Merchants of Doubt Exposes the Bull

Refusing to believe something doesn’t make it untrue

In last week’s Atlantic article, Farmland Without Farmers, Wendell Berry describes how industrial agriculture has replaced men with machines, depriving the American landscape of its stewards and the culture they built. He discusses the value of living in a place for a long time and observing, in that place, what’s missing.

Over the last 35 years, as Wendell Berry describes, corporations have assumed near total control of agriculture while family farmers have lost their markets, their land, and their livelihoods. When family farmers are replaced with industrial corporate farms, animals, people, communities, and the environment all suffer. Why would any society allow the demise of their farmers and ranchers? They wouldn’t if they knew it was happening. In fact, any good citizen would raise hell at the thought of losing their food supply. So why aren’t more people speaking out about the concentration and consolidation of our agricultural and food system?

modpic5Last week I saw the newly released film, Merchants of Doubt. Robert Kenner, producer of Food Inc., once again brilliantly exposes the lie, the deception and message manipulation that keeps normally intelligent people in the dark. The film explains how the lie often gets more light, more consideration, than the truth. I left the theater reminded of the danger in broadly giving others and their stories the benefit of the doubt. The film reveals the sociopaths among us. They operate from very dark places, knowing full well the damage they cause, while taking pleasure in it.

modpic4Around 40 years ago independent poultry farmers lost their markets. They either left the business or were led into contract grower serfdom by giant poultry companies and their partner banks, like the Farm Credit System. Sixteen years ago the big pork packers pounded pig prices down to 8 cents per pound, driving over 90% of our nation’s hog farmers out of business. A rigged milk market forced over 85% of our dairy farmers off their farms. Seventeen years ago my world suddenly and painfully changed. My fight to restore a fair market left me ostracized with no one who would buy my cattle. I had to shut down Callicrate Cattle Co., just one of over 39,000 cattle feeding operations that have been forced out of business.

modpic3From the farm crisis of the eighties, to the plundering and pillaging of the 1990’s, to today’s final steps to totally crush any hope for an open and fair marketplace, the people who produce our food are left to suffer and die at the hands of big food companies. Not one Secretary of Agriculture in the last 100 years, including Secretary Vilsack in this current administration, has done their duty in protecting the marketplace. In fact government policy has facilitated its demise. All the talk about rural development, support of young farmers, and USDA’s “Know your farmer, know your food” campaign, is nothing but a siren call to the corrupt fools game of corporate controlled agriculture and its indentured servitude.

Individuals and groups like The Organization for Competitive Markets and R-CALF, warning that the loss of our markets is the loss our freedom have been laughed at and ridiculed by the meat industries’ own merchants of doubt. IBP’s CEO and President, Robert Peterson, arrogantly proclaimed the cause of crashing cattle prices during the 1980s and 90s: “It’s supply and it’s demand.” His toady defenders, from land grant university economists and commodity brokers to big cattle feeders hoping to gain IBP’s favor, cheered in agreement and shouted down those telling the truth. Meanwhile IBP posted record profits as cattlemen went broke and consumers paid more. The many organizations that once represented independent producers, like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and the Kansas Livestock Association (KLA) were captured by the big meat packers. These organizations have provided cover for the meat packers swindle as their members’ livelihoods were lost to the packers’ rigged marketplace.

modpic2The meat industry’s merchants of doubt promoted many false messages like, “If you’re going broke, you must be a bad manager. You should learn to manage risk. You have to become more efficient. The beef industry can learn from the vertically integrated poultry industry. Change is inevitable.”

When we finally got the packers into a courtroom, they hired the most expensive masters of deception they could find. They claimed, “Correlation isn’t causation. Study after study has shown no effect from concentration and consolidation, and captive supplies don’t affect the market.” They falsely claimed “efficiency and economies of scale” in justifying their mergers and acquisitions.

Unbelievably, if you prove to a jury that you were cheated by a meat packer, you still lose. The packers and their federal court judges came up with their “harm to competition” defense. So unless you could prove the impossible – that competition in the entire national market was negatively affected, you were denied compensation and justice. It was like a woman losing her purse to a thief having to prove that the theft of her purse damaged women with purses everywhere.

