How Progressive Farming Groups Are Pushing Biden and Congress – A growing battle to push back against Big Ag

By Celia Wexler, Blue Tent, 3/17/2021

Tucked into the massive American Rescue Plan law is a provision that will deliver $5 billion to Black farmers, for decades the victims of discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That addition to the bill may have surprised some progressive nonprofits inside the Beltway. But John Peck, executive director of Family Farm Defenders, knew all about it. After all, he was part of a large rural coalition lobbying for the assistance.

“We pushed hard” for that reform, Peck says. He referred to a letter signed by 181 rural groups and their support for the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act. “We were having conference calls about this,” Peck says.

He credits House Agriculture Committee chair David Scott (D-Ga.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) for leading the effort to get many of the major elements of the bill included in the final pandemic rescue package.

“It’s a drop in the bucket… compared to all the handouts corporate agribusiness got from all the previous COVID relief,” he says. Nevertheless, the provision was “definitely something,” and in part, the result of effective rural organizing.

Part of a global movement

Founded in 1994, FFD has 3,500 members across the country and an annual budget of between $50,000 and $60,000. Peck is the only staffer, and he works part-time. Peck grows flowers and many types of vegetables on his 1.5-acre farm. He also holds a doctorate and teaches economics and environmental studies at a local technical college. Based in Madison, Wisconsin, he may be miles away from Washington, D.C. and other world capitals, but his understanding of the issues confronting family farmers is far from parochial.

His group is part of a global movement of farmers who are united in their opposition to the growing power of a few agribusiness corporations that threaten their livelihoods and the future of the planet.

FFD wants to enforce antitrust laws to oppose those monopolies. It also wants trade policies that don’t allow big corporations to impose U.S. trade policies on other countries. And it endorses laws to restrict how much land foreign investors can own in the U.S.

FFD has an international reach. The group strongly supports Indian farmers, who are protesting new policies that would benefit large agribusiness operations at the expense of small farmers. “Food sovereignty is an important principle, and all farmers and workers have the right to be paid a just and living wage,” Joel Greeno, FFD president, told Indian rural reformers during a global webinar in February.

Peck said FFD and other rural reform and trade groups are contacting members of Congress to make their case. “We want the U.S. to stop imposing free trade on India. That’s why [Indian Prime Minister Narenda] Modi is doing that stuff. That’s U.S.-driven. That’s U.S. foreign policy and trade policy encouraging Modi to rip the rug out from under his farmers. Modi’s changes will allow U.S. corporations “to move in… Walmart wants to get in there, Amazon’s already in there.”

Global trade demonstrations are nothing new for FFD. In 1999, an FFD contingent joined massive protests disrupting a meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle.

Solidarity with workers

Closer to home, FFD organized a farm tractorcade in 2011, opposing Gov. Scott Walker’s efforts to strip collective bargaining rights from state and local government workers. Fifty-three tractors showed up at the state capitol, part of the state’s “largest demonstration” against Walker’s proposals. Those rights are something Wisconsin farmers understand. Most dairy farmers in Wisconsin belong to co-ops, which try to use the collective power of their members to negotiate the best price for their milk.

FFD used grassroots organizing and social media to launch the event. “Grassroots people power did that,” Peck says. But many reporters assumed the group must have used a D.C.-based consultant or spent millions of dollars to achieve the result, Peck says.

The fact that FFD’s membership is so active and engaged is also something that foundations find difficult to believe, he says. When the group applies for grants, program officers often doubt that such a small group and small staff can do what it proposes to do.

“A lot of work is being done by very small grassroots groups that don’t even qualify for big money from donors,” Peck says.

Most of its financial support comes from its grassroots fundraising, and donations from members and other small donors, he says. But FFD also has received steady support from Farm Aid, and recently received its first grant from the Bea Fund.

Unsure about Vilsack

FFD represents farmers who actually do the work—growing crops or raising livestock, either on land they own or rent. While the election of President Joe Biden as heartened many progressives, Peck worries that the problems farmers face may go unaddressed by Democrats.

