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Family-farm advocates call for U.S. to ‘bust up big ag’

By Lynda Waddington – 3/12/10

ANKENY, IOWA — Whether they realized it or not, the roughly 250 family farmers, workers and consumers gathered in Ankeny, Iowa, Thursday night fired off their own point-by-point response to a letter from two Republican senators that urged the U.S. departments of agriculture and justice to maintain the existing status quo in the agriculture industry.

The often rambunctious townhall event was organized by a coalition of groups concerned that everyday people do not have adequate opportunity to express their opinions on the agricultural industry at a joint U.S. Department of Justice and USDA antitrust workshop on Friday. And it had one overarching message: “Bust up big ag.”

“We are here today to make sure that the voices of everyday people are heard loud and clear and send a simple but powerful message to our government regulators and elected officials,” said Barb Kalbach, a fourth generation family farmer from Dexter and board member for Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. “Bust up big ag, pass policies that promote sustainable agriculture and local markets, and put people first during the workshop series by prioritizing public comments and input and adding more family farmers and consumers to panels.”

On Wednesday, however, two Republicans in leadership positions on the Senate Agriculture Committee urged U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to do just the opposite.

“We urge you to ensure that these sessions are balanced and reflect the wide array of producers and business operations in modern-day agriculture,” wrote Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Pat Roberts of Kansas.

After noting that “American agriculture is responsible for feeding the world,” that many industry “segments have become more vertically-integrated” and “other small and successful agriculture businesses have merged” to meet demands, the senators note that change is often met with frustration.

“Such change has led to better income margins for producers and processors as well as lower prices for consumers,” they wrote, adding that competition issues have been “studied extensively by several entities including the United State Congress and, specifically, the Senate Agricultural Committee.”

Although Chambliss and Roberts appear to call for a wide swath of American agriculture to have representation at the meeting, it is difficult to overlook the key point of their correspondence:

“Beyond our interest in a balanced review, we would hope that no correlation is planned between the upcoming workshops and current enforcement activity in your respective Departments. From recent news of lawsuits to undo mergers to heightened scrutiny of pre-merger activity and other investigative activities with agribusiness companies from a variety of sectors, it is readily apparent that both the Department of Agriculture and Department of Justice are already quite engaged in this area. We are concerned there is potential for your workshops to become venues for further fact-finding or public scrutiny of agricultural businesses that are already subject to existing antitrust laws and in some cases are under investigation or prosecution by the federal government.”

As of 2007, more than 45 percent of U.S. beef cattle are slaughtered by four companies (Tyson, Cargill, Swift and National.) Most U.S. Pork is also processed by just four companies (Tyson, Cargill, Swift and Smithfield). Seed corn is controlled predominately by two companies (Pioneer Dupont and Monsanto), and roughly 40 percent of the U.S. fluid milk supply is controlled by one company (Dean’s Foods).

Rhonda Perry, a Missouri livestock and grain farmer, said 30,000 cattle feed lots went out of business in the last 13 years. During the past 20 years, the nation lost 70 percent of its independent family hog farmers — but managed to keep production levels the same.

“We’ve been told that we have to have consolidation, concentration and vertical-integration in order to give consumers the cheap food they desire,” she said. “The reality is, if you look at the pork industry — a prime example because it has become really vertically-integrated in the last 25 years — that between 1985 and 2008 pork prices to consumers went up by 72 percent. At the same time the hog farmers’ share of that consumer dollar went down by 43 percent. So, somebody in this industry, in this consolidation process, is definitely getting rich. It’s working for somebody, but it is not working for producers and consumers.”

Fred Dowered, a Minnesota farmer, told the audience that when he began farming 34 years ago his state had 50 seed companies. Now, however, there are only four.

“When there were 50 seed companies, the price of seed corn was held to its own. Now they just let it go rampant,” he said.

That’s a situation that Jim Kalbach, an Adair Couty grain farmer, knows all too well.

“Monsanto soybean seed was $31 a bag last year. Now they jumped it up one third to $41 a bag — in one year,” he said. “That’s highway robbery.”

