The ‘free’ market: hogtied, shot, & drowned

Photo by Shimmerx Lyan on Unsplash

I’ve never been a farmer, but I’ve learned quite a bit about being one from the many I’ve known. Start with High and Lillie, my parents, both of whom were raised on hardscrabble Texas farms and had a trove of stories about the ups and downs of that experience. Also, during my growing-up years in Denison, Texas, I had extended stays on the nearby farm of my Aunt Eula and Uncle Ernest, chipping in on the cotton picking, corn hoeing, and chicken tending. Of course, none of these connections give me claim to being a Son of the Soil, but I was able through my time with these relatives to soak awhile in the unique satisfaction that farm life can bring.

Cartoon by Brian Duffy

I also got a sense from their kitchen- table talk of how farming can be a mighty hard row to hoe, for there’s a constant threat that some combination of bad weather, bankers, bugs, commodity brokers, and politicians will hit you from out of nowhere, plucking your profits and threatening your family’s livelihood. A Woody Guthrie song expresses the lament of many a hard luck farmer:

Drought got my crops and Mr. Banker’s at my door
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.

Yet, against all odds, family farmers all across our land persevere, in part because they tend to be “optimistic fatalists” (meaning they understand what’s gonna happen is gonna happen, but even if it’s bad now, they dare to believe next year might be better). And they buffer it all with an indomitable sense of humor. In my days as Texas Agriculture Commissioner, and in the many years since that I’ve continued as a family farm advocate, they’ve always had another line or joke to try out on me:

  • A reporter asked a farmer what her family would do if they won a million dollars in the lottery: “Well, I guess we’d just keep farming ’til the money ran out.”
  • During the 1970s and ’80s, when global grain traders had busted farm prices, I was asked at an Iowa ag protest if I knew the difference between a farmer and a pigeon. I did not. “A pigeon can still make a deposit on a John Deere,” the farmer said, chortling at the bitter truth of it.
  • “You can make a small fortune in agriculture,” a Georgia farmer drawled on my radio talk show in 2000, “but the problem is you have to start with a large fortune.”

Dinner Plate Distortions

In this winter holiday season of good eats–from pumpkin everything to good-luck black-eyed peas–it’s fitting for us to focus a Lowdown “State-of-the-Plate” issue on the situation of these hardy producers … and on the dicey food future they (and we) face. The media and politicians have rightly been bemoaning the painful inflationary surges in the price of eggs, milk, meat, veggies, and other foodstuffs. Yet, little attention has been given to the curious fact that those who actually produce our food are mired in a disastrous, multi-year decline in the money they’re paid for their commodities. That farm prices can fall while consumer prices rise is an anti-competitive distortion so severe that farmers are now only getting 14 cents of each dollar we consumers spend for food! This disparity has bankrupted thousands of farm families and left hundreds of thousands more on the brink of broke.

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What’s going on? Where’s it headed? Do we care? What to do?

Let’s consider some of the developments shaping our food future, particularly that monster at the door (which the corporate ag and political establishments want us to pretend is not there): Monopoly.

Come a Ty-Ya Yippy Yi Yo!

The high food prices that are set by concentrated corporate power are painfully squeezing most of our household budgets, but for small and family farmers and ranchers, corporate price fixing is a ravenous two-headed monster chomping away at their income.

  • BITE 1: Monopolistic sellers gouge food producers with overcharges for crop loans, seeds, tractors, fuel, feed, and practically every other farming essential.
  • BITE 2: Monopsonistic meatpackers, processors, grain traders, supermarket giants, fast food chains, and a cabal of other commodity buyers systematically underpay families for what they produce.

Thus, we have the ridiculous anomaly of consumers needing a bank loan to buy a steak dinner, while cattle raisers are losing money on the beef they produce.

Through a series of mergers and predatory power grabs during the past three decades, a handful of global meatpacking conglomerates now controls the sale (and pricing) of beef, pork, and poultry in the US: JBS and Marfrig (Brazil), Tyson and Cargill (US), and Smithfield (China). For example, just four giants have locked up 85% of beef sales, but their real market control over cattle raisers is even more absolute, because they divide up the country to avoid competing against each other. So, when a rancher takes a herd to a regional sales auction, instead of finding four bidders, there is one. Take the low price offered, or–“git along little dogie”–take your herd back to the ranch.

Then, those same monopsonistic cattle buyers turn into monopolistic beef sellers, conspiring to fix the wholesale prices of meat that supermarkets and other retailers buy. And, of course, that monopoly-inflated wholesale price is passed on at the retail level to us consumers, leading to today’s screams of anger at the meat counter. Such monopoly pricing is now a common “business practice” in the world of Big Meat, and it’s leading to a flood of lawsuits. This year, Smithfield agreed to pay $75 million to settle a lawsuit accusing it and competitors of conspiracy to limit supply in order to inflate prices; this on top of previous settlements totaling $125 million. JBS settled similar price-fixing charges for $32.75 million.