At the 2002 National Cattlemen’s Beef Association annual gathering, John Tyson, today a billionaire, promised cattlemen that if Tyson bought IBP, the world’s biggest beef packer, they would never vertically integrate like they did with the chicken and hog industries. Christopher Leonard in his 2014 book, The Meat Racket, details the abusive, destructive, inhumane and environmentally degrading system Tyson built in poultry, known as “Chickenization”.

modpic1Like the tobacco industry’s answer to the anti-smoking campaign, or hired guns fighting the Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the beef industries main argument against the enforcement of antitrust laws was the same anti-government rhetoric: don’t tell us what to do, don’t interfere with our private business deals, no matter who gets hurt – freedom, freedom, freedom! NCBA leaders were guzzling the meat packers Kool-Aid, along with their whiskey. With the help of NCBA, the meat packers convinced Congress, the USDA, and court judges that they should be free to do anything they wanted as long as it was in their business interest. And to add insult to injury, the meat packers did it with money and political power from the cattlemen’s own Beef Checkoff, originally established to promote beef, not fewer producers. The Beef Checkoff, captured by the meat packer controlled NCBA via a merger in 1996, represents over 80% of their operating budget.

So Wendell Berry might ask someone who has been in a place for a long time, what’s missing, what’s changed?

  • We’ve lost nearly half of our cattle ranchers.
  • Over 39,000 cattle feeding operations have gone out of business, including small farmer feeders, good stewards and husbandmen who fed their crops to their livestock, while spreading valuable manure on the land.
  • Over 90 percent of our hog farmers are gone.
  • Over 85 percent of our dairymen are out of business.
  • At the same time that per capita poultry consumption has doubled (without a checkoff), per capita beef consumption has dropped by nearly a third (overall beef consumption is at record levels only due to population growth).
  • We just weaned the smallest calf crop since 1941. Cattle prices are historically high, but a price should not be confused with a market.
  • Retail beef prices are at all-time record highs.
  • The poultry market is dead.
  • The hog market is dead.
  • And the finished cattle market is on life support.
  • Four meat packers slaughter 85% of the finished cattle compared to a third thirty years
  • A constitutional amendment was just approved by voters in Missouri allowing China to
    buy more of the state for factory hog farms, and other uses, in accordance with China’s five-year food security plan. Senator Ken Schilz from Western Nebraska is sponsoring legislation to make the state of Nebraska and its precious land and water resources also available to China and other corporate and foreign interests. So called Right to Farm laws are also pending in other states.
  • Essentially all of a farmer’s inputs and outputs are controlled by a handful of multinational corporations.
  • Factory farms are growing in size and in numbers, not because they’re better in any way, but because they have market access through big food service and big retail, and they hold the power to externalize costs. Their industrial practices are wasteful, destroy soil health, pollute the environment, and the food they produce makes us sick.
  • Big meat processors continue to destroy processing infrastructure by killing off smaller competitors, which forces producers to transport animals longer distances to slaughter. They continue to exploit their workers and fight against food safety oversight
  • We are now dependent on other countries, multinational corporations, and foreign state sponsored enterprises (China’s Smithfield and Brazil’s JBS) to feed ourselves.
  • The U.S., once considered a model for feeding the world, is a now a net food importer on a value basis.

Yes, the merchants of doubt in our food system are playing their game of deception very well. Folly marches on!

Thanks to filmmaker Robert Kenner for his important work and Wendell Berry for his words of wisdom.

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A hamstrung D-11 begins crucial cafeteria cuts to balance underfunded government mandates

By Matthew Schniper @MatthewSchniper | The Colorado Springs Independent

“Hey son, what did you have for lunch today at school?”

Well, we can tell you one thing Timmy didn’t dine on, if he chose a hamburger, or meatloaf, or pasta with meat sauce: Ranch Foods Direct’s Callicrate Beef. Colorado Springs School District 11 discontinued RFD’s use last month, after seven years, to slash roughly $50,000 from its budget, says D-11 director of food and nutrition services Rick Hughes, who’s also the driving force behind the district’s ambitious Good Food Project.

“We’re funded on a corporate food system, which serves cheap food, and we’re trying to do something different than that,” he says. “But it’s getting to the point with the unfunded [state and federal] mandates that we can’t continue to do things the way we’ve been doing them, and we’re trying not to destroy the whole thing.”

