The elephant in the room that’s destroying family farms, rural communities and our democracy

The author says that a food system controlled by farmers and consumers, would not be putting multinational corporate profits over people, the environment and our national security (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch).

I love farming and have been doing it all my life, but I told my kids not to come back to the farm, because there’s no future in it. That’s the sad truth.

Over the last year on Capitol Hill, there have been multiple hearings and bills and even an executive order to address what is going on out here in rural America, but little to nothing is getting done. For the last three decades, roughly 40 U.S. family cattle operations have gone out of business every day. It’s time to end the talk and campaigning and actually fix the problem.

I’m 66 and a 4th generation cattle and grain farmer from southwest Missouri. Even though it’s sometimes difficult and dangerous work, I’ve always loved raising cattle and crops and making the land better for the next generation — and better for my kids and grandkids to come back to.

But, things have changed, and not for the better. They aren’t changing because of inevitability or technological efficiency. There’s a very large “elephant in the room” that’s making it worse for all of us.

The predominant system of agriculture I am working in now has been intentionally set up against me and current and future farming generations. Today’s corporate controlled system is bad for farmers, bad for consumers, bad for rural and urban communities and economies, bad for our environment and our climate, and bad for democracy.

We are in this position because the rules (laws, policies and regulations) have been written, and lobbied and paid for by corporate special interests. We are in this position because of corporate-written, bad Farm Bills and bad trade agreements (the main drivers of our farm and food system).

We are here because many of our elected “representatives” don’t really represent us, their constituents or the vast majority of Americans. We’re here because we have a democratic process controlled by that “elephant in the room”–billion dollar multinational corporations.

They are planning and implementing our demise. It’s their business model. Without competition, they can push everyone else out of the market, then they win and take all the wealth (and land). Read more

Although forever optimists, family farmers are fighting for a future

Hogs on an Iowa farm – Photo: Scott Olson, Getty Images

Even though the cards are often stacked against us, farmers are the ultimate optimists.

I’m a 4th generation cattle and grain farmer, and, right now, I’m optimistic that, for the first time since Teddy Roosevelt with the Packer and Stockers Act of 1921, we have a president that is trying to take on corporate control of our farm and food system.

Why is this necessary? JBS, Cargill, Tyson and National Beef (Marfrig) control 85% of the beef market; four meatpackers control 54% of the poultry market; and, four meatpackers, JBS, Smithfield, Tyson and Hormel control 70% of the pork market. JBS and Marfrig are Brazilian, and Smithfield is Chinese.

Just this month, JBS is paying $52.5 million to settle a price-fixing lawsuit accusing JBS and other meatpacking companies of conspiring to limit supply in order to inflate prices and boost profit. Included in this antitrust litigation are Cargill Inc, National Beef Packing Company and Tyson Foods Inc.

In the seed market, the Big 6 have consolidated into the Big 3 — Monsanto/Bayer is a German corporation, ChemChina/Syngenta is a Chinese corporation and Dow/Dupont is domestic.

In fertilizer, Mosaic controls 80% of the phosphorus used in the US. Phosphate fertilizer costs have gone up as much as 200%, and Mosaic’s August phosphate fertilizer earnings were up $200 million over 2020 profits. CF Industries, which owns 3 of the top 5 nitrogen urea plants, had revenue for the quarter ending September 30, 2021 of $1.362 billion, a 60.8% increase year-over-year. For the twelve month period ending September 30, 2021, CF’s revenue was $5.1B, a 25.28% increase year-over-year. While the market giveth to farmers, monopolistic control of our inputs taketh away.

The biggest injustice is seen in beef, and the effect on both farmers and consumers is most visible right now.

The beef industry is the largest sector of U.S. agriculture. In 1980, the top 4 meatpackers controlled 36% of the market. Since then, deregulation and lack of antitrust enforcement has resulted in historic concentration in the meatpacking industry. Today the top 4 meatpackers control 85% of the beef market. Currently, consumer prices are at historic highs, while cattle prices remain low.

Corporate Ag public relations firms and lobbyists blame the pandemic and increased input costs for rising consumer prices, but, if that were the case, then their profit margins would be relatively flat. Instead, corporate meatpackers are raking in historic profits. White House economic advisers recently said that the biggest meat-processing companies, using their market power in the highly consolidated U.S. market to drive up meat prices, have tripled their own net profit margins since the COVID-19 pandemic started.

Despite receiving huge amounts of public taxpayer dollars over the last two years, corporate Ag did little to expand their capabilities or streamline the process to address the ongoing calamity. They chose instead to offer stock buybacks and pay dividends. Recently these meat packing companies paid $1 billion in new dividends and stock buybacks. And that is on top of more than $3 billion paid to shareholders since the pandemic began.

We need our Congresspeople to actually represent us and pass laws and policies to rein in corporate control of the food industry.

For example, the bipartisan “American Beef Labeling Act” would require that meat be labeled where it was born, raised and processed. The “50/14 Spot Market Bill” would require large meatpackers to purchase 50% of their supply on the cash market and not own the livestock for more than 14 days before processing — this would help stop meatpackers from being able to manipulate the price of cattle. “The Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act” would stop mega-mergers of food and agribusiness companies.

Additionally, we need to strengthen and enforce the Packers and Stockyards Act, which was adopted to protect farmers and ranchers from the unjustly discriminatory and monopolistic practices we have today.

Darvin Bentlage is a fourth-generation cattle and grain farmer from Barton County, Missouri, a member of Missouri Rural Crisis Center and a regular contributor to the Missouri Independent, which first published this essay.

Corporate meat lobby claims it’s the scapegoat when it’s really the problem

(Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images).

Recently, in a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, the North American Meat Institute, a mouthpiece for the corporate meatpacking industry, complained that the Biden Administration’s work to combat concentration in the agriculture industry cannot ignore the “fundamental principles of supply and demand.”

