In 1979, farmers drove their tractors from around the country to Washington, D.C., to protest agricultural policies that they said resulted in unfairly low prices. A tractor rally today would have fewer farmers to draw from. (American Agriculture Movement "Tractorcade" on National Mall, with U.S. Capitol in view, February 1979, by Jeff Tinsley, Smithsonian Institution Archive Acc. 11-009, 79-1687-23.)

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From livestock markets to ethanol, big corporations seem to be winning the policy war in D.C., as well as in states like Missouri. It hasn’t always been this way. 

The American Agriculture Movement still had access to large populations of disaffected farmers from across the Midwest when, in 1979, they held their massive tractor drive to the nation’s capital. Positive publicity for dollar-short family farmers was soon replaced with footage of smoke-belching diesel tractors and rutted turf on the National Mall. The 6-o’clock news coverage missed the part where another faction of the same farm group diligently repaired the damage. 

The farmer fight for hearts and minds was lost just about the same time Murphy Farms fine-tuned its hog mass production model in the Carolinas. And an end run around Missouri’s family-farm law prohibiting corporate ownership of farms allowed the first Big Pigs to establish hog confinements in northern Missouri when it was ruled that one family, the Fribourgs, were sole owners of privately held Continental Grain. 

Then came Premium Standard Farms. 

Backers of PSF wanted to establish operations in Missouri. That’s where they filed for incorporation, in the Mercer County seat of Princeton.  But Missouri had a law on the books banning corporate Ag. It wasn’t long before then-Governor John Ashcroft and the Missouri General Assembly came together, exempting the counties of Putnam, Mercer, and Sullivan from the corporate ag ban. 

When independent family farms go up against corporations, there’s always plenty of pork to go around. 

The American Ag Movement was likely the reason for a mandatory price reporting law passed in Missouri for cattle sales a few years before PFS. That law was intended to level the playing field for cattle producers against packer buyers and alleged price fixing. 

Think of it as a sunshine law. 

But packers vowed not to buy a single head in Missouri while the law was in effect. Without buyers, local livestock sale barns couldn’t hold their auctions. Farmers could still ship their market ready cattle out of state, but Missouri was choking on a glut of cattle. The law was hastily repealed, which shows the meager power of individuals and states against the massive power of national and multinational corporations.  

All that power might have been controlled by the bigger federal government. And the vintage 1921 Packers and Stockyards Act did just that … for a while. Slowly over time, growing size and power of corporations erased Packers and Stockyards from the minds of politicians and law enforcement so that now the only time it seems to come up is during election years. 

For most conventional farmers, some of their most profitable years in at least the last 50 years were experienced during the Obama administration. Markets expanded, including for agricultural renewable energy like ethanol. And ag export values climbed even as the country climbed out of the near financial collapse and recession of the Bush administration. Obama campaign pledges toward better times were met or exceeded with only one exception. 

Market concentration reform was a notable U-turn.  After saying they would take on the meatpackers, the Obama administration Packers and Stockyards enforcement team was quietly, irrevocably dismantled, even as buy-outs and corporate mergers in the agriculture sector continued unabated. 

Team Trump has made some of the same claims, that market concentration and monopolies would be addressed. Almost four years in, there hasn’t been a team placed in charge of the task, let alone a start to the work. But money has flowed to farmers, not from markets or Congressional appropriation but instead from the administration’s expropriation of “mad” money in their contingency budgets. Some of that stimulus went not to farmers but to corporations like Brazilian meat- packing giant JBS, whose owners are doing jail time in Brazil for bribing politicians. JBS has purchased a number of cattle slaughter facilities in the U.S. through their acquisition of Swift and Co. and Smithfield’s Foods beef slaughter operations. They also own controlling interest in Pilgrim’s Pride poultry operations. Tyson foods is a U.S. corporation that’s followed much the same packer path of buyouts and acquisitions with the same results, corporate tentacles wrapped around huge portions of cattle, pork, and poultry trade. 

Now Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is putting his rural recovery team together. Obama/Biden did well helping build and restore rural infrastructure with USDA grants and loans for things like hospitals, water, and sewer treatment facilities. It’s too soon to tell what the Biden/Harris rural platform will be built on. Opportunity, restored trade undoubtedly, renewed efforts on renewables certainly, sustainable agriculture definitely, but livestock market reforms or seed monopolies? 

We’ll see. 

Consolidation has given farmers less power and fewer options in a world where big fish get eaten by bigger fish in the international waters of German chemical company Bayer, Brazilian owned JBS, and China’s Smithfield. This is the same world where seed patent fees aren’t negotiable or even revealed, where cattle trade takes place opaquely 15 minutes once a week to establish the market for the entire week while, hogs and poultry are raised by contractors who have no say in the production process and no profit stake in the end product save what is given them by their non-negotiable packer-written contracts. We live on a planet where cattlemen face losses on every animal they own even as the meatpackers make hundreds of dollars from the same animal. Where retail and wholesale prices travel in completely different orbits, and consumers pay at the outer limits. 

It’s been a long time since government seriously tried to address these market-concentration problems other than by throwing money at them via subsidies paid to farmers, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for low-income consumers. In other words, they throw gasoline on the fire that threatens to consume us. That’s because subsidy aid to profit-challenged victims of monopoly, rather than antitrust enforcement, indirectly supports the monopolies they, the victims, contend with. 

It’s like watering the yard during a hot dry summer. 

As soon as the sprinklers are turned off, the grass starts to die. 

Maybe that’s why everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. 

Richard Oswald is a fourth-generation farmer from Langdon, Missouri.