April 6, 2012
Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Justice raised a lot of hopes among contract farmers that they would finally get some help from the federal government in their struggles with corporate control of the livestock industries.
The department’s Antitrust Division held five workshops around the country that dealt with competition (or the lack of it) in agricultural markets. There were sessions devoted to poultry, dairy and beef/hogs.
At the poultry workshop in Normal, Ala., contract farmers had a forum to vent about their disempowering relationships with corporate integrators. Many spoke out despite fear of reprisals from the industry. DOJ’s antitrust chief, Christine Varney, handed her business card to any farmer who expressed such fears. They could call her directly if industry threatened them with retaliation for speaking out, she said.
Many farmers had reached an “enough is enough” moment and were ready to take chances for the sake of improving their long-term prospects. These farmers thought they had an ally in the DOJ, which held the workshops in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture. But, you can see where this is going …
“I really had my hopes up that finally we’re going to get something,” said former Perdue chicken grower Carole Morison of Maryland, who now raises chickens independently but has not forgotten the plight of the contract poultry farmer. “They paid lip service to all of us, and it was just a big waste of taxpayer dollars and a waste of time. And I think many people would agree, especially those who traveled there to have our three minutes [of commentary] … I feel like those people just lied to all of us.”
J. Craig Watts, who contracts with Perdue to raise chickens in North Carolina, has a similar reaction.
“I went to the workshop in Alabama. I left there thinking someone’s finally listening,” Watts said. “Here we are, two, three years later, whatever it is, and what have we got? Just put on a steel-toed boot and kick me in the tooth … Don’t pretend that you understand and that you care.”
Even the most hard-bitten farmer could not have been blamed for getting his or her hopes up when the workshops were announced. There were reform-minded regulators in place at DOJ and at USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA), whose purported mission is to “promote fair and competitive trading practices for the overall benefit of consumers and American agriculture.”
But, two of the key reform-minded players in this drama have since left the stage – or, at least, the role they’d been cast in. J. Dudley Butler, an attorney and former cattleman from Mississippi, who was widely acknowledged as an advocate for farmers and ranchers, resigned as GIPSA chief in January. Varney submitted her resignation at DOJ last July.
Varney and Butler aren’t likely to say this publicly, but they were obviously struck full in the face with the realization that status quo forces had them outnumbered and outgunned. It was time for them to beat a hasty retreat. But, sadly, this political fight left behind a lot of betrayed farmers who won’t answer any invitations to bare their souls to any government agency any time soon.
This story’s happy ending has been postponed, probably until the contract farming system becomes so broken that all the king’s horses and all the king’s lobbyists can no longer keep up the illusion that it’s viable. Farmers can invest their hopes in that outcome and stand a lesser chance of being betrayed.