The Good Food Project, implemented in 2009, targets childhood obesity and diet-related illnesses. The district has eliminated foods with artificial dyes, preservatives, hydrogenated oils, excess sugar and sodium, as well as fried items. In their place has come district-wide, from-scratch cooking, plus more fresh fruits and veggies, some grown on the district’s own educational …

Read the rest of the story on CSIndy

Castrating a bull

For Mike Callicrate, an outspoken critic of the “beef cartel” and big believer in building a strong, sustainability-minded regional food system, School District 11’s move away from Ranch Foods Direct products is all too familiar. Inside of the last year, he says, he’s lost business from Greeley, Falcon and Boulder school districts, due to the same kind of financial squeezes. Altogether, he projects losing somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.5 million in revenue from lost school contracts in 2015. It’s a figure that includes the loss of steak-cut sales, which must balance with his ground beef sales in order to move a whole animal through his production line.

“If you don’t have ground beef business, you can’t be in the meat business,” he says, noting that he’s cut four RFD jobs already. “This is a very ugly marketplace, dominated by just a handful of big companies, and they are brutal and ruthless. … We’re really screwed. You can’t shift it this fast.”

Callicrate says he was shocked to see the U.S. government step in last week and sue to block a merger between the country’s two largest food providers, US Foods and Sysco. But it’s not a game-changing victory. Even in today’s market, he often can’t compete with big companies that undercut what he calls his best, barely-break-even price by 25 percent — not when they import inexpensive beef while the overall U.S. herd continues to decline in population and rise in price.

“They’re able to dollar-cost-average the meat they sell … and totally wipe us out of the market. What the heck happened to farm-to-school? To our commitment to feed our kids better and support local economies and ranchers and farmers?” he asks. “The USDA fails to fund these programs they come up with. … And you know damn well these big industries have major lobbying power. …

“But hey, it’s back to performance-enhancing drugs, and pink slime is fully back” — at least in the wider marketplace, if not D-11, for now.

COURTESY DISTRICT 11 – Choosing healthy: Fresh foods are a welcome sight, but come at a cost.

Mike Callicrate is the inventor and owner of the Callicrate Bander a humane, drug-free method of castration.

Watch Jobs That Bite: Castrating a Bull – a 3 minute video program by National Geographic’s Nat Geo Wild hosted by Jeremy Brandt.

Related D 11 Articles:
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A look back to 2008 – Restoring Fair Trade, Prosperity and Food Security – a presentation by Mike Callicrate

This presentation made in 2008 is still relevant today


JBS is a State sponsored Brazilian meat packer, and now the largest meat packer in the world, as well as the largest beef and poultry packer in the U.S. They are ruthless, sharing monopoly power with Tyson and Cargill over the world’s meat packing industry, it’s livestock suppliers and workers. Among many others, JBS owns the former Monfort/ConAgra plant in Greeley, Colorado. The same plant made infamous for its nearly 20 million pound E. coli recall in 2002.

I am reminded of how helpless we can become without a proper balance of power in a relationship.

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The Big Food Robber Barons Return – Plundering and Pillaging

Food Speculator 1917

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Ranchers take on the beef industry over mandatory checkoff payments

David Pfrang of rural Goff, Kan., seen here checking on a herd at feeding time, has become a thorn in the side of bigger beef producers. File photo by Jill Toyoshiba The Kansas City Star

By MIKE McGRAW and PEGGY LOWE | Harvest Public Media

NEMAHA COUNTY, Kan. – From their small farms set in the rolling hills of northeast Kansas, two ranchers are raising a few cattle — and a lot of Cain.

David Pfrang and Jim Dobbins turned themselves into activists, launched a mirror corporation, got hauled into federal court and had to hire a lawyer.

All over $1.

That buck, though, divides the beef industry. And it may influence what you decide to have for dinner.

The federal “beef checkoff” mandates a rancher or feedlot pay $1 every time a head of cattle is sold. That adds up to about $80 million a year nationwide, money that is supposed to be used to convince us to buy more beef. Nobody in the beef industry argues much about that idea.

Checkoff officials say a recent study calculated that every dollar collected by the checkoff delivers $11.20 in return. Among its successes is a series of iconic commercials called “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner.”

But that $1 assessment, critics like Pfrang and Dobbins say, flows to state and national lobbying groups that work against them.

Sellers must pay even if they don’t believe they have any say over who gets the money, or why. And they must pay even if they believe the fund advances the interests of multimillionaire ranchers against their own.

“We just lost some freedom and we’re not being represented,” Pfrang said.

As many as a fourth of the nation’s 730,000 ranchers — mostly small independent farmers — say that the checkoff has become a billion-dollar bonanza for big ranchers, industry executives and giant beef packers. Their complaints have taken on new urgency with efforts to double the checkoff.

