Farmers sell their goods direct to eager Chicagoans

The boxes and bags appeared a little before noon. There were 40,000 pounds of rice, cornmeal, and soybeans -- grown by Missouri farmers and ready for sale to the people of Chicago. The farmers' message: ``We need better prices for our crops.'' The Chicagoans, primarily blacks from the city's South Side, caught on.

``I've been hearing that they've been foreclosing [on] the farmers,'' said Bekoe Abenaa, a data processor, who happened to be the first customer of the day. ``I guess I want to try to help them.''

The sale, held Saturday outside the headquarters of Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity) and at another location on the North Side, was the latest move by the growing farm-protest movement.

``This is to help the farmers,'' added Camille Roberts, standing farther back in line to buy cornmeal and rice. ``And it helps us, you know.''

These farmers argue that they cannot survive very long with low commodity prices. They want Congress to mandate higher minimum prices for commodities. ``The only way we can stay on the farm is by doing something like this,'' said Carlos Welty, a spokesman for the American Agriculture Movement, who organized the Chicago sale with a few other Missouri farmers. ``My grain bins are full and there are people up here who are hungry.''

To drive home their point, the Missouri farmers sold their food at about 100 percent of parity. Under parity, their food prices would rise by the same percentage that prices of other items have risen since the 1910-14 period. But even by selling at twice what they usually receive from other buyers, the farmers' prices were still below supermarket prices.

``Why did I buy? It's cheap,'' exclaimed one woman, whose husband was carrying a box of cornmeal at 25 cents and rice at 33 cents a pound. ``It's cheaper than the store, and it's fresh.''

In January, the farm value of a market basket of food items was only 32 percent of the retail cost, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. The rest is taken up by such costs as processing, transportion, and distribution.

The farmers say they can make a profit with the direct-selling venture if food warehouses are set up to distribute the food. ``It's kind of a trial run,'' said Ed Stoops, one of the Missouri farmers. Two similar sales were held in St. Louis recently, he says. Now the idea may be tried out in Kansas City.

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