Rural Communities Wither and Die as Big Ag Captures Community Built Infrastructure

The farm and ranch community needs a new safe, profitable, and monopoly free pathway to the consumer. As poverty and hunger worsen, why are cities still willing to build highways, bridges, schools, libraries, museums, and sports arenas for billionaires, but refuse to build critical food infrastructure that supports local/regional agriculture and public access to healthy food?

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A Good Steward A Struggling Farmer Does Not Make

More than twenty years ago I met Brother David Andrews, then the executive director of National Catholic Rural Life organization. I loved the group’s slogan, “Eating is a Moral Act.” One of the several handouts the group produced depicted a farmer’s worn out gloved hands wrapped in barbed wire, a brilliant portrait of hopelessness, by Bill Schaefer. Today, nothing much has changed. Small and mid-sized family farmers and ranchers are still no more than indentured servants to the food monopoly and rural communities continue to decline. Our nation is fully dependent upon big corporations that source food globally.

However, it also feels like a real movement might finally be building for a more just, clean, and safe food system, especially with so many young people now collaborating to fight the abusive corporate power and demanding the economy serve the people, rather than the people serving the economy. There is a lot more discussion now around stewardship, husbandry, and regenerative agriculture, which only many, many more people on the land can deliver. Maybe it just had to get a lot worse before it could get better?

Brother Dave passed a few years ago, and he is greatly missed. But his important work lives through his many friends and acquaintances, as we keep his mission of fairness and justice always foremost in our minds.

The “Eating is a Moral Act” card follows:

See my 2001 article – Eating is a Moral Act.

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Why Can’t We Do What Our Great Granddads Did?

Gilles Stockton sees a cattle market solution that will work, and one that the meatpackers will fight.

January 18, 2021

Last summer our son visited and brought his puppy which gave us endless amusement watching that dog chase her tail.  That was fun, but I am getting sick and tired of watching cattle producers chase their tails on market reform ideas that go nowhere.

Most of us have known for a long time that the cattle market is dysfunctional, but there has not been much of a desire to do anything about it.  Last year’s fire in a Tyson packing plant and the market disruptions caused by the COVID – 19 epidemic hit a nerve and perhaps we have a consensus that something needs doing to restore competitive pricing in the fat cattle market. But what?  That is the sticking point.

The 50/14 proposal, where half of the cattle would be sold on the spot market, is being advanced by a number of cattle organizations. However, they neglect to tell us just how this concept can be legal.  No one has pointed to a statute that can compel a meat packer that they must purchase half of their needs in a government-mandated manner?

Answer me that question and maybe I can take the 50/14 proposal seriously.  And what about the cattle feeders? If packers are required to buy 50% of the fat cattle on the spot market, then feeders would also be required to sell 50% of their cattle that way.  How can such a scheme be legal and how will it be policed? And then remember, if half the cattle are sold on the spot market, the other half continues to be unpriced captive supply.  Does the 50/14 approach really fix anything?  It looks to me to be like using a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.

Naturally, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) cannot go along with something that any other organization proposed, so they have countered the 50/14 plan with some kind of incomprehensible “volunteer” 75% market proposal.  NCBA did go one step further to put real teeth into their plan.  They threatened that if the packers do not follow the 75% plan, NCBA would do SOMETHING. Do what they did not say.  Perhaps hold their breath until they turn blue!

Some are saying that having a stronger spot market is one thing, but what is really needed are more negotiated sales for fat cattle.  They argue that feeders should negotiate more vigorously for formula contracts.  Yes, they undoubtedly should, but the reason that we have a situation where there is an almost nonexistent spot market while the bulk of the cattle are sold through unpriced captive supply arrangements is because the packers have arranged things that way.  Why would they haggle with feeders when they know that the cattle will come to them on the packer’s terms anyway? That is why it is called captive supplies.

There seems to be a hope that if the Justice Department (DOJ) investigates that they would do something to hold the packers accountable for the market dysfunction.  I hate being the “Debby Downer” but the Justice Department does not have jurisdiction over the Packer and Stockyards Act.  That is the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture.

DOJ can investigate under the Sherman Antitrust Act which forbids market collusion.  The trouble is that collusion is defined very narrowly.  Corporate executives must be found to be sitting down together and actually negotiating prices and market share.  The packers are smarter than that, besides they have whole buildings full of lawyers making sure that their executives do not directly collude.  Indirect collusion, however, is perfectly legal.

“There is a way to restore competition in the fat cattle market that is both legal and doable.” 

There is a way to restore competition in the fat cattle market that is both legal and doable.  All that needs to happen is to do what they did 100 years ago when the packing cartel of that era was required to divest of their proprietary market system and instead bid for cattle in a public competitive marketplace.

