By Mike Callicrate & Fred Stokes
Eating is one thing we all have in common. And, to millions of us, what we eat, how it’s produced, and where it comes from is important.
OCM has worked for the last fourteen years to restore competition in the agricultural marketplace. We believe family farmers and ranchers make the best stewards of our land and livestock, and are the most reliable and trustworthy sources of high quality, healthy and safe food. OCM’s fundamental unifying belief is that fair, open and competitive markets are critical to our nation’s food supply. A growing number of people believe that family farmers and ranchers will soon be a thing of the past unless something is done quickly about the abusive power of big food companies.
Since inception, OCM has believed litigation to be the most direct and effective way to correct the injustices of an unfair marketplace. Unfortunately, so far, the higher courts have taken the side of the big packers when juries have found market unfairness. Legislative solutions have failed, either at the point of law-making or later in rule-making when the big packers and their lobbyists help write the rules, reversing the intent of lawmakers.
Last year during our annual conference we announced the filing of a lawsuit against USDA in response to their failure to act following a 2010 performance review, which found the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) had knowingly misappropriated (stolen) funds from the beef checkoff. Cattlemen’s fears were confirmed – NCBA was in fact using cattlemen’s money intended for promotion and research, against them, in advocating for big meat packer and retailer control of the cattle industry.
Polsinelli Shughart, a large law firm based in Kansas City, agreed to represent me (Mike Callicrate), pro bono, as the sole plaintiff in the case. The suit asked the court for a permanent injunction, blocking future checkoff funds from going to NCBA. As soon as the announcement of the suit was made public, all hell broke loose. The furor centered on the involvement of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), rather than the merits of the case. HSUS had offered the assistance of their legal department in reviewing a large volume of FOIA material received from USDA, providing Polsinelli attorneys with valuable help on strategy and in drafting the complaint. Polsinelli, under pressure, and in breach of contract, has since withdrawn from the case, leaving me without counsel.
Also, following the announcement, the Mississippi Farm Bureau board expelled former OCM president, Fred Stokes, for his role in the litigation and association with HSUS. Fred was a forty-year member of Farm Bureau, served ten years as president of his county Farm Bureau, and was in his second term as a state board member. The contention was that he was in conflict with Farm Bureau policy supporting commodity checkoffs, when in fact the litigation sought improvement of the program, intending to stop the misuse of checkoff funds. The obvious reason for the reaction was that this litigation might jeopardize a vital revenue stream to NCBA, one of Farm Bureau’s partners in the U. S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA). USFRA, a coalition of the world’s largest agribusiness firms, and other organizations promoting industrial agriculture, is financed with corporate and commodity checkoff dollars, including hundreds of thousands of dollars from the beef checkoff. Industrial agriculture is an extraction model of food production and distribution that exploits and abuses producers, workers, animals, the environment and the consumer. USFRA recognizes the word “industrial” as opposed to “family farm” has become highly offensive to consumers. Their deceptive PR and marketing campaign is an effort to hide their offensive image behind the respected and trusted face of family farmers and ranchers.
NCBA, since its formation in 1996, has put the interests of big packers, distributors and retailers over the interests of the cattlemen they claim to represent. While packers and retailers have been reporting huge profits selling to consumers at record prices, ranchers and cattle feeders have been plundered. Essentially, cattlemen are buying their own hanging rope when forced by law to pay the operating expenses of the NCBA. USDA is mandated by law to provide oversight for this mandatory tax, assuring money is used in accordance with the act and order. The law prohibits funds from being used to promote political agendas, precisely what was already well known and now confirmed in the review. The USDA, known to be in the pocket of NCBA and the big meat packers, continues to show indifference to clear proof of illegal behavior.
Convinced that family farmers and ranchers provide far better husbandry than factory farms, HSUS supporters (Eleven million – over 90% eat meat), have worried that options for humanely produced meats are quickly disappearing. HSUS asked OCM how they could help support family farm agriculture. Their legal assistance was critical in filing the case against USDA.
The Beef Checkoff Reform Taskforce, formed by OCM and other concerned cattlemen in 2010, asked for and obtained an Office of Inspector General (OIG) audit which began in February of 2011. The investigation was finished in December of that year with the expectation of a public report by March 2012. The report is yet to be released and there is good evidence the long overdue report will be a whitewash. The lawsuit against USDA has been stayed pending the report.
Industry has spent enormous resources dividing producers, trying to convince them that HSUS and other consumer groups are the enemy and are anti-animal agriculture. At the same time, NCBA has been a strong and effective advocate for industrial agriculture and the chickenization of the cattle industry, which has driven over 40% of our cattle producers off the land in the last 30 years.
So perhaps the real enemy is not HSUS but, instead, NCBA. We don’t agree with HSUS on everything, but on the issues important to OCM we do agree. HSUS has supported Country of Origin Labeling, Mandatory Price Reporting, and the GIPSA rules.
Over the years, our voice has become much weaker as more and more farmers and ranchers are forced off the land. OCM believes strongly that aligning with other groups is critical to saving family farm and ranch agriculture. We are reminded daily of how powerful and abusive this industrial, profit-at-all-costs, lawless corporate food system has become.
OCM has a successful history of collaboration. In 2006, Nebraska corn farmer, John Dittrich, acting in his role as an OCM board member, led an historical effort to bring diverse, sometimes disagreeable groups, together on some critical issues. After three days of meetings, representatives from manufacturing, organized labor, agriculture, and faith, found consensus on common issues concerning trade. The Coalition for a Prosperous America was formed. The group is now over 3 million strong and guiding much needed changes in global trade policy.
Anyone, from Berkeley to Boston, who understands the value of producing, growing and making things, anyone who values neighbor, community, and freedom over prejudices and serfdom, who place people over profit, is welcome to join us in our important work.