Two years ago this week, the USDA and U.S. Justice Department began a series of joint workshops on anti-trust issues in agriculture. More than 4,000 farmers participated, and 16,000 people submitted comments. (Civil Eats reported on these hearings here and here.) Yet at a press conference this week, marking the anniversary of the first workshop, a panel of farmers reported that little has changed. A handful of companies still control huge portions of livestock, dairy, and poultry markets, they said, and farmers continue to face abusive and unfair treatment.
“There are some winners,” said Rhonda Perry, a livestock and grain farmer and director of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, “But those winners are clearly not farmers or consumers. Those who benefit have really been embarrassingly successful at convincing Congress and our leaders to do nothing.”
The message at the workshops, panelists said, was loud and clear: Agricultural markets are not fair. A small number of companies hold most of the power, and farmers and consumers pay the price. Government regulation is needed to restore fairness and competiveness.
One panelist, South Dakota rancher Bob Mack, used the NCAA basketball tournament to explain: “Every team plays by the same rules. The officials are there to make sure those rules are followed. That’s all farmers want. Fair, open competition.”
Wisconsin dairy farmer Paul Rozwadowski recalled, “At the dairy hearing in Madison all the people on the panel testified with the exact same message: Dairy needs a new pricing mechanism. One by one they testified how they are producing milk at a price that is less than the cost to make it. They explained how it is affecting the daily maintenance of their farms and causing a devastating burden on their families.”
Rozwadowski said that these same issues were present across the food system. He heard farmers testify that the consolidated ownership of seed markets allowed companies to effectively dictate what farmers planted and when they planted it. They said the price of seed corn had jumped more than 300 percent, and they saw no end in sight.
Kay Doby, a former poultry farmer from North Carolina, spoke at the Alabama workshop, which focused on poultry production. She said that she and her fellow farmers spoke up because they were fed up with unfair treatment and believed their voices could make a difference. In Alabama, Doby spoke to Secretary Vilsack about a fellow farmer whom she was assisting who lost his contract through no fault of his own. He was facing bankruptcy and the loss of his family farm, and committed suicide. “This is real. This is personal,” she said. “What we’re asking for today is for the USDA and DOJ to help.”
The 2010 workshops were a historic indication that the Administration was prepared to take the imbalances of power in agriculture seriously, panelists said. And there have been some small steps forward. The Justice Department ordered Dean Foods to divest in one milk plant. A 2011 USDA rule provided some new protections for poultry farmers.
Still, Rozwadowski said, “We are left with the impression that USDA and DOJ are deliberately neglecting the big picture.”
“Companies have a lot of money and influence,” said South Dakota rancher Mack. “The money has overwhelmed some very good people’s desire to change things.”
The farmers who testified in 2010 were concerned that by speaking up, they were inviting retaliation by the companies, putting their jobs, farms, and futures at risk. The Justice Department assured farmers that they would be protected.
One of the most dramatic moments of the Alabama workshop occurred when farmer Garry Staples spoke about his fears of retaliation. U.S. Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney told him, “I fully expect that you will not experience retaliation.” Then she gave him a piece of paper. “But if you do, call me at that number.”
Yet today, farmers report that are experiencing retaliation, and that they have little protection when it happens. That phone number won’t do Staples much good; Varney left the Justice Department last year.
Doby, the former poultry farmer, says that poultry farmers who testified have lost their contracts or had their payments reduced. “Many others continue to struggle under very abusive situations,” she said, noting that she only felt safe speaking out today because she no longer depends on poultry for her income.
Despite the discouragement of the last two years, Perry said, “Farmers and consumers are not going away. We’re calling on Congress and the Administration to step up to the plate and address these issues. We’re calling on our leaders to really be leaders, to stand up to agribusiness lobbyists.”