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Obama to fight consolidation of farms: good news for small farms and consumers

Posted Nov 04 2009 10:03pm
Text and all photos by Sally Kneidel, PhD

I like Obama. Just like me, he's tired of Smithfield and Tyson and ConAgra and all those mega food corporations running the show and fouling our food.

I heard on NPR yesterday that, starting in 2010, the Justice and Agriculture departments will hold town meetings in farming communities throughout the country, to learn how corporations like Smithfield are buying up small farms and wreaking havoc in agricultural markets. Obama's Justice Department has said that scrutinizing monopolies in agriculture is a top priority. That is very good news!

Bush's attitude was very much the opposite - he favored consolidation. His "let's make a deal" mentality encouraged big corporations to absorb small livestock farms. A monopoly allows corporations to set whatever price they want for animal products in the grocery store. During the Bush administration, mergers were approved between Dean Co. and Suiza Corp. to create the nation's largest milk processor; between Smithfield Foods and Premium Standard Farms to create the largest hog processor; and between JBS and Smithfield Beef to make one of the nation's largest cattle feeders.

A sow in a farrowing crate at a farm with 40,000 hogs, under contract to Smithfield.
Photo by Sally Kneidel

A hog farm under contract to Smithfield. Veggie Revolution co-author Sadie on the left; owner on the right. Photo by Sally Kneidel

Since the 1980s, American agriculture has become increasingly concentrated. Today, less than 2 percent of farms account for half of all agricultural sales. That means a few ag companies are getting bigger and bigger, while smaller ones are disappearing. While Sadie and I were researching our book Veggie Revolution, we learned that North Carolina is losing 1000 farms a year to consolidation. Farmers told us that small farms go out of business because the corporations own most of the slaughterhouses, and the small farmer can't find anyone reliable to process his livestock. Or...he can't price his product as cheaply as the corporations can with their penny-shaving techniques that exploit laborers, livestock, and land.

We talked to hog farmers under contract to Smithfield who said they had tried to go independent, would prefer to be independent, but they couldn't find a facility to slaughter their hogs. Plus, they got threatening letters from the company telling them that they wouldn't be allowed to go independent. They weren't really sure what that threat meant.

We talked to Tyson farmers too who said they much preferred the old days when they weren't under contract to Tyson.

24,000 Tyson broilers crammed into each shed. Photo by Sally Kneidel

A. typical Tyson broiler shed, owned and paid for by the farmer, used by the profit-taking Tyson Corporation. Photo by Sally Kneidel

They told us that being under contract means taking a huge risk, because the farmer has to pay for the land and for each $200,000 animal shed, often mortgaging his family's property to do so. He needs at least five sheds to make enough money to support his family in even a meager manner. The corporation likes it that way. As long as the farmer owns the land and shed, any lawsuit filed because of a leak in the farm's animal-waste lagoon, or airborne ammonia sickening the neighbors, is filed against the farmer not the corporation. How convenient: the farmer takes the risk - the corporation reaps the profits. And if the corporation backs out of the contract, the farmer is wrecked financially, left to pay a million-dollar mortgage on 4 or 5 useless sheds.

We interviewed owners of small farms that sell eggs, and toured a Food Lion egg factory with 1.1 million hens, crammed into cages so small they had to have their beaks cut to keep them from pecking and eating each other. I don't generally eat eggs, but I hear that the eggs from small farms, where laying hens wander around outside all day eating bugs, have lots more nutrients and flavor. I could see that even the color of the yolk was richer.

One lone hen has escaped her tiny cage at a Food Lion egg factory with 1.1 million hens. Photo by Sally Kneidel

The Food Lion hens spend their lives in cages so small they can't stand up fully, much less preen their feathers or stretch. Photo by Sally Kneidel

Thank you Obama, for your willingness to look into this! We deserve wholesome food. Farmers deserve to make a living wage. As it is now, the corporate stockholders are making all the money.

Obama's plan to apparently support small farms and limit consolidation is giving hope to independent farmers, who have complained for years about having fewer and fewer options, and being forced to raise livestock as if they were milk, egg, sausage, and burger machines, rather than living beings that need space and fresh air.

During the upcoming farm-town hearings, the ag dept is likely to hear from people like Don Quamby, a hog farmer from Wellsville, Mo. Quamby was interviewed on the NPR piece I heard.

"With the hogs, it's gotten to be where you can't make any money anymore raising them, because the packers [like Smithfield] own everything," Quamby said.

He said he's deeply concerned about the death of independent hog farms.

"It used to be you had several different markets that you'd go to in our area, several different buyers," Quamby said. "Now we don't have that."

Asked why consumers should care about the change, Quamby said, "Well, because once the packer owns all the market, they can charge whatever price they want then at the consumer level, once the meat gets to the store."

"I've got grandsons — 10, 8 and 6," said Jim Foster, who farms in Montgomery City, Mo., "and their ability to raise hogs like I did, as an independent, depends on whether these guys do their job or not." Foster also was interviewed for NPR.

The Justice Department said that the antitrust division plans to take a hard look at three areas of agriculture.

The first is seed companies. In some markets, Monsanto controls 90 percent of the technology behind genetically-modified seeds for cotton, corn and soybeans. Sadie and I wrote a long chapter about Monsanto in our 2008 book Going Green, about how the company sues farmers whose crops are accidently pollinated by windblown pollen from Monsanto's genetically-modified patented plants. See the document "Monsanto vs, U.S. Farmers" by the Center for Food Safety for lots more info about Monsanto's dirty dealings.

The second segment is beef packing. And the third is dairy, where consolidation has been especially dramatic. In the last decade, more than 4,500 dairy farms disappeared every year.

I can't wait to see what comes of it, especially since I live in N.C., a state saturated with poultry farms, hog farms, and hog waste. We have more hogs than people - second only to Iowa in the number of swine.

God, thank you for that night in November where hopeful people pulled together and elected a man who's courageous enough to look at everything with fresh eyes, with compassionate principles, and with his solid belief that we can do a heck of a lot better with the massive resources this country has at its disposal.

Sources:


John Burnett. "Small Farmers See Promise in Obama's Plan." Morning Edition. August 20, 2009. National Public Radio.

Sally Kneidel and Sadie Kneidel. 2005. Veggie Revolution: Smart Choices for a Healthy Body and a Healthy Planet. Fulcrum Publishing.

Sally Kneidel and Sadie Kneidel. 2008. Going Green: A Wise Consumer's Guide to a Shrinking Planet. Fulcrum Publishing.

Monsanto vs. U.S. Farmers Report. 2007. Center for Food Safety.

See my previous posts about Smithfield, who is suspected of starting the swine flu pandemic:

Smithfield blamed for swine flu by Mexican Press.

This virus is a swine flu and has roots in N.C., the land of Smithfield
.

Why is swine flu likely to return in winter? It's not because people are cooped up together in winter.

Keywords:: Obama small farms consolidation Smithfield Tyson healthy food Monsanto
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