Let us look at some facts to counter their claims. In 1977, the largest meatpackers controlled 25% of the beef supply. Today, just 4 corporations control 85% of the beef supply.

The Meat Institute lobbied to remove Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) and succeeded in 2015, so now any beef product from anywhere in the world could be labeled as “Product of the USA”, no matter what country the meat comes from. This matters for both consumers and farmers. For example, in 2014, when the U.S. had mandatory COOL, cow/calf producers were paid around $518 per cow/calf unit. In 2020, that margin dropped to $85 per unit and is projected to be around $120 per cow/calf unit this year. This means cattle farmers are operating below their cost of production–meaning they are losing money on every animal they sell.

Meanwhile, we are importing more and more cattle and boxed beef, which undercuts prices paid to U.S. cattle producers. In 2020, during the pandemic, the U.S. imported a record 4.4 billion pounds of beef and only exported 2.9 billion pounds.

Right now, the price paid for fed cattle (cattle ready for processing) is the same as it was in January 2020, even though the price of beef has risen significantly for consumers, who have seen their grocery bills rise and meat prices skyrocket. Long story short: cattle farmers are struggling while meatpackers enjoy record profits.

The meat lobby is trying to make you (and policymakers) believe that COVID and lack of labor is causing this. They want you to believe that consolidation and centralization of the meatpacking industry has nothing to do with our current challenges, for both the farmer and consumer.

The truth is, over the last three decades, corporate consolidation and control have put small and medium-sized meat processing facilities out-of-business, while paying farmers less and charging consumers more. Diversity in our food system, including meatpacking, allows for more resilience, in good times and bad.

With just four companies controlling almost the entire beef industry, supply and demand is virtually an illusion, and so is the Meat Institute argument. Its business practices not only make it the scapegoat, but the problem as well.

We as producers and consumers can make a change happen. There are bills currently moving or being debated that could help.

The bipartisan “50-14 Bill” sponsored by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., would require meatpackers to purchase 50% of their supply from the market and own their supply for 14-days or less before slaughter.

The “American Beef Labeling Act of 2021” sponsored by Tester, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. and Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., would reinstate mandatory COOL and ensure that “Product of the USA” really means the beef was “born, raised and harvested” in the USA.

Bipartisanship is rare. It is up to us to push our Congresspeople to make these bills law. We all know nothing gets done in Washington, D.C., without “We the People.” So now it’s up to us.

Darvin Bentlage is a fourth-generation cattle and grain farmer and occasional contributor to the Missouri Independent, which first published this essay.

Will Joe Biden’s executive order spark real change in food production?

Photo: U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service

A Midwestern farmer explains the need for change in a sector with a big footprint in North Carolina

President Joe Biden recently signed an executive order aimed at increasing competition across all sectors of the economy. This is a long time coming and a good first step in addressing a number of long term problems.

One important point of interest for agriculture is the change to the Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Act (GIPSA). The executive order addresses the current rule that a farmer who has been wronged had to show harm to competition in an entire sector or the entire industry to bring a claim under GIPSA. This is a virtual impossibility. The revised rule would protect individual farmers from corporate abuses that they have had to deal with for far too long.

This is especially important for poultry producers who are forced into a tournament system by the integrators, which determine contract grower payments. The growers are supplied birds by the corporation, who can predetermine the outcome by supplying certain growers with inferior animals. This practice is fundamentally unfair and needs to be changed.

Another very important issue addressed in the executive order is “Product of the USA” labeling. As it currently stands, anything can be labeled as a “Product of the USA” if it is processed or packaged in the USA despite the fact that it was bred, raised and/or slaughtered in a foreign country.

The new label requirement would only allow animals born, raised and harvested in the U.S. to bear the label “Product of the USA.” A good first step, but restoring mandatory country of origin labeling would better educate consumers about where their beef originates and allow U.S. farmers to better promote U.S. beef products.

The executive order also aims to strengthen antitrust enforcement. Agriculture is one of the most concentrated industries in the U.S. The trend towards greater consolidation of our farm and food system is alarming and has resulted in a fragile food system that has repeatedly demonstrated that it is ill-equipped to adequately respond to a real crisis. The COVID pandemic clearly showed these weaknesses.

Another side of this problem is that all of the major agriculture/food sectors have an alarming amount of foreign corporate ownership. For example, control of corn seed by the top four companies is around 85%; soybean seed is 70%, with two foreign companies, Germany’s Bayer/Monsanto and China owned Syngenta, now are making up most of the control over the soybean seed market.

In the poultry industry, the top four companies controlled 54% with Brazil’s JBS being a major player. Four corporations control over 70% of the pork industry, with China’s Smithfield and Brazil’s JBS controlling 50% of the pork produced in the United States. The top four beef suppliers’ control 85% of the market, and two of these corporations are foreign owned, Brazil’s JBS and Marfrig.

When questioned before Congress about anti-competitive control, the corporate mouthpieces like the North America Meat Institute stated that “market fundamentals” drive the market. The problem is that multi-national meatpackers control the “fundamentals” and name the price paid to cattlemen, while they overcharge consumer’s big time. These are issues farmers have had for some time.

Corporate consolidation has removed any semblance of competition and producers are left with a “take it or leave it” scenario on both ends of the buying and selling process.

Looking forward, this executive order should lay a foundation for the 2022-2023 Farm Bill, but it will be up to all of us to engage our elected representatives to ensure that these priorities become policy.

Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jason Hancock for questions: [email protected] Follow Missouri Independent on Facebook and Twitter.

Darvin Bentlage is a fourth-generation cattle and grain farmer and a member of Missouri Rural Crisis Center. This essay was first published in the Missouri Independent.