NSAC's Blog

Farmers, the 4th, and Fair Food System Action

July 3, 2014

As our country stands ready to celebrate our independence – many of us with a well-deserved day off – let’s take a moment to tip our hats to the folks who will still be working: farmers.

Our farmers, ranchers, and growers work 365 days a year, rain or shine.  They grow our fruits and vegetables, raise our beef and pork, and serve as stewards of the land.  From our nation’s founding, farmers have held a special place in our country.  To borrow from the wisdom of one of our greatest thinkers “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to it’s liberty and interests by the most lasting bands [sic].”  (Thomas Jefferson letter to John Jay)  Farmers work incredibly hard to produce healthy, nutritious food year-round and we owe it to them to ensure that they can produce good food and operate their businesses in a fair food and farm system.

A Fair and Free System

When we buy chicken, beef, or pork at the grocery store, many of us may assume that it’s coming directly from an independent farmer or grower.  In many instances, that assumption is wrong.  In the United States, large poultry processing companies, for instance, control almost every aspect of meat production, from selling the chicks and feed to growers, to determining what price they will pay growers for the adult chickens.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, meat packers and poultry processors have been accused of price manipulation and artificially selecting winners and losers among their growers.  In fact, some growers who speak out on unfair practices have seen their businesses destroyed by poultry processors with no help or hope of recourse.

If this doesn’t sound like a fair and free system to you, you’re not alone.

Protecting Big Companies Over Farmers: the GIPSA Rider

The Packers and Stockyards Act is the primary federal law governing livestock and poultry markets.  The goal of the Packers and Stockyards Act — which became law way back in 1921 — is to protect fair competition and to safeguard farmers and ranchers from unfair, deceptive, and discriminatory practices with the meat and poultry processing industry.  Though the law has been on the books for decades, it had never gone through the rulemaking process that is normally part of the basic implementation of any statute.

In 2008, Congress finally directed USDA to write rules that could be used to enforce key provisions of the Packer and Stockyards Act, which is administered by the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA).  The lack of rules had made it very difficult to enforce key portions of the Act that protected farmers from predatory practices by industry over the years.  USDA released the proposed rules in 2010.

Every year since 2010, legislative amendments or riders have been attached to annual appropriations bills that would strip USDA of the power to enforce the rules and protect farmers.  The Appropriations Committees do not have jurisdiction over policy, only over spending.  Their job is to determine the annual funding level for GIPSA and its Packers and Stockyards Program, not its policies, which are the responsibility of the Agriculture Committees.

In the 2014 Farm Bill, Congress rejected an attempt to strike the 2008 Farm Bill language and halt rulemaking and enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act.   This should have been the end of it.  But the House Appropriations Committee then went right back at it, and instead of fighting for farmers’ rights to free markets and fair competition, voted to strip them of these rights at the behest of powerful, vertically integrated corporations.

The currently pending rider in the House appropriations bill that would strip basic farmer protections against unfair industry practices, including right to a jury trial if a farmer had a dispute with company over a contract.  The rider also would stop USDA from ensuring that companies paid farmers fairly.  It even would prevent USDA from taking action to protect farmers from retaliation if they speak to Members of Congress or form a farmer association.

American farmers are drivers of our local and national economies, producing food and providing nourishment through dedication and hard work.  Will we as a nation leave them to fight alone against these unjust practices?  Or on the anniversary of our independence, will we call on Congress to ensure that our farmers and ranchers can produce our food in a fair and just food and farm system?



Categories: Competition & Anti-trust

2 responses to “Farmers, the 4th, and Fair Food System Action”

  1. I appreciate your tribute to us farmers, but I am sorry that you did not take this occasion to also mention the many farm workers who will not have a holiday tomorrow. There are some farms that have no hired workers, where the farmer and her/his family do all of the work. A produce farm or a dairy does not have to get very big to need more hours of work than the farmer’s family can supply. Of the 1.4 or 1.5 million farm workers in this country, over half are undocumented economic refugees, forced by the unfair terms of “Free” trade to seek hard labor in our fields and packing sheds. So when we call for a fair and just food system, let’s demand fairness, respect and safe working conditions for farm workers too. When we farmers make common cause with farm workers, justice for all of us will be within our reach.

  2. egilbert says:

    Thank you for this important input; you are absolutely right. A fair and just food and farm system must ensure that farmers and farm workers are treated respectfully, with livable wages and safe working conditions.