On August 11th, OCM will return to the Airport Embassy Suites in Kansas City for our annual convention. There, in October of 1998, OCM was founded and declared its mission to be reestablishing fair and competitive markets for agriculture. Fair and competitive markets are what OCM still strives for; not as an end in themselves but as a critical contributor to the survival of independent family agriculture, a tenable rural America and our national food security.
In my view, successfully bringing about competitive markets will require at least these four things: (1) Country of Origin Labeling (COOL), (2) an intact Packers & Stockyards Act, (3) a ban on packer ownership (eliminating captive supply) and (4) antitrust enforcement.
Our focus on COOL is because we believe consumers need to at least know what country their meat comes from and U. S. producers should have a right to differentiate their product in the marketplace. In addition, repeal of COOL for pork and beef was a precursor to significantly increased imports.
Packers and Stockyards Act:
The Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921 (PSA) came into being to protect livestock producers during a period of rampant abuses by meat packers. The PSA was intended to curb these abuses and provide for a more competitive and equitable market for livestock and poultry. But the PSA has fallen short of its intended purpose due to lack of clarity and proper promulgation and systematic judicial distortions. Today, four packers control 85% of the beef market and vigorously oppose any effort to reconstruct and clarify the Act through rulemaking.
The 2008 (Farm Bill) tasked USDA with writing a rule which would further promulgate and clarify the PSA. However, packer lobbyists and their chief minion, NCBA, were successful in influencing legislators to reject the USDA proposed rule. There is currently another submission of a GIPSA rule before the Congress, but it is held hostage to the President’s hold on pending rules. We are working to show the new administration the importance of implementing this rule and restoring agricultural producers’ protection by the PSA.
Packer Ownership Ban:
Meat packers are the markets for livestock. When they are allowed to own their own livestock, they can and do manipulate prices paid to producers. In 2001, the United States Senate approved an amendment to the Senate Farm Bill, making it unlawful for a packer to own, feed, or control livestock intended for slaughter more than fourteen days prior to slaughter. The amendment included exemptions for packing houses owned by farmer cooperatives, and packers with less than two percent of national slaughter. The amendment was approved 51-46 in the Senate but was defeated in the House of Representatives. Packer lobbyists and NCBA were instrumental in the defeat of this essential element of fair and competitive markets for cattle.
Ever since the 80’s there has been a steady and significant decline in the enforcement of our antitrust laws. Merger after merger has been allowed. We are presently working with Senator Mike Lee of Utah on antitrust issues. He chairs the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust. He is expected to meet with Senator Jeff Sessions when he assumes office as Attorney General and make the case for vigorous antitrust action. We are hopeful!
NCBA: Funding the Demise of Our Way of Life
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) is the prime obstructer of our market reform efforts. The group is enabled by the $50 million or so it receives each year from the beef checkoff, which accounts for 83% of their total revenue. Having received some $1 billion in checkoff funds over the years, NCBA has sold itself as the voice of the industry, notwithstanding the fact that less than 4% of cattle producers are NCBA members. Through its PAC, it has exerted considerable political influence. Through its advertising buys in farm publications (with checkoff funds) it has biased editorial policy. NCBA simply must be defunded and discredited!
Our lawsuit against the USDA’s Office of Inspector General, aimed at compelling the release of records regarding NCBA’s mishandling of checkoff funds, is going well. We have apparently drawn an honest judge and expect to receive damning information regarding the many misappropriations by NCBA. We have already received strong evidence in that regard, but some 9,300 pages of raw financial data have now been deemed relevant to our FOIA request. NCBA panicked when it learned of this and filed to intervene in our suit, with the obvious purpose of obstructing our access to these records. The judge allowed NCBA’s intervention but severely restricted its ability to challenge release of the records. This has been a long, drawn out process, but we expect to the judge to order release of the requested records and data. We believe this information will reveal new and egregious abuses of checkoff funds that will result in the end of NCBA’s using checkoff funds against those compelled to provide them.
Further, through OCM’s encouragement, two U.S. Senators are working together to end the check-off programs’ abuses. U.S. Senator Lee (R) Utah has filed the Voluntary Check-off Program Participation Act (S.B. 3200), which would ensure those farmers who do not want to participate in a checkoff program would not be mandated to do so, while allowing those who want to participate to continue to do so. U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D) New Jersey has joined Senator Lee in filing the Commodity Checkoff Program Improvement Act of 2016 (S.B.3201), which would strengthen prohibitions against using checkoff funds to engage in lobbying, conflicts of interest, or other harmful anti-competitive activities. When enacted, these bills would end the abuse of the checkoff programs, helping restore opportunity for U.S. family farmers and ranchers.
We are now embarked on a series of meetings regarding the present cattle market crash and contributing factors. The first was in my home state of Mississippi. Similar meetings in Virginia and Alabama followed, and more meetings are being scheduled. This effort is designed to educate, raise awareness, and build grassroots capacity. Cattle producers are responding well and we are increasing our support and membership. If you aren’t already an OCM member, we encourage you to join us. If you are, please recruit your friends and neighbors. If we are going to take on NCBA and the meat packers, independent farmers and ranchers must be organized and speaking with one voice.
This essay will be part of OCM’s March 2017 membership newsletter. To subscribe to our newsletter, please join OCM today.