Jefferson City News Tribune | Farming for the future, legislating for the locals

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Jefferson City News Tribune
By Allen Fennewald

Family farm advocates have a simple request for Missouri politicians: pass legislation to enhance family farmers in rural communities who are watching their way of life dwindle against the backdrop of growing corporate agribusinesses and global trade.

The Organization of Competitive Markets and Family Farm Action coalition blame agribusiness corporations’ and international entities’ increasing control of American agriculture for stifling markets and causing a rapid decline in small family farms. Missouri’s rural poverty rate has grown to 30.9 percent higher than that of urban areas, while a 55 percent decrease in net farm incomes has occurred since 2013. Farmers are selling their products for diminishing prices not reflected by the cost of food in grocery stores.

The Family Farm Action has partnered with the OCM to offer the state government policy proposals intended to promote family farms and improve rural communities. The proposals came in an OCM report titled “Consolidation and the American Farmer — Missouri,” the first installment of a national agricultural evaluation.

“As a small family farmer, the OCM report put into words what we already feel every day,” said farmer Chelsea Davis, Family Farm Action’s communications director. “Farming isn’t easy, and we don’t need it to be. What we need is for those making the rules to level the playing field so we have a fair shot at our piece of the American dream.

“I’m hopeful that we make some serious changes, and stop putting corporate agribusiness first and focus on family farmers so we can rebuild our amazing rural communities.”

Missouri policy proposals

The OCM report lists a set of policy proposals for the Missouri Legislature, paraphrased below.

Re-establish a ban on the sale of farmland to a foreign-held entity. Require anyone who has more than 20 percent ownership in a company to report the names and level of ownership of any foreign entity involved in the business to the Missouri secretary of state.

Under a 2013 Missouri law, no more than 1 percent (300,000 acres) of Missouri’s farmland may be owned by foreign entities. State Rep. Martha Stevens, D-Columbia, proposed legislation Tuesday to repeal the law and entirely ban foreign ownership.

Increase transparency and contractor protections by requiring all Missouri retailers to display the country of origin on beef and pork, requiring livestock integrators — a form of contract farming — to submit public copies of grower contracts and establish a minimum six-month notice period before grower contracts can be changed or terminated.

This sort of labeling was previously required under the Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) law, which was repealed by Congress in 2015 as part of an omnibus budget bill to pacify Mexico and Canada, where the law was found to be harmful to their own markets.

Improve oversight by compelling the state auditor to conduct a full audit of all federal Beef Checkoff Programs — producer-funded programs intended to increase product demand — Missouri family farmers pay into, with new audits to be conducted every three years.

The OCM became concerned with the Beef Checkoff Program after a 2010 performance review by the Clifton Gunderson Accounting Firm discovered numerous irregularities in the expenditures and personal time cards charged to the program by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, extending more than two years. The review resulted in the association returning more than $200,000 to the National Beef Board.

Increase rural community market access and economic development by organizing a task force to focus on expanding local and regional food systems and positive environmental practices. Assure rural viewpoints are present on all permit review boards, such as the Clean Water Commission. Allow communities to protect residents from negative health and environmental effects of large-scale farming operations.

Gov. Eric Greitens appointed three new farm-friendly members to the Clean Water Commission in December. Supporters claimed the move was necessary, because non-farming members of the public often do not fully understand how clean water regulations can unnecessarily hinder agricultural operations.

Support rural localized food systems by implementing a shift in agricultural extension spending to prioritize local and regional food systems, disadvantaged farmers and market opportunities to revitalize rural communities. For example, the EPA’s Clean Water Act and Trash-Free Waters expanded the federal agency’s reach to small waterways and wetlands with significant connections to rivers lakes and other waters, which opponents claimed infringed on land rights.

Consolidation

OCM took Theodore Roosevelt’s lead in championing the fight to break up monopolies. Maxwell said large, consolidated companies that dominate a market can block the entrance of potential competitors and stifle advancements new companies could bring to the industry.

The report statesmedian hog farm production has increased from an average of 1,200 hogs per farm in 1967 to 40,000 in 2012. In Missouri, the number of hog farms decreased by 62 percent from 1997-2012.

“This decline in smaller independent producers has been the result of larger companies buying up hog production,” according to the OCM report.

Horizontal and vertical consolidation among major companies advances their control over markets like meat, seed and chemicals. For example, 62 percent of the agri-chemical market was controlled by top firms in 2017. If the U.S. Department of Justice allows the corporations Bayer and Monsanto to merge, the top-tier share of the market would increase to 82 percent.

“Ag economists say once you have 40 percent of the market or more, the fundamentals of our marketplace, our economic system, that has built this great country, begin to deteriorate,” said Joe Maxwell, OCM’s executive director and former lieutenant governor. “What we find today is that the top four companies controlling the beef in the United States control 82 percent of the market.”

Globalism

While international trade is a benefit to many Missouri farmers, allowing them to sell products around the world, it also has its down sides. Wes Shoemyer, a cattle and grain farmer in Clarence, Missouri, and former state senator, said a country of origin labeling requirement is important because cheap Brazilian beef is being imported to America and sold to China as U.S. beef, cutting out American cattlemen so middlemen receive extra profits.

Farmers like Shoemyer and Maxwell fear foreign companies that purchase American operations can take advantage of national resources without reinvesting in local communities. Shoemyer said China’s controlling 25 percent of the U.S. pork market through Smithfield Foods means conflict between the two countries could greatly impact domestic pork prices.

“If you think bacon is expensive now, wait until after we get in a trade war with China,” Shoemyer said. “We just put a tariff on their solar panels, so we’ll see what happens.”

Diversification and local expansion

Maxwell and Shoemyer agreed diversification is a way young farmers could find footing in agriculture. Rather than relying on highly produced and internationally traded crops like field corn and soybeans, they suggest adding crops in demand by local markets. Shoemyer said that will require marketing and networking but will help revitalize local economies.

The organic food movement has been treating Shoemyer well, as restaurants and other businesses are willing to pay more for a quality of food that is difficult for corporate agriculture to produce at a profitable rate. However, while organic produce is in demand, there is still a need for additional area businesses to work with neighboring farmers to develop localized food systems.

Sandy Davis, owner of the Blackberry Moon Produce, said her business depends on having a reliable buyer in Root Cellar, a Mid-Missouri grocery owned by Davis. This highlights the need for businesses to work with local producers to expand regional markets and allow more small farmers to sell their products without involving major corporations.

African-American farmers

While most young people who can’t inherit farms have a hard time obtaining land and equipment necessary to start a competitive farm, OCM found African-American farmers can experience even greater difficulties.

Webster Davis, chairman of the NAACP Agriculture Committee, reviewed USDA data to find Missouri was home to about 5,000 African-American farmers in 1900, but that number has decreased to 239 in 2012.

The OCM report shows those who remain are at an economic disadvantage to the average Missouri farmer. In 2012, Missouri farms sold an average of $92,000 of product per operation, while African-American farmers only sold $54,000. African-American farmers also received on average $2,000 less per farm in government payments.

Webster said this isn’t necessarily an example of ongoing racial prejudice. African-American farmers have often owned smaller farms, which makes it more difficult for succeeding generations to grow the business.

“A lot of the time, when African-Americans do inherit land, it’s a smaller amount of land,” Webster said. “When you go to borrow money at the bank, it’s easy to get a $100,000 loan if your family has 1,000 acres but if you’ve only got 10 acres to start with or less than that, you don’t have much to borrow (against).”

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