Those problems are longstanding. In 1952, for every food product consumers purchased, farmers got about 50 cents on the dollar. Now, their earnings have been reduced to about 15 cents.

The demise of family farms has changed the agricultural landscape, Peck says. Wisconsin license plates depict a “little red barn with some cows outside. But that’s not what these corporate agribusiness operations look like… You don’t see any cows outside. It’s just giant barns. All the cows are locked inside, you see giant manure lagoons. And it looks like a factory… And then you have, next door, a bunch of trailer houses full of undocumented immigrants who are basically working at this farm and living in rather squalid conditions, in many cases.”

Peck is hoping that Sens. Booker and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) will reintroduce their proposal to impose an immediate indefinite moratorium on agriculture mergers and that Congress will pass it. “Three or four corporations control almost every major commodity in the food system. So that needs to stop,” he says.

But he doesn’t have much faith in Tom Vilsack, whom Biden selected to head the Department of Agriculture, a position he held during the Obama years. Vilsack is returning to the job after serving as the head of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, which primarily represents the interests of big dairy producers.

Hearings and then “nothing”

Peck recalls that early in his tenure in the Obama administration, Vilsack appeared at a Wisconsin county fair where FFD was protesting “dairy price-fixing.” He and his FFD colleagues “crashed” his press conference and asked him to enforce antitrust laws to prevent a few agribusinesses from determining how much farmers receive for their products.

Vilsack pledged to hold antitrust hearings on the issue, Peck says. FFD and other farm reform groups turned out small farmers to testify. The 2010 hearings were “the biggest thing happening for farmers ever,” Peck says.

At the Madison, Wisconsin, hearing, “hundreds of dairy farmers came to testify about how these corporations are ripping them off,” he says.

At hearings in other states, farmers complained about corporate monopolies dominating the market for seeds and controlling the prices they received for the poultry and livestock they raised. At a hearing on retail issues, “all these consumer groups showed up” angry about Walmart “controlling 25% of our groceries and setting prices,” Peck says.

“Tons of testimony” was taken, he adds. Justice Department lawyers took copious notes. “All these politicians showed up,” says Peck. In the end, he says, “nothing came of it. He surmises that “somebody got to the White House and said, ‘Can it. No anti-trust in ag.’”

Indeed, under Obama’s watch, food giants got even bigger. In 2015, H.J. Heinz was allowed to merge with Kraft Foods, creating a company valued at $80 billion. That same year, Brazilian-based JBS bought Cargill’s U.S. pork business, concentrating power in that market in even fewer companies.

If Vilsack and Biden wanted to, they have the hearing record to “dust off” and get serious about curbing monopoly power, Peck says. But he is concerned that history will repeat itself. “So that’s what we’re worried about. I mean, we’re just going to have a similar nothingness.”

Lessons of pandemic

Nevertheless, Peck does believe that the pandemic has brought home problems with a food system that results in Americans relying on food grown abroad, and the instability of global food chains.

“That exposed how brutal the whole corporate industrial globalized food system is,” he says. “Supply shortages at the store, farmers dumping milk, or killing their pigs because they had no market anymore, meatpacking plants shut down.” Peck says he saw people “desperately going to the farmers market” to seek the food they could no longer find at their “big box” store. They were welcomed. “We grew it here. We’re not dependent on that supply chain.”

The threat of climate change also demonstrates the problems of consumer dependence on food from around the globe, Peck says. “There’s sort of this misperception that farmers are benefiting from food trade. That’s just not true,” Peck says. “Farmers don’t export food. Corporations export food.”

Agribusiness giant Cargill may be based in Minneapolis, Peck contends, but it’s a “global business. They’ll dump corn on anybody, wherever they can get the most money for it.”

As a consequence, the global footprint of food exports can be enormous, he says. He notes that local supermarkets in the Madison area are now selling asparagus. It’s not locally grown, he says. “It is coming from Chile,” making an energy-intensive trek to the Midwest. “People are ready for spring. But do you really need to invest in a food system that does that?… Can’t you just wait and enjoy something in season?”

