Over the past 30 or so years, there has developed a meek acquiescence to agricultural market concentration and anticompetitive practices and the resultant harm to family farms and ranches, rural America and our national food security.
Government has seemingly been indifferent. The U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been captive to those it was supposed to regulate and the U. S. Department of Justice (USDOJ) rubber stamped every merger that came down the pike. Both departments share complicity in setting in motion a trend that if not reversed, will take American agriculture over the cliff.
However, there is hope. A little over a year ago USDA and USDOJ signaled change with the following announcement:
“WASHINGTON, August 5, 2009 – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Attorney General Eric Holder announced today that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Justice will hold joint public workshops to explore competition issues affecting the agriculture industry in the 21st century and the appropriate role for antitrust and regulatory enforcement in that industry.”
At our 2009 OCM Conference in St. Louis, Phil Weiser, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust, announced an initiative by U. S. Department of Justice to address the impact of antitrust violations and anticompetitive practices in agricultural markets. At the same meeting J. Dudley Butler, newly appointed Administrator of the Grain Inspection and Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA), declared his commitment to enforce the long neglected Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921. He also announced the pending publication of rules that would clarify and more fully promulgate the act, enhancing its enforceability.
Earlier, Christine Varney, Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust came on the scene with all the earmarks of a female Teddy Roosevelt. She summarily repudiated the absurd merger guidelines of the Bush Administration (Section Two of the Sherman Act), and promptly initiated investigations into anticompetitive practices in the dairy and transgenic seed industries.
At the Poultry Workshop in Alabama, when a contract producer testified that he would likely loose his contract as a reprisal for his participation, she gave him her card and told him to call her if that happened. The audience responded with loud applause.
At this writing, four of the five workshops have been held with the last one scheduled for December. They have been informative and positive. The one on livestock markets in Fort Collins was especially well attended and a highly significant event. It was largely a referendum on the Proposed GIPSA Rules. About two thirds or more of those attending saw the rules as a significant and positive first step, while the packers, integrators, their political minions and the organizations they control, denounced the rules as the looming ruination of the industry.
At the workshops, Secretary Vilsack, Attorney General Holder and Assistant Attorney General Varney were convincing in their empathy and resolved to address the longstanding wrongs in agricultural markets. They gave renewed hope to farmers and ranchers, at least temporarily.
But now things seem to have slowed down. Fixing the broken marketplace appears to have taken a back seat to politics. This has allowed opponents of market reform to steal the march. The Fort Collins workshop caused them to panic and put them on the run, but now their lobbyists and captives on Capitol Hill are in a frenzied full court press. It is having an effect!
It is understandable that the midterm congressional elections would be a distraction, but there currently seems to be reluctance to do anything that might become controversial.
There was the appeasing expansion of the normal sixty-day comment period for the GIPSA rules to six month. The malefactors were not placated, they just became energized and this gave them additional time to create their mischief.
Must the market reform effort now stand-down until after the November elections while the opposition launches their all-out attack?
Farmers and ranchers who are systematically and increasingly shortchanged by the broken market system were heartened by the historic joint effort of USDA and USDOJ to do something about their plight. They are truly appreciative and supportive. But they see this as their last opportunity to remain independent and viable. They ask that USDA and USDOJ not let up; continue