Indeed, federal statistics show larger, more efficient cattle operations are forcing out smaller ranchers and feedlots, one of the last vestiges of the small family farm — a slice of Americana that many of us still picture when we think of agriculture.

Consolidation has already altered the U.S. chicken and hog industries.

Opponents have fought the checkoff all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled that it is legal “government speech.” But that has not deterred small ranchers who continue to file lawsuits, release scathing analyses of the program and lobby the secretary of agriculture for change.

Polly Ruhland, chief executive officer of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, which oversees the checkoff, says the program is working as it should.

“Producer approval of the beef checkoff program is at its highest in 21 years,” she wrote in an email.

Political beef

The federally authorized collection agents for the checkoff are state groups like the Kansas Beef Council in Topeka, which is at the forefront of the battle Pfrang and Dobbins are waging.

They say their battle started when the Kansas council refused to give them detailed financial records on how they spend the $10 million a year they collect from them and 20,000 other Kansas producers.

Kansas and other state beef councils keep 50 cents of every dollar they collect and use it to run their own statewide programs. The other 50 cents goes to the national Cattlemen’s Beef Board, which runs the national beef promotion campaign.

Some of the money has paid for consumer research aimed at reducing the number of foodborne illnesses caused by beef. Millions more has poured into universities at the top beef-producing states, where it funds studies on beef tenderness and merchandising.

Because the collections are mandated by federal law, Congress built in safeguards to prevent checkoff dollars from being misused for lobbying or political contributions.

But many small ranchers, including Pfrang and Dobbins, don’t think those safeguards are working.

The state beef councils — and the national program — have strong ties to politically oriented beef industry lobbying groups up and down the line, which critics say often push for issues that favor large operations.

At the national level, for example, the vast majority of checkoff dollars is funneled into the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

The NCBA has long been a strong political voice, spending millions on lobbying and campaign contributions.

Yet as the prime contractor for the national beef checkoff program, the NCBA gets more than 80 percent of total checkoff revenue, according to a recent lawsuit filed by small producers.

“I think it is a broken system,” said Wil Bledsoe, president of the Colorado Independent Cattle Growers Association and a rancher who raises 900 cattle near Wild Horse, Colo.

“I don’t want them using my money to fight my livelihood like they have been,” he said. “What’s good for packers isn’t usually good for the little guy, and vice versa.”

For their part, checkoff officials say no checkoff money leaks to lobbying.

Checkoff funds are “extensively audited from various angles,” Ruhland, of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, wrote in her email.

Checkoff officials at all levels insist that firewalls built inside the lobbying organizations prevent any misuse of those funds.

Faulty firewalls?

But critics say those firewalls sometimes work more like revolving doors.

And government monitors are aware of the problems, said one former U.S. Department of Agriculture official.

“The administration is well aware that the NCBA has misappropriated producer money and the NCBA has helped defeat policy reforms that would have helped small producers,” said Dudley Butler, who resigned as a top USDA official in 2012.

In an open letter to his old boss, Butler said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has all the power he needs to reform the program but refuses to do so.

Vilsack has said he is trying to settle the disputes.

Claims from Butler and others got some traction two years ago when a federal audit, sparked by complaints from producers, found that the NCBA had wrongly spent $216,000 on “non-checkoff activities.”

Despite those findings, auditors assured producers that there’s no reason to question the integrity of the program.

Critics aren’t satisfied.

They say auditors looked at a fraction of the transactions between the beef checkoff and the NCBA, according to a lawsuit filed by a group of farmers called the Organization for Competitive Markets. They seek access to more than 40,000 pages of unreleased documents.

High salaries paid to NCBA officials also are like a spur in the side.

Federal tax forms show that NCBA’s chief operating officer, Forrest Roberts, was paid $428,319 in 2013. NCBA officials say Roberts’ salary is comparable to other CEOs in similar positions.

But that isn’t the point, critics say.

“NCBA regards the checkoff as its own personal financial trough and will do everything possible to cement that status into eternity,” National Farmers Union president Roger Johnson has said.

Kimmi Clark Lewis, who runs a 300-head cow-calf operation in eastern Colorado, agrees.

“We need a complete audit of the beef checkoff,” she said. “Not just a few years, all the years, and show where the funding goes.”

Foreign trade also inflames small ranchers, who are furious that the NCBA, funded in part with their checkoff dollars, has lobbied against country-of-origin labeling on meat products. They say consumers clearly prefer beef that is raised and slaughtered here.

