural Missouri.

MFU meeting

Sen. Claire McCaskill and MFU member Dr. John Bennett.
Photo: Amy Meyer

Following Jay’s address, Senator Claire McCaskill talked about her recent trip to the Mideast. Senator McCaskill said that she is using her experience as an attorney and former state auditor to figure out why the war in Iraq has cost nearly 500 billion dollars. The Senator said that in the first year, a budgeted cost of 700 million dollars soared to over $7 billion, and stated that the number of private contractors in Iraq working under cost-plus contracts exceeds the actual number of US troops there. She said that US troops are reliant on contractors to deliver to them their necessities, and that sometimes contractors simply fail to come to work. She talked about the political climate in Washington, and how easily some have forgotten who they are and where they came from. She vowed to remain close to Missouri, its people, and her own strong values.

That’s about all I have to report. I returned home to warmer temperatures and melting ice and snow”¦..and mud. There’s lots to do to prepare for spring, and in the meantime the forecast is for a return to bitter cold and more snow. Here around Langdon, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before.

Like the weather in Langdon, politics, and farming in general, if you don’t like it, just stick around awhile. Given enough time, it’ll change.

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