Stockgrowers tweet to Trump to investigate beef pricing


October 7, 2019

Havre Daily News/Colin Thompson

Cattle cross the road in Beaver Creek Park Sept. 4. Local agricultural producers joined a nationwide Twitter campaign to ask the federal government to investigate if meat packers are unfairly controlling the market on beef.

Local stockgrowers joined a nationwide Twitter campaign Sept. 23 through Sept. 27 , #FairCattleMarkets, to get the attention of President Donald Trump.

"Overall, I think it has been a real success," said North Central Montana Stockgrowers Association President Dana Darlington, a fourth-generation rancher out of Big Sandy. "I don't know what benefits we are going to see out of it yet, but it definitely was a nationwide campaign to call attention to what we feel is an unjust market share."

Billings rancher, auctioneer and Western Ag Reporter Publisher Joe Goggins started the #FairCattleMarkets campaign.

Darlington said the meat packing industry pretty much controls the beef industry, and, as a cattle producer, he would like to have someone investigate the amount of money they make versus what the feeders make compared to what the cattle producers make.

"Hopefully there will be some attention to be drawn to that, where they can investigate it," he said. 

He added that the response to the Twitter campaign has been positive because, although farmers and ranchers are independent and they and their groups and organizations don't always agree on everything, the Twitter campaign brought them together and joined their forces.

Darlington said the markets aren't working well for farmers and ranchers - $3.50-a-bushel wheat and $1.30-a-pound calves just doesn't pay the bills.

"I'm not sure where direction will happen from here, I think it will depend on if we are able to get the administration's attention," he said. "I hope that if we have caught the attention of someone in the administration, whether it be President Trump or Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, that these packers will be investigated and, hope for the best, that something good will come out of this."

He said farmers and ranchers in the last year have been put in a perfect storm. He said he buys calves and ships them to feedlots in South Dakota and Nebraska, but due to last year's weather, the death loss was high and the weight gain was low for South Dakota feeders. A lot of these feeders are not buying calves this year, he added.

"I have several customers that I don't have calf contracts for because I don't have a feedlot to send them to. They are either not buying at the moment or they are not buying at all this year, or they are just waiting for this market to stabilize," Darlington said. "Now, we are faced with, on the cattle producers side of this, we are faced with the fact that we can't put calves, like you can with wheat, in a bin. They got to go somewhere. You have to have hay on hand or they are going to go into town."

And if it all happens at once, if the cattle producers see a big influx of cattle going into the sale barns, it is probably going to cause their markets get cheaper. Nobody wants to see that, he said.

"I don't know what our next step is going to be other than keep calling attention to that," Darlington said. "There is going to be a lot of cattle producers that are going to be financially crippled here, shortly, if these markets don't turn around."

Darlington said that the whole Twitter campaign idea stemmed off of the market following a fire in one of Tyson Foods' packing plants in Finney County, Kansas, in August.

The fire caused a disruption in the futures market, he said, but he found out that the company had butchered more cattle after the fire than they did before the week of the fire.

He said what it did was drive the futures market down, so Tyson Foods was buying cattle from feedlots that were cheaper, so they were getting a better deal, but on the retail end of things Tyson was charging regular prices, making large profits.

That led to an investigation into the issue, because the feeders are losing money, the cow producers are losing money and the packers are making $200 to $700 a head, Darlington said. He said the producers and feeders are being treated unjustly.

"I think it's a brilliant idea that Joe Goggins had to come up with this Twitter account," he said.

He added that the North Central Montana Stockgrowers Association tries to stay involved in as many issues as they can to keep their communities alive. 

The association represents growing needs of north-central Montana area producers through education, legislation and informing area producers, Darlington said. 

He said about 500 members are in Blaine, Hill and Chouteau counties. 

"I don't know exactly how many of those members were able to tweet and do that, but it definitely made people come together with one voice," Darlington said. "I think that is stronger than two or three people complaining, as this was a nationwide campaign."

He said that as a person involved in agriculture, it is not just about the markets, it's the weather, it's everything ag producers deal with on a daily basis.

"Every day is a battle," he said. "We have outside interest groups like APR buying up ranch land to make a national bison reserve, (American Prairie Reserve) that is south of Malta. ... We have that to deal with and ag prices aren't very good, and we have people who set up national heritage areas."

It's just a daily battle for the farmers and ranchers just to keep their heads above water with all the different issues that they face every day, he added.

He said a bunch of young producers who are starting out had a couple good years a few years ago, but now things are getting tight.

The generation before him and the generation before that, producers were able to work hard enough and sweat enough so if they really wanted to make a farm or ranch work they could do it, Darlington said.

He added that his generation and the generation after him are dealing with a global market. He said that anything in the news can send the wheat prices 50 cents one way or another in a day.

"When I was in my high school days, if the wheat market moved 50 cents in a year, that was a big move, and now it moves that in a day," he said. "Same with the cattle market, that's the volatility we are dealing with, and so these young producers are having to deal with this, and money is tight. Something needs to change. It'll be a financial reckoning in the ag community."

He added that he doesn't know what will become out of small communities if they keep losing farmers and ranchers who have to sell land off to outside interest to take care of debt.

"If you lose enough farmers and ranchers in a community, the grocery store can't stay open the tire shop can't stay open, and pretty quick we will be driving further to get our basic needs," Darlington said. "It all ties together. If we just get what would be considered a fair market value for our products - none of us are asking for government handouts - that was not the idea of this campaign at all to have the government step in and subsidize us."

He said farmers and ranchers just want to have some change that makes sense so they can make enough money to keep doing business and set up the next generation.

"We just want a fair shake in this deal. We are one of the only industries, when you think about it, that if our input costs go up, we can't just go turn around and add so many dollars to what we need on the other end," he said.

For example, at a shoe company, if the price of rubber goes up, the company will just add money onto the price of the shoe and retail will pay for it, he added.

"One of the biggest things that would really help our cattle industry is country of origin labeling," Darlington said. "I am a firm believer in that."

He said people can go to Walmart to pick up a shirt, pick up shoes or pick up anything that will say made in China, made in Mexico or made in the USA, but their beef doesn't say that.

He added that he thinks the consumer should know where their beef is coming from, and that, as of right now, packers can buy beef from Brazil, Mexico, Canada and bring it into the states and the consumer doesn't know which was really raised in the United States.

He said that, as consumers, people should demand the Legislature to bring back the Country of Origin Labeling Act that would require grocery stores to notify the consumers with information about the source of certain foods.

"Why wouldn't you want to know where your beef comes from?" Darlington asked. "We have the safest food source in the world."

Havre Daily News/Colin Thompson


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