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The Ag Hearings Are Over -- Is That All There Is?

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There was excitement in the sustainable food community and trepidation among at least some Agribusiness CEOs back in 2009 when Attorney General Eric Holder and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a year-long public look at antitrust issues in farming and food production. Those hearings, or workshops as the agencies called them, came to an end last week in Washington, DC.

All told, more than 15,000 farmers, advocacy groups, and businesses submitted written comments. Hundreds of people attended each of the five public hearings held around the country since March. Now the question is whether any political will exists to strengthen regulations and enforce the antitrust laws that are supposed to protect Americans against unfair business practices.

After all, it was political pressure, pure and simple, that led to the announcement of these hearings. Given the new alignment of Congress, and with people like Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who pressed for the investigation of anticompetitive practices, now out of a job, it's anyone's guess what to expect.

The good news is that USDA and the Department of Justice have tremendous rulemaking and enforcement authority, respectively, and do not need congressional buy-in to act. The bad news is that they've had this power for a very long time and have failed to use it to prevent the extreme monopolization we have today in our food system.

To be fair, the Department of Justice under Attorney General Holder did file an antitrust lawsuit aimed at preventing further monopolization in the milk industry. However, with Senator Feingold gone, the impetus for that line of attack may well be gone as well. Besides, the lawsuit may not prove effective and, more to the point, the Department of Justice has sidestepped calls for a concerted campaign to halt anticompetitive practices in food production.Many people, myself included, believe that what's needed is a strategic plan for reversing statistics like those below, which were offered by none other than Tom Vilsack himself at the D.C. meeting this month, statistics he called "warning signs."

  • In 1980 there were roughly 667,000 pork producers in the United States. Today, there are 67,000. So 90 percent have gone out of business in the past 30 years;
  • Roughly one-tenth of 1 percent of U.S. farmers produce 85 percent of our food [I know I'm not the only person who finds that terrifying]; and
  • 1.9 million of the 2.2 million U.S. farmers left today are either losing money or making an average of about $6,400 in a "good" year.

As Vilsack pointed out, "That isn't enough to support a family."

According to Roger Bernard, who lived-blogged the December 8 hearing for AgWeb, Holder told the crowd that information gathered from the workshops, "will feed into enforcement policies," an assertion I find way too vague to inspire any confidence. Bernard also reported that Vilsack "took issue with [the idea that] the propagation of poultry marketing rules [is] about the only thing that could be really observed from these workshops. . . . and denied this has been merely a 'hand-holding' effort for small producers." Again, this hardly inspires confidence that these federal agencies will use their considerable power to create transparency and fairness in food production and marketing, or to in any way strengthen democracy in our food system.

For some that may not matter. AgWeb editor Greg Vincent, who grew up on a farm and whose business it is to know what his audience of farmers thinks, told me that me that from what he sees, most have greeted the USDA/DOJ hearings with a shrug.

"For most of them, it's just not relevant," he said. "It's important to understand that farming is a business. Technology has made farming more efficient, which means you need fewer farmers and it's more profitable. Most farmers don't think that anything the government does is going to be helpful in making a profit."

Fair enough. It is also true that, while DOJ and USDA act independently of Congress, newly empowered House Republicans, who've already made known their intention to hold investigative hearings on anything they don't like, will not be inclined to let increasing regulation or oversight of agribusiness go by without raising a ruckus. And then there's the constantly reinforced skepticism most of us feel as to whether our government can get anything right.

Still, there are the farmers and consumers who do want government to act, who are looking for the "fair and competitive marketplace that benefits agriculture, rural economies and American consumers," that Vilsack said, back in 2009, were the goal of these hearings.

And then there are people like Kay Doby, former president of the North Carolina Contract Poultry Growers Association, who've found that contracts they entered into on good faith not worth the paper they were printed on. There are dairy farmers like those in Vermont who had to hire their own lawyers to enforce anti-trust laws. There are the corn and soy farmers who are terrorized by Monsanto's deep pocket slash and burn lawsuits. And there are people like me and many of the 16,000 members of the food coop where I shop, who are willing to put in several hours of unpaid labor each month just so we can afford to buy food that's plain and unprocessed and whose origin we can largely know. For our sake, I can only hope the USDA/DOJ hearings were more than a dog and pony show.

But no, I can do more than hope. I can continue to demand that the government act against bad players and enforce the law of the land even if it sometimes feels like spitting into the wind.

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