Democrats took two terms to release a watered-down version of their promised meatpacking reforms. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack issued the changes just in time for the Trump administration to kill them. Photo by Alice Welch/USDA

The U. S. Department of Agriculture announced last week that it was throwing out Obama administration rules that would have provided basic legal protections for poultry and livestock producers who are under contract with corporate meatpackers. The move illustrates the clear divisions within agricultural policy and shines a spotlight on the confusing and frustrating debate happening throughout farm country.

What’s at stake is known as the Farmer Fair Practices or “GIPSA” rules, a relatively straight-forward update of the 1921 Packers and Stockyards Act. The rules would have changed how the Grain Inspection and Packers Administration (GIPSA), a USDA agency, handles anti-trust enforcement. The rules were the outcome of a multi-year process almost a decade in the making that was designed to help independent meat producers compete in a marketplace increasingly controlled by a handful of large buyers.

The Trump administration took action back in March to delay the implementation of the changes, setting the stage for the final deathblow on October 17, 2017.

Analysis and comments of the GIPSA rule rollback were predictable. But like many issues that get framed as a battle between conservative rural places versus the liberal urban coasts, the underlying question of fair and competitive markets for livestock producers doesn’t get the attention it deserves. What is the appropriate role of government regulation and regulators, for one? How far should those regulations go to pick winners and losers? And, probably most important for “controversial” policy positions such as this, who gets to claim credit for policies that support the broad and numerous majority against the rich and well-connected?

Those questions stand alongside the dogged political realities of perception and style. How, for instance, was there ever a notion of the big-city real estate developer and billionaire Trump as the champion of farmers? This is a president, remember, whose governing reality has been budgetary proposals to slash and destroy popular agriculture and rural development support programs.

On the other side of the political spectrum are the Democrats, who are watching in the minority as the Obama record is dismantled by executive order and mostly party-line legislation. In the case of the GIPSA/Farmer Fair Practices Rules, the Obama regime made it all too easy to pick off the long awaited reforms.

In the best analysis of the situation I’ve seen of the GIPSA rule controversy, New Food Economy writers documented how the first-term Obama team created hope among family farm advocates by creating a public input process that could result in stronger competition and antitrust policies, only to later delay and water down proposals in deference to the powerful meat processing lobby. Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, now a lobbyist for the dairy industry, waited until December of 2016 to implement the final rules. By this time, the GIPSA rule’s fate was sealed. The last-minute implementation virtually guaranteed that the Trump administration would kill the rules, despite some livestock farmers’ hopes that Trump would fight for their interests.

If you’ve continued reading this far, it’s fairly obvious where I come down on the issue of whether the hundreds of thousands of farmers that raise poultry and livestock should be able to use additional legal tools to protect their economic interests. These farmers provide the labor, the capital, and much of the risk to produce the animals that ultimately end up supporting the balance sheets of corporate meat processors like Smithfield, Tyson and JBS (two of whom are owned by foreign entities). It’s clear that the system is rigged in favor of the beneficiaries of that system, who have the excess capital to make political donations and hire attorneys to protect their interests.

What is so galling is the lack of political representation on these issues by either party. For Republicans of the current political moment, there’s an obvious hesitation to erect any rules and regulations whatsoever, even popular regulations that “protect the little guy.” For Democrats, there is a lack of focus on actually fighting for and delivering on promises they make to family farmers.

It wouldn’t be fair to paint all Republicans with the same “let the rich rule the world” brush. Likewise, all Democrats are not in the “jeez, I hope we can slide these feckless watered-down rules through at the last minute” camp. Both parties have some diversity on these topics, and some leaders looking for decent solutions. That said, the leadership of both parties, the agenda setters within the parties, appear to be locked into their dominant patterns for now.

For those looking for clues as to why Democrats have failed to find any traction in farm country, look no further than the debacle over implementing the GIPSA rules. When family farmers called for aggressive changes in the nation’s approach to assuring fair and competitive markets, the Obama administration offered weak rules to appease meat processing corporations. When implementing the rules required swift and decisive action, the Obama administration slow-walked the proposal, making it easy for Republicans to run out the implementation clock.

With this kind of track record in mind, it’s easy for farmers to ignore party platforms and policy whitepapers. Saying the right thing is important, but it’s only part of the policy-making process. Taking action and delivering on your promises is more important. Just ask the hundreds of thousands of livestock producers and organizations that represent them how the GIPSA rules didn’t make it over the finish line. You’re likely to get an earful of disgust, toward the Republicans who terminated the rules and toward Democrats who failed to get it done when they had the chance.

Bryce Oates writes about agriculture, conservation and public lands issues for the Daily Yonder. He lives in Western Washington and is a native of Missouri farm country.

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