Gobbling up farmland

Another consequence of globalization is the rising price of American farmland, as global hedge funds and investment firms increase their land holdings in the U.S. In 2010, TIAA-CREF, the global firm that manages pension funds for public employees and those in the nonprofit and education sector, pronounced land “like gold” and embarked on a buying spree, driving up the price of farmland. That’s made it more difficult for farmers who rent their land, and made it far less possible for young farmers starting out to buy land, Peck says, adding that states must retain laws that restrict foreign and corporate ownership of farmland.

The recognition of global trade’s downsides seems to have made the media more receptive to rural problems. FFD members are getting their views published in beltway publications such as The Hill and Politico. Recently, even the vaunted New Yorker magazine has been interested in FFD, and interviewed Peck.

Peck praised an op-ed written by FFD member Bill Hogseth, which ran late last year in Politico Magazine. Hogseth, who also chairs the local Democratic party in rural Dunn County, Wisconsin, faulted Democrats for decades of neglect of rural voters.

Bring back COOL

Peck hasn’t given up entirely on the Biden administration. If the White House stood up to the WTO and permitted country of origin labeling (COOL), that would help change his mind, he says. In 2016, the trade body ruled against a U.S. law requiring meat and poultry producers to disclose on their labels where animals were born, raised and slaughtered. The WTO’s judgement threatened the U.S. with $1 billion in retaliatory tariffs if it did not back down. Congress repealed the labeling law.

But if Peck is waiting for this validation from the White House, he may be disappointed. During his Senate confirmation hearing, Vilsack said he was open to trying to reinstate the labeling mandate. “Consumers want to know where their food comes from,” he told senators. But he added a note of caution: “We can ignore the WTO, but then we’ve got the retaliation, and then, you know, that’s just not a good thing.”

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Make food more equitable through antitrust laws

By: Anthony Pahnke, vice president of Family Farm Defenders and assistant professor of international relations at San Francisco State University.

Originally published by TheHill on March 4th, 2021

Who Really Controls the U.S. Government?

From destroying perfectly good food due to supply chain bottlenecks, to farmworkers risking their lives in the fields for poverty-level wages, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore our food system’s rigid, wasteful and exploitative nature.

Given President Biden’s recent order to review supply chains, with those in agriculture included, now is the time to consider using our country’s antitrust laws to help make our food system more resilient, equitable and competitive.

More to the point, enforcing these laws, namely, the progressive-era Sherman, Clayton,and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Acts, authorize government officials to break up corporations that monopolize markets to restrain trade and suppress dynamic competition, as well as conduct wide-sweeping investigations of the potential negative effects of mergers.

A survey of the field — yes, pun intended — shows increasing corporate control that does nothing to counter rampant waste and exploitation.

According to the Open Markets Institute, the four largest poultry processing firms went from controlling 35 percent of the market in 1986 to 51 percent in 2015. For beef, the story is much the same as the market share of the four largest processors jumped from 25 percent in 1977 to 85 percent in 2015. The top four seed companies’ market share, also during this period, went from 59 to 85 percent.

Undergirding this expansion of corporate consolidation is unnecessary suffering.

Just speak to the workers in meatpacking plants around the country who have labored under constant fear of contracting the virus as outbreaks spread from firm to firm.

In professions already characterized by dangerous work conditions and low pay, food system workers now find themselves pressuring owners for basics such as face masks, hazard pay and information on the nature of the virus.

Meanwhile, these same corporate processors regularly gauge farmers at the marketplace, as revealed in the periodic settlement for price fixing in the dairy, pork, and poultry industries.

Farmers could pay higher wages and provide better work conditions to workers but they also suffer because of chronically low prices for their produce. According to the National Farmers Union, about 14 cents of every food retail dollar goes to the farmer, with the remainder going to restaurants, retailers and processors.

