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Farmers Union continues push on ag monopolies

 

Last updated 9/24/2021 at 12:13pm

Havre Daily News/File photo

A cow nuzzles her calf in northern Hill County in March. Farmers Union is pushing to end what it calls monopolistic control and other problems in the agriculture industry including enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921.

The National Farmers Union held a press conference Wednesday to announce their Fairness for Farmers Campaign, a push to end corporate consolidation and break up monopolies in the agriculture industry - action supported by Montana Sen. Jon Tester who spoke at the conference alongside Montana Farmers Union President Walter Schweitzer and others.

The event was headlined by NFU President Rob Larew, who said the organization continues to be a voice for family farmers in an industry that is becoming increasingly monopolized by large corporations that absorb or destroy small farms through anticompetitive practices.

Larew said mergers and acquisitions have increased the influence of already powerful companies which has lead to underpaid farmers, the weakening of food chains, and the overcharging of consumers, which was seen during the first year of the pandemic especially with regards to meats.

He said the situation in today's industry is not quite as dramatic as it was back in the early 1900s, but price fixing is seemingly becoming prevalent again, a sure sign that government action is needed.

He said regulators must start taking a more active role in ensuring that competition is present in all levels of the food supply chain, and power must be restored to the Packers and Stockyards Act, which was meant to prevent the industry from finding itself in this state.

Larew said the public is becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of monopolistic power in all sectors of the economy, realizing it to be a threat to the American way of life, and even democracy itself and something must be done.

He said his organization also supports efforts to restore country of origin labeling at the federal level which Tester is working to get passed.

Tester, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison are some of the biggest allies they have in this fight, Larew said, and it's clear from President Joe Biden's recent executive orders that he is sympathetic to the cause as well.

Tester thanked Larew for his support, saying, as the senate's only active farmer, he's been a proud member of the union like his parent and grandparents before him.

He said it's already a difficult time for ag producers, especially those whose lands are in a state of severe drought like much of Montana, and the increasingly over-centralized ag industry is not helping them.

He said markets require competition and fairness to function, both for farmers and their communities, as well as customers.

Tester said this is part of the reason he and a bipartisan group of fellow senators proposed the American Beef Labeling Act, which will require country of origin labeling for beef in the U.S., as well as the Meat Packing Special Investigator Act, which will establish an office of special investigator to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Packers and Stockyards Division as well as grant the department subpoena power.

He said these changes will increase transparency and will lead to better prices for consumers, who he believes support increased transparency in both the industry and the products they buy from it.

He said the infrastructure bill making it's way through congress will also be a big help to farmers by investing in the roads, bridges and water projects they need for their businesses to thrive as well as broadband that will allow them to operate effectively in the 21st century.

Montana Farmers Union President Walter Schweitzer also spoke at the conference, echoing many of the same sentiments as Tester, and pushing back on the idea that this increasingly monopolized industry just capitalism at work.

"I think President Biden said it best when issuing his recent executive order, 'This is not capitalism, it's exploitation,'" Schweitzer said. "This cheap food policy that we've had for 70 years is more about corporate control of our food dollar than it is about providing us good, cheap food."

He said Montana used to produce 70 percent of its own food, and, when he first became a farmer, he could drive a few miles to a local-owned grocery store stocked with Montana-made products, now it produces 10 percent and he has to drive hours to a store run by a massive corporation, and he has no idea what he's really buying.

He said the pandemic exposed how broken the country's food system is and now that that awareness is out there it is the time to act.

Ellison also spoke at the press conference, saying the trends seen in the industry are disturbing and the number of farms and farmers in the U.S. is going in the wrong direction, an issue that must be dealt with at the national level.

He said the country is better-served when the ag industry is made up of a diverse group of operators of all sizes, but that is increasingly not the case, which he credited to the nature of the current market.

"I don't think this is just the result of technological changes. I think this is a result of market structure that is unfair to family farmers, but also to customers and also our environment," he said. "... The small are being soaked up by the big, and we have to ask ourselves a question, 'Is this the kind of agricultural economy we want in Minnesota or across the country?' My answer would be no."

Ellison said policy at the federal level is often disingenuously made in the name of the family farmer, even as it mostly serves the interests of industrial producers seeking to corner markets.

Even then, he said, the policies don't benefit most of those working for these large corporations, but the executive class, which has been treated preferentially by Congress for far too long.

"I'll never forget when I heard an agriculture secretary tell a group of Wisconsin dairy farmers you gotta get big, or you gotta get out," he said. "That is the antithesis of what antitrust is all about. We gotta stand tall for the small."

Jon Tester

He said change needs to happen to make sure hard work pays off in the U.S. and the working class, the people who really get things done in the end, are fed up with jobs that offer pitiful wages that show a lack of respect for their work.

Ellison said his office just hired new staff for antitrust work in the ag sector and he supports efforts to improve infrastructure and access to services for farmers and encouraged people to come to offices like his when abuse happens so they can do something about it.

He said the Sherman Antitrust Act was passed in a time when monopolies were even more powerful than they are now so it's not even close to a lost cause, and people need to realize that this affects everyone.

"If you eat, you're involved in agriculture," he said.

 

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