Sen. Michael Bennet urged Pres. Barack Obama late last week to finalize and implement rules to even the playing field for small ranchers and chicken farmers in competition with corporate giants in the industry. Sustainable food advocates, who have been traveling the country asking legislators to sign on to similar letters, claimed the senator’s move as a minor victory in what they see as a battle between David and Goliath.
Bennet renewed his support for the speedy implementation of the amended Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921, a rule that has long been difficult for the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyard Administration (GIPSA) to implement, in a letter signed by the senator.
“I write to underscore the value of a fair and transparent market in which all livestock and poultry producers compete on a level playing field,” Bennet said in the letter. “For these reasons, I strongly oppose efforts to stop the USDA from implementing the rule and urge you to prioritize the rule’s finalization.”
Bennet said that while the new rules were not perfect, the new Farm Bill, which is currently being targeted by legislators for budget cuts, would serve to allow lawmakers to make any necessary changes.
Bennet sits on the Senate Agriculture Committee.
The Packers and Stockyards Act was passed by Congress in 1921 as a series of anti-trust laws on the meat and poultry industry. However, rules that defined “undue or unreasonable preferences” in the act were never created by the USDA causing it to lose much of its strength. Small farmers and sustainability advocates say corporate interests caused the law to simply sit on the books unenforced for years.
The new rules, drafted to bring the 1921 laws up to date with modern times, are a response to provisions in the 2008 Food Conservation and Energy Act that called for the establishment of criteria for the USDA’s GIPSA to determine if unreasonable preferences are being used in the industry.
However, the comment period on the rules was extended to November of 2010 amid considerable controversy. According to Food and Water Watch, since 2010, Washington has been slow to finalize the rules due to industry lobbying efforts.
The National Pork Producers Council has said that there will be “a chilling effect on innovation and flexibility” if the new rules are implemented. According to the industry group there will no longer be a method for packers to justify tiered rates on hogs, which they say could ultimately lead to higher vertical integration in the industry.
Small farmers and food advocates disagree. They say the industry has been forcing small livestock producers into poverty for years by causing many producers to enter into contracts instead of delivering competitive prices through bidding, while offering competitive forward contracts only to larger producers. While some say the move has stabilized the market, others explain that it has lowered the price of meat to the point where many small producers simply can no longer compete.
The new rules would work to stop price premiums and prevent preferential contracts from being given to large factory farms, prevent a single buyer from representing multiple meat packers at an auction and provide protections for poultry producers.
Food and Water Watch, the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union and others said their coalition had put together a petition with over 3,000 signatures urging Bennet to request the rules be implemented.
While their letter also called for his pledge to defend many programs that help family owned farms, sustainability projects, and nutritional subsidy programs for the poor, Sam Schabacker, Mountain West regional director, Food & Water Watch, said they were ecstatic that he had at least committed so far to the new GIPSA rules.
“It is not everyday that a group of people can get a senator to do something that could directly influence the president,” Schabacker said. He said that the Obama administration, which first pushed for the rules, has been going “really slow” and responding to companies such as Monsanto in the finalization of the new anti-trust legislation. But he said that in this case the voice of Colorado residents have been heard.
He said that his organization along with a host of others hoped to bring more members of the Agricultural Committee on board.
Still, Schabacker told a small gathering of food sustainability advocates attending a potluck in Longmont on Friday that they would continue to fight for programs they see as helping both the poor and small food producers.
“This fight is not over, there are so
many other important programs that we want to make sure and defend in the farm bill,” Schabacker said.
He listed a number of bills he expected to see cuts to. Some of those have been targeted in the President’s 2012 proposed budget while others have found there way in to House proposals including direct farm ownership loans that primarily benefit beginning and minority farmers, Rural Business Enterprise Grants, Farmers Market Nutrition Program, Community Food Project grants, and expected cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program among numerous others.
While Bennet has been in the Middle East, his office responded to questions concerning the Senator’s response to possible cuts by providing this quote from a speech earlier this year.
“We are going to have to ask hard questions and figure out how to do more with less,” Bennet said. “This will mean having discussions about whether to continue to provide farmers with a little bit of help every single year or to provide more substantial assistance when it is needed most. We will also have to identify gaps and overlaps in the different programs that comprise the farm safety net and better integrate these programs while making them more user-friendly.”
Despite the acknowledgment that the country remains in uncertain economic times, advocates were less than enthusiastic about cutting programs to help small farms.
“It is hogwash,” Amy Fontenot, a resident of Longmont who attended the potluck, said concerning possible cuts to sustainability programs.
“It is the issue that spans across the board,” Fontenot continued. “It means taking the power away from a few corporations and giving it to a few farmers who are sustainable and are going to connect people back to the earth with our food.