This approach solves both the captive supply and thin spot market problem.  And it is both legal and has legal precedence. The Packers and Stockyards Act clearly states that the “effect” of having a dysfunctional market is sufficient grounds for the Secretary of Agriculture to take action.  All that the Secretary needs to do is require that the packers bid in a public competitive market place.

The beauty of this approach is that there would be no new bureaucracy required to enforce it. The privately-run market places will do so automatically because feeders would offer their cattle and packers would bid for their needs in open competition. If feeders and packers agree that they prefer to contract some of the cattle for future delivery, then there could be a public market for future contracts. We do that all the time with feeder calves through video/electronic markets that work very well.

There are some in this industry who are always telling us how important it is to be able to “sell on the grid.”  Apparently, if feeders don’t “sell on the grid” all manner of terrible things would happen – quality would crash and consumers would stop buying.  I don’t know about all that, but requiring that cattle be publicly priced does not hinder “selling on the grid” in any manner what-so-ever.  All that needs to happen is that a base price is set and the terms of the grid published at the time the contract is made. It is just that simple.

Let’s stop chasing our tails and put our efforts to solving our market dysfunction once and for all. Our great granddads did it in 1921.  Why can’t we do the same in 2021?

Gilles Stockton
Grass Range, Montana

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Meat Cartel Threatens Food Security

On this day, January 21, 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United case removing restrictions on corporate campaign contributions, essentially handing the “Temple of Democracy” over to the control of big corporations.

Decades of a no-rules economy has allowed the big-four meatpackers to take control of our cattle and beef markets. They continue to plunder, pillage, and exploit on a daily basis, enabled by Congress, the de-reg courts, and captured government agencies. They settle price-fixing cases for a fraction of the ill-gotten gains, without admitting guilt, knowing they have the power to quickly recover any settlement amount from their producer and worker supply chains.

State’s Attorneys General have recently come together to fight the monopoly power of big tech. While they’re talking they should look at revoking the charters of the meatpacker felons doing business in their states. Additionally, USDA has the authority to withdraw grants of inspection to companies guilty of price-fixing, bribery, and felonious practices, of which all of the big-four cartel meatpackers are guilty.

We have the necessary tools to break up the concentrated power and restore fair, open, and competitive markets, and rebuild our capacity to feed ourselves while rebuilding rural America. What are we waiting for?

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Meat Consumption a Century Ago vs. Today – What if?

March 5, 1908

CONSUMPTION OF MEAT

Topeka, Kansas – That meat consumption per capita has declined in this country since 1840 is plainly indicated. There is some ground for believing that at that time meat constituted about half of the national dietary in terms of total nutritive units consumed, whereas now it constitutes about one-third.

The average private family of 1900 contained 4.6 persons, and this family consumed on the average 855 pounds of dressed weight meat or 680 pounds of edible meat in the dressed weight. Upon adding to the 680 pounds the edible parts not included in the dressed weight, the average family consumption of edible meat was 840 pounds.

In terms of meat and its products substantially as purchased by the consumer, that is, the sum of the dressed weight and of the weight of the edible parts not included in the dressed weight, the private family of 1900 bought on the average 1,014 pounds of meat, or over half a ton. That makes an average of 2.78 pounds per day, and includes not merely meat commonly known as such, with its bones and retail butchers’ trimmings, but includes lard, edible tallow, the meat products contained in sandwiches, pies, bakery products, sausage, etc., and all kitchen and table waste.

Beef and veal constitute 47 percent of the meat consumption; mutton and lamb 7 percent and 46 percent. In the exports, beef by weight is 34 percent and pork 66 percent.

Thanks to Tom Giessel, NFU Historian

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“What would the economic and climate impact be if we could restore beef consumption to 1900 levels … ?”

Comparing per capita consumption of beef and pork:

1900 – Beef – 104 pounds per person, 86 pounds based on 840 pounds per family

1900 – Pork – 101 pounds per person, 84 pounds based on 840 pounds per family

2020 – Beef – 58.9 pounds per person (retail wt.)

2020 – Pork – 46.9 pounds per person (retail wt.)

Per capita beef consumption was considerably higher in 1900 when thousands of skilled butchers in small shops were cutting beef directly from carcasses without the benefits of modern refrigeration.  The perceived efficiency of big meatpackers and their industrially produced boxed-beef, along with the promotional efforts of the beef checkoff, has only had negative outcomes – reduced quality and demand, worker exploitation, animal abuse, and the dramatic loss of small meatpackers, butcher shops, and cattle producers.

What would the economic and climate impact be if we could restore beef consumption to 1900 levels and essentially eliminate beef imports? What if grazing was permitted on the approximately 21 million acres of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) grasslands, plus any other highly erodible or excess crop acres that could become well-managed carbon-sequestering pasture lands? And then add the potential of restoring local/regional markets in which the producer receives a fair share of the consumer beef dollar.

We should also consider how a return to healthy food and a healthy Earth could reduce the degenerative diseases caused by highly processed modern food.

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