Consolidated supply chains that squeeze farmers for so much gave producers no choice but to dump their milk, plow under vegetables, euthanize their animals and smash eggs. This, as the lines at the food banks around the country grew.

When faced with such egregious waste, the government threw money at the problem. And it was a lot — upwards of 40 percent of farm income in 2020 came from government subsidies.

To add insult to injury, 10 percent of farmers received 60 percent of the payments as a small number of relatively well-resourced producers took an unfair share of the aid.

The point — our rigid, corporate-controlled food system dishes out equal servings of waste as it does exploitation.

The way forward is to reform the system — with antitrust.

First, we need action concerning mergers. The Department of Justice (DOJ) should consider worker welfare as part of its merger guidelines when considering whether or not a combination should be approved.

Next, investigations are required into the profit margins and pricing strategies of agribusiness firms. Instead of receiving news of corporate malfeasance from the periodic settlement, farmers and workers deserve to know the extent of anti-competitive practices that exist throughout the system.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigation of the meatpacking industry from 1917 to 1919 is exemplary of such an effort, which ultimately led to regulatory reform and corporate divestiture in railroads and stockyards after disclosing decades of illegal collusion between firms.

Additionally, if larger processors and input dealers would be broken up into smaller companies, then farmers would have more options to sell their product and more choices when making purchases. Changing the playing field in this way would also improve the chances of young farmer success as higher prices mean improved incomes.

On how breaking up firms improves competition and economic performance, we have as evidence the well-known case of Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States. Back then, in 1911, Standard Oil was broken into 34 companies. Some firms would later merge, such as Exxon and Mobil. Still, as lawyer and advocate Timothy Wu writes in The Curse of Bigness, the collective value of the different businesses increased in the years following government intervention.

Furthermore, increasing the number of buyers and sellers would make markets more resilient in the face of disruption because decentralizing supply chains grants more actors with knowledge and control over products.

The equation is simple — more actors plus more competition equals more dynamism.

Part of any review of our wasteful, exploitative agricultural system must focus on the pernicious effects of corporate consolidation. In this regard, Biden’s scrutiny of supply chains should include antitrust legislation. Enforcing antitrust laws not only stands to improve the economics of agriculture but it would also help lay the groundwork for a resilient, just system of food production.

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Open FFD Letter to Pres. Biden and the US Congress- It is Time to Normalize Relations with Cuba and Work Together Against COVID!

Family Farm Defenders has a long tradition of fraternal relationships with the people of Cuba, and specifically, Cuban farmers. Both past FFD President, John Kinsman, and past FFD member, Randy Jasper, visited Cuba several times and witnessed the success of their agricultural practices as well as their public healthcare system.

Randall Jasper, who traveled to the island three times contrasted farming in Cuba to farming in the U.S. this way: “If we do well, we have an excellent crop, [in the U.S.] they penalize us, they pay us less. In Cuba, if you produce more food, you actually receive more money instead of less.”

John Kinsman, who visited the island twice had this to say about his experience with medical personnel on the island. “At every gathering that I was at, of 40 people [or more] there was a doctor, a nurse and an ambulance driver. There was no lack of health care.”

Today Family Farm Defenders honors this solidarity tradition by calling on the newly elected President and the Congress of the United States to lift restrictions on access to Cuban medical expertise, in order to more effectively combat the COVID-19 pandemic and to save lives.

The U.S. has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world and the highest number of deaths related to COVID. Although the virus is surging nearly everywhere, our rural farm communities are experiencing some of the highest infection rates per capita in the country.

And rural farm communities are in the worst possible position to deal with this crisis. More than 120 rural hospitals have closed in the past 10 years (roughly 7%). In 2019 we saw the worst year for hospital closures, with nineteen hospitals shutting their doors during that short time.

Sixty million Americans live in rural communities (roughly 9.3% of the population), and access to healthcare in the rural regions is a daily struggle. Rural people are among the poorest in the nation, and the number one reason for farm foreclosure is an unexpected medical emergency with the family unable to pay skyrocketing medical bills.

