Dear Farm Aid,
I do my best to support local farmers. I go to my farmers market every week it’s open! I’ve noticed, though, that I can pretty much only get fruits and vegetables there. I really want to get local meats but they don’t seem to be available. Why is that?
Thanks for such a great question Danielle. All of us here at Farm Aid are so encouraged by your efforts to support local family farmers by voting with your food dollar. That’s a big part of why we do what we do!
“The top four firms in the U.S. beef industry, Tyson, Cargill, Swift & Co., and National Beef Packing, control 83.5% of the market.”
More and more consumers like you are interested in supporting local farmers. The 2007 Census of Agriculture revealed that food sales through direct markets (such as those at your farmers market) rose 49% from their 2002 level in just five years, reaching $1.2 billion. That’s a lot of moolah for local farmers! Since 1998, the number of farmers markets nationwide has almost doubled—increasing from 2,756 to over 5,000 markets last year.
As you mention, fruit and vegetables tend to dominate local markets—produce represented 56% of the total direct sales to consumers in 2009. Unfortunately, there are a number of problems with securing local meat these days. Your own struggles hint at a larger, more structural problem in our food system—that of corporate concentration in the meat industry.
Caught in Captivity
There is undeniable concentration in the U.S. meat industry, which leaves just a few corporations with oodles of market power. In fact, the top four firms in the U.S. beef industry, Tyson, Cargill, Swift & Co., and National Beef Packing, control 83.5% of the market! Similarly, the four top firms in the hog industry control 66% of the market. Both of these percentages are considered by experts to be anticompetitive, and in simple terms mean that farmers have very few options for where to sell their product and consumers have very few options ultimately for where to buy their meat. Seems like we have a problem.
To understand how these corporations can so dramatically muddle the market, it’s helpful to consider the three main stages in livestock production: breeding, feeding and slaughtering. In industry lingo, the last stage is commonly referred to as packing.
Traditionally, different actors managed each of the stages of livestock production. Ranchers bred cattle on their land and passed them over to cattle-feeding operators who fattened them for several months; cattle were then sold to beef-packing firms. A little slaughter, a little processing, and voila! You got your hamburger patty.
In a matter or decades, however, this process has changed dramatically. Today, cattle-feeding is overwhelming done on huge commercial feedlots. And increasingly, feedlot operators no longer sell their animals on the open market, but instead sell to meatpackers through pre-existing contracts and marketing agreements. In the hog industry, it is increasingly common for meatpacking firms themselves, such as Smithfield or JBS, to directly own the animals and avoid buying them in a competitive environment altogether.
By forcing farmers and ranchers to enter into marketing agreements, meatpackers enjoy what is calledcaptive supply, where they can control both the production and sale of livestock. Producers under contract with these meatpackers often face a secretive and intimidating process, with little say over their prices. To make matters worse, it is common for meatpackers to grant what is called undue preference to larger feedlots and corporate farms by giving them price advantages over smaller producers. Meanwhile independent livestock farmers without contracts are left out in the cold, and find it increasingly difficult to secure buyers on the open market. When they do, they often find that meatpackers can use their “captive supplies” to suppress prices by manipulating the amount of supply on the market.
This trend and imbalance in power has forced family farmers and ranchers to get big or, well, get out, as they say. Droves of smaller farms and ranches have closed down, while those surviving have mostly scaled up to meet the demands of meatpacking behemoths. In addition, suppressed prices at the farm gate have encouraged more intensive practices on larger-scale livestock farms—fostering the development of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), frequently called factory farms. All this, in turn, has completely eroded choice over our meat sources for us eaters.
Free at last?
For those farmers and ranchers who are fed up with the dominant industrial system and try to raise fewer animals on pasture or sell locally, the system still manages to make it difficult for their product to reach your dinner plate.
One big reason is that meat slaughtering and processing plants have also consolidated, squeezing more and more small plants out of business from low profit margins. As a result, farmers have had to transport their animals hundreds to thousands of miles away to reach one of the remaining slaughter or processing plants in the country. This is often prohibitively expensive. In addition, they find that plants are ill-equipped or unwilling to handle value-added meats like organic pork or grassfed beef, further frustrating the success of local meat markets. Farmers also can face local or state regulations that make it difficult to market their goods locally or consumers who are unaccustomed, unable or unwilling to pay for quality meats that may be pricier to produce in more sustainable ways or sell in unconventional markets.
What Farm Aid’s Doing
As it turns out, we’re at a critical juncture for addressing these problems in our food system.
The Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Agriculture joined together last week in Ft. Collins, Colorado, to conduct the fourth of five workshops addressing concentration and antitrust issues in agriculture—this one focused on livestock markets. Our own Joel Morton joined with Farm Aid partners who are working hard to make sure the voice of family farmers—not just powerful corporations—are well represented in these critical hearings.
In addition, the USDA has, after years of dragging its feet, recently issued proposed rules that address unfair contracting and marketing conditions (including the issues of captive supply and undue preferences described above) most farmers face when looking to sell their products to top meat and poultry firms in the country. But, wouldn’t you know it, the meat and poultry industry bigwigs are doing all they can to gum up the works and manipulate these regulations. On this issue, it isn’t enough for us to vote with our dollars. Look out for an upcoming Action Alert on this issue later this fall, as we’ll be keeping the pressure on the Administration to make sure our food system is fair and just.
So Danielle, despite some very real signs of progress out there, we are a long way from a livestock system that supports farmer livelihoods, our health, our safety, and our values. All of us here at Farm Aid so appreciate your efforts to support family farmers in your local community. But dare I say, we all need to do more. It is so important that we eaters understand how we are connected to the people who grow our food—AND that we have a hand in shaping the food system that feeds us all.
To track down local family-farmed meat in your area, check out our Find Good Foodpage.