But do the math. Far from a deterrent, multimillion-dollar fines are a miniscule cost of doing business for these cartels. As they’ve eliminated real competition, organized gouging got easy and outlandishly profitable, as revealed in the gross totals they grabbed during the pandemic surge of meat price inflation. While meat prices rose 12.3% for the year ending March 31:

  • JBS reported $4.4 billion profits–70% over previous year.
  • Tyson raked in $4.1 billion profits– 91% over previous year.
  • Cargill banked a $4.9 billion net income (year ending May 2022) –60%over previous year.

Market concentration is where today’s State-of-the-Plate inflation is coming from, and million-dollar fines on billion-dollar profiteering won’t deter it. The concentration itself is illegal, so enforce the law: Bust the monopolists!

Of course, corporate apologists insist that nothing is amiss, that the ever-rising prices for food are just part of the natural ebb and flow of the free market. But– hello–the “free” market has been hogtied, shot, and drowned by agribusiness middlemen.

Indeed, two groups of progressive economists (Roosevelt Institute and Economic Policy Institute) have recently documented that more than half the overall inflation that Americans are now enduring (substantially led by food costs) is caused by monopoly profiteering. There’s even a name for it: Greedflation.

Ask a Chicken Farmer

Very few consumers–whether buying a supermarket bird to roast at home or grabbing an order of fast-food nuggets–are aware that they are feeding the greedy maw of Big Chicken. It’s an industrialized, monopolized, factory system of poultry production that has become notorious for torturing the millions of animals it processes and exploiting the thousands of workers whose dangerous conditions and poverty-level pay subsidize the profits of its genteel Wall Street investors. Only four processing giants–Cargill, JBS, Perdue, and Tyson–control 60% of this multibillion-dollar poultry market.

But … where do they get their chickens?

From a vast, almost-invisible network of “contract farmers”–largely low-income rural families, primarily in the South. Under contract to one of the giants, they feed and care for very large flocks of baby chicks until slaughter age, when the corporation transports them to a killing factory. The processor’s promise to buy the grown birds–a guaranteed market!– entices the farmers to sign on. But the deal rests on corporate quicksand, for:

1 Processors require growers to purchase sprawling, expensive chicken houses and other infrastructure, ensnaring families in debt from the very start.

2 Growers don’t own the chicks, don’t choose the breed, or control the living conditions, but they assume the risk of bird deaths.

3 Corporations dictate the quality and quantity of feed and drugs contractors must use.

4 Processors agree to buy the birds, but the corporation essentially controls the price using an opaque and arbitrary calculation that leaves thousands of contract farmers mired in perpetual debt to the processor.

Beyond unfair, the payment system is vicious and demeaning. While processors have named it “the poultry tournament,” there’s nothing sporting about it. They base each contractor’s pay on the delivered birds’ weight–even though heft is determined by genetics, diet, and other factors controlled by the corporation. Turning payment into a nasty game, processors pit poor farmers against each other by docking the pay of those whose birds come in below average, then awarding that penalty as a bonus to those whose flocks top average weight. What fun! For processors.

More than 90 percent of the chickens that we Americans buy are raised by contract farmers under this system of corporate feudalism.

At last, though, after decades of the government doing zero to stop this blatant abuse of farmers, the US Agriculture Department issued a set of rules in May requiring Big Chicken to improve “transparency” in the contracting and tournament process. That’s good–progress even! But while achieving even a little bit of progress in battling monopoly abuse is good, we should not confuse small steps with real change. As noted by the farm advocacy group Food and Water Watch, “simply requiring companies to tell producers they’re going to be discriminated against doesn’t fix this broken system.” The malicious corporate con of tournament pricing must be banned.


Seeds of Progress

For farmers and ranchers (as well as for city gardeners), spring is a time of planning and planting. And this coming spring is shaping up as a momentous time to plant the seeds for a new day of fairness and justice in our vast food economy. To do just that, Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid organization and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) are calling on farm, food, climate, and social justice activists from across the country to come together in Washington next March for a 3-day mobilization called “Farmers for Climate: Rally for Resilience.”

Some combination of a grassroots awakening, people’s policy palooza, music fest, and national political movement launch, the mobilization will focus on the substance of a new 5-year farm bill, which Congress will be writing in 2023. Rather than leave this vital task to corporate lobbyists and business-as-usual lawmakers, Farm Aid, NSAC, and about a dozen other organizations will bring us “outsiders” into the process to demand and write a new policy based on family farms, climate resilience, and economic democracy.

