A Populist Moment in the Livestock and Meatpacking Industry?

Last week was about as big as national politics gets when it comes to the livestock and meatpacking industry. The Senate conducted hearings on legislation that could potentially address the lack of fairness and transparency in cattle markets. The House Agriculture Committee also heard from cattle producers directly, as well as a panel of the four biggest beef packing company CEOs.

The highlight for me was hearing from Missouri cattle producer Coy Young, who was visibly nervous telling his story, and yet he courageously spoke a lot of truth to powerful people who can actually do something to improve the lot of cattle producers, meatpacking workers, and the environmental impacts of the industry. And, yes, I’m pointing the finger at you, members of Congress.

“American cattle farmers and ranchers are tired, tired of being taken advantage of and losing money year after year while watching the Big Four post record profits every single quarter,” Young said at the hearing. “There’s enough money to go around in the beef industry. It’s the distribution of profits that are proportionally unbalanced.”

Gilles Stockton, a rancher from Grass Range, Montana, and leader in this effort from the Western Organization of Resource Councils and Northern Plains Resource Council, also testified, stating:

“In 1975, 25% of the beef packing industry was controlled by four firms. Today, approximately 85% of the beef packing industry is controlled by four firms. This corporate concentration is underlying and shaping the economic reality that prevents farmers and ranchers from thriving. Monopoly power extracts wealth from rural communities and takes a larger share of the retail dollar away from producers like me. From 2012-2017, in Fergus County, Montana, where I am from and the number one cattle-producing county in the state, we have seen devastating losses. In these five years, our county reported a 14% decline in market value of products sold per farm, and a 54% decline of net cash farm income per farm. In my community of Grass Range, I’ve seen this play out as a main street which now has only one functional business.”

It’s hardly a secret that big meatpackers are cashing in through price gauging in recent months. The government watchdog group, Accountable.US released a new report for the hearings, documenting how Cargill, Tyson, JBS, and National Beef Packing companies made nearly $13 billion in 2021 fiscal year profits, record or near-record corporate profits. The report also documents how two of the companies, Tyson and JBS, made these profits “even after they were involved with at least $384 million in fines and settlements over alleged price-fixing.”

I do think all of this attention on the beef industry is good news. I’m not sure that the politics will work out in the favor of cattle producers and meatpacking workers, of course. But with the White House continuing to push for action against meatpackers, and these kinds of hearings being conducted, things feel different. Policies like these — cattle market reforms, strict enforcement of antitrust laws, a revival of the Packers and Stockyards Act — have been on the agenda of family farm groups I’ve worked with and around since the late 1990s.

Maybe this time the urgency and shape of the politics will get this legislative package across the finish line. Probably not, but it’s the best opportunity for meaningful meatpacker accountability measures I’ve seen in my career. I’m even gonna cross my fingers.

Rural Reading List

In addition to the meatpacker reform moment, here are some reading selections for you from the world of rural news and information published this past week:

Report: Rural Communities Lack Access to Banking, More Likely to Turn to Predatory Lenders

Have you ever heard of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Rural Initiative? Well, now you have. Check out my interview with CFPB Fellow Shawn Sebastian in the Daily Yonder.

Appalachian Accents – a Century of Misinformation

Daily Yonder commentary by Skylar Baker-Jordan on the Appalachian dialect and how judging folks by the way they sound is illogical at best, and harmful at worst.

Hundreds of U.S. Urban Areas Will Become Rural With New Criteria.

The AP reports on a new definition of “rurality” by the U.S. Census Bureau, and what this could mean for rural communities themselves.

How Small Kansas Companies Bring Fast Internet to Rural Places That Telecom Giants Ignore

A look at high-speed internet coming to rural Kansas courtesy of Main Street businesses instead of giant telecom corporations.

One More Thing: A Virtual Rural Convening not to Be Missed

If you’ve got a hankering to connect with other folks interested in rural issues you’re in luck. The Rural Assembly (also part of the Center for Rural Strategies which publishes the Daily Yonder), is hosting their virtual Rural Assembly Everywhere conference next week.

Programming starts Tuesday May 10 — one week from today — and concludes Wednesday May 11. I’m looking forward to tuning in for remarks from Secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior Deb Haaland, who you might remember was supposed to speak at this same gathering in the fall but had to cancel last minute. Unfortunate, but totally understandable — she’s a busy woman. (And I hear her people got in touch with our people this time around because she was disappointed to miss out in October.)

On top of the policymakers and advocates speaking at Rural Assembly Everywhere, we can expect to enjoy music, poetry, and storytelling from a diverse cast of rural people doing awesome work. Registration is open now and free for all, so really there’s nothing to lose.

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