Many of the hospitals that serve farm community are a thirty minute to two hour drive away. Rural hospitals often lack medical equipment to treat severe COVID-19 patients, as well as the personal protective equipment medical workers need to stay safe.

Now is the time for international medical cooperation to save lives. The U.S. economic blockade against Cuba has severely restricted collaboration on scientific and medical research. And for this reason, the Family Farm Defenders calls on the President and Congress to:

  1. Allow U.S.-Cuba medical, clinical and scientific collaboration, including inviting Cuban medical brigades to provide direct medical assistance and/or to provide advice and guidance in treating COVID-19.
  2. Incorporating Cuba’s Interferon Alfa 2B Recombinant in clinical trials in the U.S., Canada and the WHO, and the granting by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for Cuba’s Interferon Alfa 2B Recombinant.
  3. Ending U.S. economic and travel sanctions against Cuba, including its extraterritorial nature and the attempts to stop all other countries accepting Cuban medical brigades and assistance, and all ongoing measures that prevent Cuba accessing and importing medical equipment and medicines to confront COVID-19.

The Family Farm Defenders, asks that these measures be taken with all deliberate speed in order to save lives of the citizens of the United States, as well as in Cuba.

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Family Farm Defenders Stands in Solidarity with Striking Indian Farmers to Oppose Modi’s Neoliberal Corporate Agribusiness Agenda

On this Jan. 18th 2021 as India celebrates National Women Farmers Day and the U.S. celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Family Farm Defenders wishes to express solidarity with our sisters and brothers in India as they continue their struggle for food sovereignty and economic justice. Little did we believe that when the Modi government decided to railroad through such regressive farm legislation amidst a global pandemic that this would lead to the largest strike in human history – now over 250 million strong – and provide such an inspiration to others all around the globe.

Women have always shouldered the largest burden when it comes to feeding the world, and women of color in the global south remain the majority of the world’s farmers today. In India women have also been at the forefront of this latest grassroots protest in the world’s largest democracy. And for obvious reason. They will be the ones who will have to figure out how to sustain their family in the face of orchestrated commodity shortages and inflated food prices. They will be the ones left to defend their family’s land from contract forfeiture in the wake of so many farmer suicides and mounting rural debt.

Over half of India’s 1.3 billion people depend upon agriculture for their livelihood, and of those 85% farm under two acres and earn less than $1400 per year. Yet, the Modi government has staged a David versus Goliath fight by undermining access to basic essentials and expecting small farmers, low wage workers, and poor consumers to “negotiate” with massive corporate middlemen in a rigged market. If this sounds familiar it is because U.S. farmers, workers, and consumers have been engaged in a similar struggle to demand a parity price, living wages, and anti-trust action against elite corporate interests for well over a century now. In fact, this latest attempt to undermine the viability and autonomy of India’s smallscale producers reflects the same “get big or get out” agenda that has been used so effectively for so long to cripple U.S. family farmers and then exported elsewhere with devastating consequences.

The neoliberal “free trade” agenda of the White House – under both Democratic and Republican administrations – has long been to force India to lift restrictions on food imports and pave the way for dumping, while also weakening environmental restrictions on toxic agrochemicals and enforcing the patent claims of biotech companies. Grassroots resistance has managed to safeguard the people of India from many of these threats for quite sometime, but one can never let down one’s guard as the dangerously brittle and exploitative state of today’s U.S. food/farm system clearly demonstrates.

No one – whether in the U.S. or India – should be compelled to consume unhealthy and objectionable rBGH-induced dairy products or chicken raised on “Mad Cow” byproducts like blood/bone meal and livestock manure. No one – whether in the U.S. or India – should end up exposed to carcinogenic pesticides like Bayer/Monsanto’s glyphosate without their knowledge and full product liability. No one – whether in the U.S. or India – should be “criminalized” for saving their own seed or growing their own medicine free of corporate intellectual property right claims. No one – whether in the U.S. or India – should be forced to “choose” between Walmart/Amazon as their only retail option to obtain food or other basic needs whether in-person or on-line. These are are all gross violations of food sovereignty and basic human freedom that must be opposed no matter where one lives.