Many of the men and women in the audience also took exception to the belief that the U.S. food supply boasts the most healthy and inexpensive food in the world.

“The two things we are going to hear over and over on Friday is that we’ve got the cheapest and safest food supply in the world. Both of these statements are damn lies” said Gary Klicker, a southern Iowa producer that can trace his family’s agricultural roots to 1666.

Klicker believes that taxpayers will be out “billions if not trillions” of dollars cleaning up rivers, nourishing soil and dealing with abandoned animal confinement facilities.

“Have you ever heard of 19 million pound beef recall in Sweden or Germany or Russia or Cuba or anywhere else? The food isn’t safe. We are eating garbage off the floors of our packing houses. It’s being fed to our kids in schools, and it goes into our grocery stores. Most of the people have no idea what they are getting, and wouldn’t know what real food tastes like if they had it. This is a serious, serious situation — one that we will be paying for 100 years from now. It isn’t safe. It isn’t even cheap.”

Although U.S. Sens. Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley are on the schedule for Friday, along with U.S. Rep. Leonard Boswell, no federal elected officials attended the townhall meeting in person. A handful of audience members used their very limited comment period to note their disappointment that the officials themselves did not attend, and at least two were openly hostile toward lawmakers who had long-served without providing notable solutions to the competition issues in their industry.

“This was a huge crowd,” Dave Campbell, district representative for Boswell, said following the meeting. “What I’m going to pass on to the Congressman is the fact that were a whole lot of people here who are hurting. He will have an opportunity to hear from both sides, and will hopefully make the best decisions possible.”

John Moreland, staff assistant for Harkin, also said that he would be taking his reflections on the “passion” expressed at the meeting back to his boss.

A notable appearance at the townhall was made by members of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. After the meeting Mark Lauritsen, vice president and director of the UFCW Meatpacking Division, explained that his members understand how closely their livelihood is tied to that of the farmer.

“We should have been getting together back in the 1980s and having these discussions. … Our lives are connected with farmers. Our members’ lives are connected to farmers. Our success rises and falls with the American farmer,” he said.

Producers from at least 10 states traveled to Ankeny for the townhall. Many also plan to attend the workshop, and would like opportunity to speak. Since only one hour at the end of the day has been allotted for public comment, however, it isn’t likely that there will be time for them all. That being said, it also isn’t likely that these motivated individuals are going to go away. Wisconsin Dairy producer Joel Greeno said several groups are already gearing up for the June meeting planned in their state, and that other producers are organizing in relation to the workshops planned for Colorado and Alabama later this year.

“The situation in agriculture these days, even though it has been coming on for a long time, is reaching critical mass,” said Frank Jones, a Missouri owner and producer. “I’m afraid that if we don’t have some type of meaningful change in the way business is done that agriculture will be lost forever.”

March 13, 2010 - Posted by | Economics, Environmentalism

1 Comment

  1. We, the Milkmen of America and all over the world agree and we are here to help. Time for the Tea Parties. Americans must rise against the tide of corruption and big business and their bed partners, the government. Time to bust it up. Milkmen deliver door-to-door. we reach and know the consumer. We are friends of the farmers and the consumers’ friend.

    The Raw Milk Revolution is also an example of how people are sick and tired of being bullied and abused by government and executives in big business. Neither of them know how to work hard and honest. They both like handouts and free tickets to write their own paychecks. enough is enough. Time for Tea Party actions. We just may go far enough to tar and feather them.

    Read David Gumpert’s book; “The Raw Milk Revolution – Behind America’s emerging Battle Over Food Rights.”

    Milkmen can and will deliver good foods from the farms and this allows the farmers more freedom, gives back to the community, makes LOCAL a good way to operate, contributes to sustainability, fairness, and profits to those who work for it. All the things that government and big business or big shot executives who shuffle paper do not want you to have.

    The Milkmen are BACK!

    MILKMEN USA

    Comment by Milkmen USA | March 14, 2010


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