“I think the American housewife has a right to know where their beef comes from,” said Malvern Mizner, a rancher from western Nebraska. “We even know where our underwear is made.”

Despite those concerns and more than $2 billion spent to spark demand over the years, critics add, the checkoff hasn’t stemmed the steep slide in U.S. beef consumption.

Two-hat states

In Kansas, the politics of beef are hard to ignore. Consider the career of Thomas Dee Likes.

Until recently, Likes was the executive vice president of the 5,500-member Kansas Livestock Association, a 120-year-old Topeka lobbying group that many small ranchers believe lobbies against their interests.

But Likes also was the epitome of what checkoff cowboys like Pfrang mean by the term “two-hat state.”

On one day, Likes could wear his Kansas Livestock Association hat, lobbying a state legislator over lunch. Later the same day, he could wear his Kansas Beef Council hat, riding herd over checkoff dollars.

That’s because Likes was also treasurer of the Kansas Beef Council, a subdivision of the Kansas Livestock Association (KLA).

Likes, the beef board and the USDA say there’s nothing amiss about the arrangement in Topeka.

Likes said the beef council has its own board of directors and a separate accounting system and no lobbying and checkoff funds are commingled.

Up in Nemaha County, the arrangement has cattlemen like David Pfrang pulling his hair out.

How can there be a firewall between checkoff dollars and lobbying like the law says when Dee Likes could walk back and forth through that wall all day and never get singed?

Recent audits show nothing amiss, but Pfrang isn’t satisfied.

He and his neighbor Dobbins already knew that Likes was paid handsomely for his service to the industry. The most recent KLA financial report shows Likes was paid total compensation of $329,937 in 2013, but in years past he’s made over $1 million in salary and other compensation.

Likes retired from his leadership role at the KLA at the end of 2014 and became chief executive emeritus.

But the old “two hat” arrangement will continue under Likes’ successor. Matt Teagarden recently replaced Likes as executive director of the KLA lobbying organization and also serves as treasurer of its subsidiary, the Kansas Beef Council.

Trojan horse

The arrangement sent the two Nemaha County cowboys down to Topeka in 2011 on a fact-finding mission.

But they could find no record of the Kansas Beef Council with the secretary of state.

It was as if the council, a government-authorized collection agent for the mandatory checkoff assessments, didn’t exist at the Kansas secretary of state’s office.

That gave the Nemaha County cowboys an idea.

They registered that same name themselves with the secretary of state, then wrote bylaws and elected themselves to run their very own Kansas Beef Council Inc. Only in their version, they said, everyone would get a vote.

Before long, Pfrang and Dobbins started getting a lot of mail from Topeka.

“If you have $10 million coming into your coffers every year, would you want a couple of snotty-nosed cattlemen up in Nemaha County wanting to try to jump into your pool and muddy it up?” asked Dobbins.

The Kansas Livestock Association accused them of stealing the name “Kansas Beef Council.” Washington lawyers sent them a cease and desist order and hauled them into federal court. In the end, they decided to give up the name but refused a demand for a gag order — they’ve been talking about it ever since.

Pfrang can’t do much about the national checkoff program, he said. But he did find a way to keep the Topeka crowd from getting his money.

Federal law allows ranchers in some states, including Kansas, to forward their entire dollar-per-head checkoff payment to the national program. So far, state beef council officials said, Pfrang is the only Kansas rancher to take advantage of the loophole.

“It’s turned us into activists,” Pfrang said.

But he’s not any happier with direction at the national level. Recent efforts by checkoff supporters to double the fee to $2 a head sparked a renewed battle.

All the bickering prompted Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack to let loose at a recent Kansas City news conference.

“Because they’re locking horns, tens of millions of dollars of promotion and research and marketing isn’t getting done,” Vilsack said. “I mean, seriously, does that make sense?”

Whether all the bickering makes sense or not, critics say the battle royal over the beef checkoff is really a struggle to preserve a way of life. They will continue to complain, they say, until the government fixes it or they go the way of the small chicken and hog farmers who succumbed to what appears to be an inevitable march toward consolidation in American agriculture.

Mike McGraw is a special projects reporter at the Hale Center for Journalism at KCPT. Peggy Lowe is investigations editor at Harvest Public Media and KCUR. KCPT’s Hale Center for Journalism serves as a center for local multimedia journalism and collaboration with PBS, NPR and regional news sources. The Center houses Flatland, an open-source, digital forum producing stories and conversations about things that matter in Kansas City.

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