Consolidation is driving family farms out of business — Opinion

By: - August 17, 2021 6:00 am

Photo courtesy of Tyson Foods.

Every August, Farmfest is a great time to reconnect with farmers and friends and catch up on others we know in common. I was reflecting on some of those people as I drove home from Farmfest this year and started thinking about the “ghost farmsteads.” 

You’ve likely heard of ghost towns, early villages which have faded with the passage of time. To me, ghost farmsteads are those farms that have vanished as farmers left the farm, unable to earn a fair price for the products they produced. As those families packed their belongings and moved, there was one less family to send their children to the local school, shop at the local grocery store or attend the local church. The entire community lost something when that family left. 

We’ve lost too many of those families as consolidation forces more of them off the farm and out of our communities.

For more than a century, citizens of the United States have argued about competition and consolidation in the marketplace and its effects. In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt warned about the dangers of consolidating wealth in the hands of a few corporations in a speech  entitled, “The Control of Corporations.”

“The great corporations which we have grown to speak of rather loosely as trusts are the creatures of the state,” he said. “And the state not only has the right to control them, but it is duty bound to control them wherever the need of such control is shown.”

Nearly 20 years later, Congress passed the Packers and Stockyards Act “to assure fair competition and fair-trade practices, to safeguard farmers and ranchers . . .  to protect consumers . . . and to protect members of the livestock, meat and poultry industries from unfair, deceptive, unjustly discriminatory and monopolistic practices.  …”

I would argue that lax enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act has failed farmers, workers, consumers and our country. Farmers have struggled to make a living as they’ve lost competitive markets. Workers, likewise, struggled to earn a living as they lost the ability to fight for better working conditions and higher wages. With limited competition, consumers pay whatever price is set at the meat counter.

In 2020, six chicken-industry executives were indicted for their roles in fixing prices in the chicken industry from 2012 to 2019. Some of the executives worked at Pilgrim’s Pride, which is mostly owned by JBS, a leading beef packer

In the U.S., just four firms slaughter 85%of the cattle in the United States, and three firms control 63% of pork processing. One firm, Tyson, controls 38% of poultry processing.

Across the entire agricultural economy, the choices and economic opportunities of farmers and ranchers are limited by just a handful of companies that stand between us and the consumer. Many of those companies are based outside the U.S. They control the inputs we purchase to grow the food, the processing, and the supply chains it takes to get the food to your table.

That’s why I’m glad the Biden administration has made competition a top priority. And I’m proud to have members of the Minnesota congressional delegation leading the charge to take on corporate consolidation. 

Addressing corporate consolidation won’t be easy and we’ll need to keep contacting our senators and representatives and making our voices heard. Folks who don’t farm should join us in that, because this isn’t just about farm families and their livelihoods. 

Unchecked consolidation affects consumers, workers, and the economic vitality of rural Minnesota. The economic vitality of rural Minnesota is critical to the health of the entire state’s economy, as one of every five Minnesota workers has a job that is directly or indirectly related to agriculture.

You need to get involved and take action. Call your elected officials serving at the federal level and tell them to pass Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s “Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Reform Act of 2021.” Report unfair practices to Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office. And make your voice louder by joining an organization working to restore market competition. (I’d be honored if that was Minnesota Farmers Union.) 

It’s time to reinvigorate the agricultural supply chain and make sure that people are free to build the life they want to live in rural Minnesota.

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