The hog industry is one agricultural sector that has consolidated through corporate efforts in the last 30 years. (Family Farm Alliance graphic via philhoward.net)

Competition in agriculture is way more intense among farmers than it is among our consumers and the suppliers we rely on for the stuff to do our jobs. That’s because year in and year out, farm profitability relies on fewer and bigger farms at the expense of small farms and rural communities. We are expected to mirror the get-big-or-get-out mentality of corporate agriculture.

Or else.

For the past 12 years, we’ve seen a doubling down of monopoly and monopsony in every aspect of agriculture from livestock to seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides. Even the machines we use are examples of overt corporate power over farmers and ranchers like me.

We’ve been talking about it for years. The Obama administration gave us hope in 2009 that things might change. Two years later hope was replaced with the same familiar reality we’d known before. The Trump administration gave us lip service in 2017. Then silence.

Same old same old.

Now the Biden administration has initiated proposals for real change.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, for one thing, in the last 12 years corporations like Cargill, Tyson, National Beef, and JBS have continued to expand their hold on power over meat and poultry. Monsanto and Bayer have been living in wedded bliss for nearly five years. This “new” Bayer exercises huge, unprecedented control over seeds and pesticides along with DuPont’s spin-off Corteva, Syngenta, and BASF. Farm equipment manufacturers have adopted the winning strategy used by Bill Gates and Microsoft, to capture not just the market for their machines, but to pay unlock fees, which farmers must now pay to get their machines to run.

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The right to repair includes the ability to work on tractors, which corporations restrict through software licensing. President Biden is preparing to sign a right-to-repair executive order that would give consumers additional ability to repair equipment they purchase. (Motherboard/Vice video)

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In a bit of irony, I can repair my home computer but not the computer that makes my tractor go. Biden wants that changed as well.

It’s all about the markets, the patents, and the ability of a few to control everything to do with agriculture and food. That extends to perhaps the greatest wrong of all, the legality of livestock producers to label their products as born, raised, and slaughtered in the USA. We pinned our hopes on that right a few farm bills back until a majority in Congress, led by (unkindest cut of all) the House Ag Committee, rescinded our right, but have since allowed big packers to label foreign beef slaughtered in the U.S. as a product of the USA.

President Biden has put money where his heart is, by proposing over $500 million to help increase capacity and the number of small, local slaughter facilities so farmers and ranchers, and consumers can band together to label and sell their products free of big agribusiness funny business. Backing up his plan is the consumer experience of grocery store food shortages at the same time farm livestock inventories soared amid the difficulty of operating huge corporate slaughter facilities during the pandemic.

USDA will play a large role overhauling Ag competition. They’ll also, presumably, reinvigorate oversight by their internal agency, the Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration. As Agriculture secretary, the buck will stop on Tom Vilsack’s desk. It’s not his first rodeo. Vilsack was Ag secretary all eight years of the Obama administration, when Packers and Stockyards Act enforcement made a U-turn out the door. 

In the past some farm groups have opposed antitrust activity against big pig, beef, and chicken, like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, while others, like National Farmers Union, supported it. This time around most of the major players are supporters, or claim to be.  Corporations will likely lawyer up. Courts will have a say. And Congress. Everyone has a sacred power-cow, corporate, political, or otherwise. Whether or not the somewhat unlikely coalition of antitrust supporters, right and left, hangs together boils down to politics, the law, and, maybe, public opinion.

Bearing the weight of corporate-wrought food inflation, hair-on-fire woke consumers could be the greatest force for change of all. 

Richard Oswald is a fifth-generation farmer from Langdon, Missouri. He is membership and policy director for the Missouri Farmers Union.