Farm Bill 2012: El Dorado in Recession?

Anita Poole-Endsley
Executive Director

In centuries past, Spanish Conquistadors searched for the famed city of El Dorado. El Dorado was rumored to be made of gold where riches abounded. El Dorado was never found, and may have never existed except in the minds of those hoping to satisfy their urges for financial security. Such is the quest for a farm bill in 2012. Agricultural producers are searching for an answer to secure their financial status through policy and government support – but they may not find – at least not this year.

Rumblings from political insiders in Washington suggest that passing a farm bill in 2012 amid the climate of partisanship will most likely not occur. However, negotiations for writing a farm bill are on-going. Senator Debbie Stabenow, the Senate Agricultural Committee Chair, is holding four hearings over the next couple of months. The hearings are as follows:

* February 15, 2012 – Energy and Economic Growth for Rural America
* February 28, 2012 – Strengthening Conservation through the 2012 Farm Bill
* March 14, 2012 – Healthy Food Initiatives, Local Production and Nutrition
* March 21, 2012 – Risk Management and Commodities in the 2012 Farm Bill

Witnesses, times and other specific hearing details will be announced, according to Chairwoman Stabenow’s release. Senate Agriculture Committee hearings are available for viewing on the Committee website at http://ag.senate.gov.

It is disappointing that none of the hearings specifically address competition issues in the livestock industry. To ensure fair, open and competitive prices in the agricultural
market place, Congress must address market manipulation, packer ownership and captive supply through policy that is created for the people and not for corporate financial interests!

OCM worked hard along with other groups to address market inequalities in the 2008 farm bill and made great strides only to see much of the advances paired back in the rule making process. The political machinations used undermine the process were ugly, subversive and the new “business as usual” in Washington. It is that same new “business as usual” that may prevent the passage of a farm bill in 2012. But, we can’t let the past, nor the future political climate, temper our advocacy efforts to re-create truly competitive markets and a better future for agricultural producers.

Moving forward, we are still working with a coalition of organizations working on behalf of individual producers to advocate for fair farm policies.

We are resolved to work to restore competition to livestock markets by pushing for a packer ban on ownership of cattle more than two weeks before slaughter. We are asking for reforms on captive supply to require packers to buy in an open public manner. To ensure fairness in contracting, we are pushing for a requirement that all contracts have a firm base price rather than some sort of “system” by which corporations can decide later based on loose criteria what they will pay producers. Additionally, we will continue to ask the USDA to define unfair terms and undue preferences which is an unfulfilled directive from Congress to the Agency first in the 1921 Packers and Stockyards Act and then again in the 2008 farm bill.

OCM is working along with others to ensure fairness in contracting in all sectors of agriculture to prevent farmers from being forced to subject to unfair or abusive contract terms in order to secure a market for their crops or livestock. Those types of contracts are unconscionable but due to market concentration and dominance, entering into adhesion contracts is often the only avenue open to producers to continue farming. Requiring protections standards in contracts is an important tool to protect all producers at all levels of education and sophistication. Some of those standards include: requiring plain language contracts and disclosure of risks; the right to promptly review and withdraw from a contract; prohibition of confidentiality clauses, fair procedures for inspecting fields and farm products, a ban on binding mandatory arbitration clauses, and maintaining individuals’ rights to trial by jury. Yes, my friends. Some corporate contracts also want to take away your Constitutional right to a trial by jury. Ensuring contract fairness includes protecting this and all of your constitutional rights.

OCM wants farmers to have access to a diversity of affordable seed options by increasing competition and closing loopholes in current antitrust and patent laws. Congress must address competition reducing practices by taking action on restrictive utility patents, cross-licensing agreements, limited access to public cultivars, and patenting genetics. Our administration in Washington must provide a fair framework for farmers to access generic seeds and define on-going responsibilities over expired plant patents.

On Country of Origin Labeling (COOL), which was passed in the 2008 farm bill to provide consumer information about where their food was produced and increase marketing tools for U.S. producers, was recently attacked by the World Trade Organization as violating international trade rules. OCM worked to help pass COOL in 2008, and firmly supports our nation’s producer’s right to identify from where their food products originated. Other nations exercise that right. OCM and the coalition are working to urge Congress to close the loopholes in the existing law and expand its application.

Other areas that OCM is addressing in the 2012 farm bill negotiations are equally important and will be the subject of future articles including unfair market manipulations in the spot or futures markets, the restoration of local food processing infrastructure, and a comprehensive examination of the impact of concentration in agriculture and food markets – particularly addressing antitrust violations.

Expectations are not high that the House and Senate will agree on major policy issues that should be addressed in our next farm bill. In the absence of an agreement and presidential signature prior to the end of the federal fiscal year (which is approximately one month before our national elections), Congress could extend existing farm bill provisions in a Continuing Resolution.

Nothing in the farm bill process is certain at this time, except that it will be subject to the new “business as usual” and El Dorado is as elusive as ever. AE


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