Family Farm Defenders will never give up in our effort to bring about a more peaceful, just, and equitable world in which all people – and the earth itself – are treated with dignity and respect. We hope that our statement of solidarity will offer courage and strength to our farmer friends in India as they continue their own epic protest in this historic moment. As our food sovereignty allies with La Via Campesina would proclaim: “Globalize the Struggle and Globalize Hope!”

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How Vilsack Should Use His Second Chance

The problems he struggled with during his first stint as agriculture secretary, from corporate concentration to racism, have not gone away.

by Anthony Pahnke, FFD Vice President

Published by the Progressive, December 15, 2020

It’s not often that politicians get the chance for a “do-over.”

Vilsack speaks to family farmers as part of an Obama White House Rural Forum in West Allis, WI in Aug. 2010

Yet this is happening with President-elect Joe Biden’s nomination of Tom Vilsack as secretary of agriculture, the same position the former Iowa governor held during the Obama administration.

Vilsack has also been criticized for inaccurately stating that the number of farmers of color increased during his first go as secretary of agriculture.

The choice of Vilsack to lead the USDA can be read as part of Biden’s effort to show continuity with the Obama years. But the problems that Vilsack struggled with during his first stint as agriculture secretary, from corporate concentration to racism, have not gone away. The incoming secretary must also confront serious food and farm problems that the Trump administration has left unaddressed.

Specifically, while it’s true that farm earnings rose in 2020, that’s largely because government subsidies constituted about 40% of farm income this year. “If not for those subsidies,” The New York Times reported, “U.S. farm income would be poised to decline in 2020.”

Farmers find themselves in this situation, in large part, due to the failure of processors to adapt to the changing consumer habits that the coronavirus pandemic created. The USDA’s response was to launch the “Farmers to Families Food Box” program, using the government as an intermediary to get food from producers to consumers. This effort received mixed reviews for favoring large-scale operations and dropping Black farmers.

While laying the blame on Trump for these challenges is not entirely fair, he did make matters worse for farmers by initiating a trade war with China; afterward, his administration had to bail out farmers to make up for China’s retaliatory tariffs.

Meanwhile, instead of making markets more competitive for farmers, the Trump administration nixed provisions – the GIPSA (Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration) rule — from the 2008 Farm Bill that would have helped producers hold processors accountable for unfair and discriminatory practices.

Basically, Vilsack has his work cut out for him.

He faces criticism from Black farmers for his mishandling of a 2010 dust-up involving Shirley Sherrod, the Black Georgia state director of rural development. Vilsack fired Sherrod after a video surfaced showing her apparently making discriminatory statements against white farmers. He later had to apologize when the video was proven a fake.

Vilsack has also been criticized for inaccurately stating that the number of farmers of color increased during his first go as secretary of agriculture. In fact, a change in the USDA’s method of accounting — not an attempt to confront racism — made the population of farmers appear more diverse than it really is.

Meanwhile, between the Obama and Biden administrations, Vilsack became president of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. With Vilsack at the helm of this organization, corporate concentration continued apace, as Dairy Farmers of America acquired Dean Foods. Moreover, dairy farmers entered bankruptcy in record numbers as prices plummeted.

According to the Open Market Institute, fewer and fewer corporations dominate the American food system from seed to plate. This not only subjects farmers to predatory pricing, but hurts consumers at the grocery aisle.

If given a second chance to lead the USDA, Vilsack should use its powers from the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921 to investigate corporate agribusiness giants and punish wrongdoing. He should throw his support behind the recently introduced “Justice for Black Farmers Act,” which would help aspiring farmers of color to acquire land and training.

Vilsack knows the USDA and the problems facing rural America. He must not lead the agency according to the past, but make amends with those who have been wronged and lay the groundwork for a more fair and equitable food and farm system.

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