In lieu of our usual question-and-answer format, this month we offer a year-in-review on corporate concentration in agriculture–a major focus of our work this year (our 25th anniversary year!) at Farm Aid.
As we head into the homestretch of 2010, we’ve been taking stock here at Farm Aid. So far as we can tell, there’s unprecedented buzz around family farming in America.
Our 25th anniversary concert in Milwaukee, Wisconsin offered proof that more and more people want to connect with family farmers. They are interested in learning about their food, where it comes from and how it is grown. This was evident by the thousands of concertgoers who were quick to gobble up Farm Aid’s HOMEGROWN Concessions, the organic, humanely-raised, sustainably-grown, and family farm identified food we serve at our annual concert. It was also made clear by the droves of people checking out the concert’s HOMEGROWN Village—our array of interactive exhibits that allow concertgoers to meet farmers, get their hands dirty and learn about the ways family farmers enrich our soil, protect our water and grow green energy, in addition to bringing us good food.
At the same time, the year 2010 engaged our country in an important conversation about one of the most critical threats facing family farmers—corporate concentration in agriculture.
As we wrote in January’s Ask Farm Aid, farming in America suffers from abnormally high levels of concentration, providing corporations with a virtual chokehold over the whole of food production and consumption in the country. By granting corporations the power to manipulate prices and supply, and bully farmers through unfair contracts, this trend has forced hundreds of thousands of independent family farmers off the land, damaging rural economies, public health and our environment in its wake.
This year, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have held a series of public workshops to address corporate concentration, antitrust violations and competition in agriculture. Farm Aid has been present at every hearing to date, each covering a different farming sector. We are now preparing for the concluding workshop, set to take place in just a couple of weeks in Washington, DC. More details on that to come; for now, here’s a quick recap of an unprecedented year working to restore fairness for America’s family farmers:
In March, the USDA and DOJ kick-started the series in Ankeny, Iowa, placing special focus on seed concentration. Being the official launch of the series, the workshop was more like a political dog and pony show, and sadly the topic at hand seemed to get the short end of the stick among the speakers and panelists. Farm Aid and its partners helped generate a mammoth turnout, with overflow rooms overflowing, and crowds rearing to see if the DOJ and USDA were ready to tackle antitrust issues in agriculture head on. Farm Aid’s Farmer Advocate, Joel Morton, was on deck to support a spirited Town Hall event held the eve of the workshop, as well as a special farmer speak-out during the workshop’s lunch break. Both events gave family farmers and supporters the opportunity to get their messages across loud and clear.
The second USDA/DOJ workshop was held in Normal, Alabama, in May, and focused on the poultry industry. Poultry farmers in particular have faced incredible intimidation from processors and are often trapped in one-sided contracts that leave them with crippling debt and few choices in marketing their birds. We were told that Farm Aid’s presence at this workshop, which had a much lower turnout than the first, meant a great deal to the few brave poultry growers who showed up to speak out on the corporate abuses that have come to typify the industry. On our blog, our Program Director, Hilde Steffey, recalled her time at the Alabama workshop:
In the 48 hours I spent in Huntsville, I heard dozens of stories of growers who in just the past week had been bullied by service techs and other processor reps into not showing up to the hearing. One farmer who I spent much of the prior night with going over his comments, found me on Friday to say he wasn’t up to it. He spotted an industry lawyer in the room, and that was enough to keep him quiet.
The experience in Alabama was a sobering reminder that we face an uphill battle in making our farming system fair for farmers, and a clear indication of just how overdue these workshops are.
The following month in June, Farm Aid headed to Madison, Wisconsin, where the third USDA/DOJ workshop scrutinized concentration in the dairy industry (in the midst of one of the worst price crashes dairy farmers have ever faced, it’s worth noting). Farm Aid staff were again on hand (some even donning the occasional cow suit to garner media attention), calling on the DOJ listen to what America’s dairy farmers had to say about the disastrous consequences of a concentrated dairy marketplace and to finally follow through on ongoing antitrust investigations into the largest corporate players in the industry.
The summer closed with an August workshop in Fort Collins, Colorado, the fourth in the series covering the ever-consolidating marketplace facing American livestock producers. Our Farmer Advocate, Joel Morton, found himself in a sea of tall hats, as one of the largest crowds yet gathered to demand fairness and restored competition in livestock.
While the Fort Collins USDA/DOJ workshop provided an important venue for people to voice their concerns over antitrust and concentration issues in livestock agriculture, USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (or GIPSA, as it’s more commonly called) was actually doing something about it. In late June, USDA released a proposed rule, as directed by the 2008 Farm Bill, to amend the Packers and Stockyards Act and address the lack of market transparency and unfair contracting terms plaguing livestock producers. Up until last week, GIPSA collected public comments (including from many of you!) for how to improve the rule moving forward.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, meatpackers, processors and agribusinesses with a clear stake in maintaining the status quo have made a big stink about the USDA and DOJ efforts all year. These corporations have issued fear and smear campaigns, lobbied hard to pressure USDA, DOJ and even Congress to halt antitrust investigations and the GIPSA rulemaking process, and generally given us a monster headache. At the same time, it has been fascinating to watch farmers and eaters of all stripes come forward in support of fair and competitive markets, showing these corporate players that their power only goes so far.
As mentioned earlier, we now find ourselves gearing up for the final USDA/DOJ workshop on December 8th, in Washington, DC. The December event will look at “margins” – the discrepancies between the prices received by farmers and the prices paid by consumers in the grocery store. Today, a family farmer makes an average 19 cents out of every dollar we spend at checkout—a share that represents a drop of more than 50% from what they received 50 years ago. As we pay more and more for our food, the farmers who produce it are paid less and less! As a consequence, farmers find themselves squeezed as they try to run their farms on ever-shrinking profits. Meanwhile, agribusinesses, processors, packers and even retailers (like supermarket chains) wield enough market power to siphon profits out of the food system, to the detriment of farmers and eaters alike. This upcoming USDA/DOJ workshop is an essential one for all of us eaters—we hope you’ll tune in!
We are eager to see the results of this unprecedented attention on corporate concentration in agriculture (no, really—the government hasn’t taken a good look at market abuses in the farm sector for nearly a century!). So far this year Farm Aid has collected 12,000 comments from family farm supporters on these critical issues via our Action Center. (If you haven’t had a chance to yet to chime in, there’s still a chance — the DOJ and USDA will continue to accept public comments through the end of the year). We hope you will join us in holding their feet to the fire and demanding systemic change in our food system—change that provides a fair and competitive marketplace for America’s family farmers. After 25 years of noise-making and rebel-rousing here at Farm Aid, that would be a tremendous birthday present, indeed.