ANKENY, IA — There are moments in a nation’s history that define it. For America’s remaining 2 million farmers (less than 1% of the population) and the more than 300 million eaters, the recent joint Department of Justice and Department of Agriculture workshop on lack of competition in the food and agricultural sectors held in Ankeny, Iowa is potentially one of those moments.
With concentration at record levels in agriculture today, well past levels that encourage or even allow fair prices or competition, the Obama administration’s call for public workshops is an historic event. While agribusiness continues to deny any problem, a simple look at the facts shows that the playing field for family farmers and American consumers is distorted beyond anything resembling a free or competitive market.
Even though these statistics have been widely published lately, I will include them here again just to illustrate the point: 1 company (Monsanto) controls the genetics of 93% of soybeans and 80% of the corn grown in the U.S; 4 companies (Tyson, Cargill, Swift & National Beef Packing Co.) control 85% of the beef packing industry; 4 companies (Smithfield, Tyson, Swift & Cargill) control 66% of the pork packing industry.
For farmers trying to get a fair price for seeds or livestock, such concentration places a crushing burden on their bottom line.
This past Friday nearly 800 individuals from across the country gathered in a small community college auditorium to hear top officials in the Obama administration, including cabinet members Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack (former governor of Iowa) and Attorney General Eric Holder, address the issue of how such excessive market concentration and food monopolies have negatively impacted the lives and livelihoods of family farmers, consumers and rural America. Over the course of eight hours, the audience, made up mostly of farmers, labor workers and farm advocates, some of whom traveled from as far as Montana, Texas, Arkansas and North Carolina, listened as academics, economists, agribusiness representatives, commodity groups and a few farmers detailed specific areas of concern regarding the lack of competition in agricultural markets or, in the case of a several industry reps, denied outright the existence of any problem.
The gravity of this meeting and its outcome could be felt by all attendees as Vilsack, Holder, DOJ antitrust chief Christine Varney, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley and others took the stage for the first panel. A sense of anticipation and restlessness filled the crowd as the panel was announced, which included Iowa’s attorney general, Tom Miller, Congressman Leonard Boswell, Lt. Governor Patty Judge and Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey. The inclusion of the last three panelists, while expected, caused some dismay by longtime Iowa farm activists. Having two Democrats (Boswell and Judge) and a Republican (Northey) at the podium with a long history of supporting industrial agriculture was not what many had hoped for when the workshops were first announced.
Workshop #1 Begins: Vilsack, Holder and Varney
After a round of pleasantries, saying he was glad to be back in Iowa, Secretary Vilsack opened the hearing sharing his concern about the loss of family farmers over his lifetime and the shrinking of rural communities, which he has seen as a small town lawyer, mayor, state senator, governor in Iowa and now as Secretary of Agriculture.
“Looking at the statistics regarding rural America and farms, I have a lot of concern,” said Secretary Vilsack.
He then went on to detail how the rising age of the average farmer, now 57 as reported in the 2007 Ag census, the higher and more prolonged rates of unemployment in rural America and the loss of economic opportunity in rural areas across the country were all issues that he planned to address by improving programs at the USDA.
No matter what one believes about Vilsack’s agricultural biases, favoring biotech, ethanol and exports while still increasing opportunities for beginning farmers, organics and nutrition programs like farm to school, it was evident that he realizes that agriculture and rural America are at a serious crossroads under his watch.
“This is not just about farmers and ranchers,” Vilsack said. “It’s really about the survival of rural America.”
In a USDA press release issued later that day, Vilsack drove that point home even further.
“In my travels across the country, I hear a consistent theme: producers are worried whether there is a future for them or their children in agriculture, and a viable market is an important factor in what that future looks like,” said Vilsack. “These issues are difficult and complex, which is why this workshop today is so important and long overdue.”
Attorney General Holder called the public workshop “a milestone” event.
Many in the audience, especially family farmers concerned that the workshop would be another dog and pony show that promises change, but only returns agribusiness as usual, were encouraged by Holder’s attendance, which was only announced late last week.