This will be the largest direct-action farm and food mobilization since the tractorcades of the late ’70s, which culminated in 50,000 mad-as-hellers (including me) and 5,000 tractors descending on Congress to make it include some progressive reforms in the farm bill of that era. Forty years later though, the interrelated crises of farmers and climate have become far more exigent, making a bold, progressive farm policy essential to alleviate both. But getting there is up to us. Left on their own, most lawmakers will dance to the tune of corporate donors, sticking with status-quo policies of industrial ag that are forcing good family farmers off the land and fueling global warming. So we have to show up, make some noise and push our own solutions.

One who’s urging all of us to be there is Don Kimbrell, a farmer who was part of that tractorcade rebellion four decades ago. Back then, he drove his old John Deere tractor some 1,500 miles from his home in Happy, Texas, to be part of the action in DC. Don plans to show up again next March (though not on that venerable tractor), because it’s important to take a stand for future generations. It’s not OK, he says, “to stay within the boundaries of your own farm, not make any waves. There is a price to be paid for silence and complacency.

Make Some Waves!

Always a big deal, the farm bill governs a huge range of ag and food programs, including nutrition, forestry, crop insurance. But with our industrial ag system now responsible for 11% of greenhouse gas emissions, next year’s legislation is also key to our climate future. Fortunately, our friends at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (sustainableagriculture.net) are on the case.

Coalition members have been in DC this year lobbying for the Agricultural Resilience Act, “a farmer-driven, science-based roadmap for reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in U.S. agriculture by 2040.” We like NSAC’s vision for US ag where: “a safe, nutritious, ample, and affordable food supply is produced by a legion of family farmers who make a decent living pursuing their trade, while protecting the environment, and contributing to the strength and stability of their communities.”

But it’ll take some horsepower to push that kind of thinking into law, so NSAC has partnered with Farm Aid (farmaid.org) to rally Congress and the rest of us eaters behind needed reforms during the first week of March 2023. Details of the three-day Farmers for Climate event are still coming together, but from the FarmAid stage in Raleigh, the partners announced “a mobilization the likes of which we have not seen since the 1970s.”

Let’s show up for that!


Out of This World Agriculture

Our food future–the very nature of victuals and the values that will guide production–remains undecided, with two major camps pushing widely contrasting visions: (1) a community-based system of agriCULTURE, with farm families working the soil in cooperation with nature; and (2) a corporate-controlled agriTECH system guided by Wall St. speculators and nature-altering engineers.

For a glimpse of where each approach would take us, consider present efforts to adapt two of our most important staples, tomatoes and potatoes, to the realities of climate change.

First, say hello to “space tomatoes,” under development by an astrobiologist for Heinz Inc, the multibillion-dollar ketchup monopolist that controls 70% of the US market. Anticipating that global warming will make much of Earth inhospitable to farming, the tomato giant has already produced a few bottles of ketchup containing love apples grown under Mars-like conditions.

It has already chosen a brand name: “Heinz: Marz Edition.” Cute, but red planet ag requires more than a marketing slogan, for it entails beaucoup unresolved issues of finance, production, transportation, and absurdities. For example, soil. Mars has none–only a mantle of loose rock that lacks even one speck of the organic matter essential to growing food. Also, Mars has no rain, no atmospheric protection from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, and no warmth (it averages 81 degrees below zero). All nutrients and climate to make a tomato plant survive on Mars, much less produce fruit, would have to be fabricated, along with the robotic “farmers” who’d raise it. Then there’s the pricey issue of shipping the red planet condiment back to terra firma, as well as the even more difficult matter of Heinz finding a market of vain billionaires (besides Elon Musk) spacey enough to splurge on what would be a multimillion-dollar bottle of Marz-up.

Meanwhile, a world away from Heinz, indigenous scientists, seed savers, and growers in America’s arid Southwest are finding a food future right here on our fast-warming planet by reviving and replanting their past. In particular, they’re reintroducing an ancestral spud that has been cultivated as far back as 11,000 years ago. Dubbed the Four Corners Potato, it contains triple the protein and double the calcium of today’s red potatoes and can thrive in the desert region where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah converge, for it not only prefers minimal moisture, but even survives persistent drought by going dormant until rain returns.

The value of such natural resilience was cast aside, however, by the financiers and engineers of today’s model of massive, industrialized, monocropping farm corporations. We might yet get lucky, though, for many Native elders have continued over the generations to grow a few of the unique, ancient potatoes, saving and passing on the seeds to the next generation … and to us. So now, nonprofit efforts like the Potato Cultivation Project of the Utah Dine Bikeyah’s Traditional Food Program are encouraging farmers and communities to plant the heritage Four Corners variety. “Our ancestors left these seeds for us,” says the director of the program, “[so] we can return to those sustainable practices.”

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