Farmers Union Calls For… Fairness For Farmers

Farmers only receive 16 cents of the food dollar today compared to 50 cents in 1952.

Farmers Union has something to say about it.

National Farmers Union (NFU) was founded in 1902 when farmers, who were at the mercy of large monopolies and trusts, banded together to create a collective voice and fight for social and economic justice. ​The organization’s early work supported then President Roosevelt’s efforts to bust up monopolies and restore fairness to the marketplace. ​

“Unfortunately, we find ourselves once again facing similar challenges,” outgoing NFU Vice President Patty Edelberg told attendees at WFU’s 91st Annual Convention, held virtually January 29th. “That’s why we need ‘Fairness for Farmers.”

NFU’s Fairness for Farmers campaign launched last fall with the goals of curtailing consolidation in agriculture, busting the monopolies that hurt farmers and consumers, and restoring marketplace competition. The movement is pushing for champions in the administration and on Capitol Hill to:
• Strengthen and reform antitrust laws ​
• Increase price discovery and transparency and fairness in U.S. livestock markets ​
• Ensure truth-in-labeling
• Facilitate more diverse market opportunities ​

Farmers Union members from across the country have been speaking up about the effects of monopoly power and increasing concentration in ag sectors. Edelburg, who dairy farms in central Wisconsin, has helped collect Fairness for Farmers stories on farms throughout the Midwest.

“It’s not just about prices and who gets what slice of the pie,” Edelburg said. “When corporations get too big, they don’t need to compete or to treat workers, buyers, or sellers fairly. They also become susceptible to disruptions, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and cyberattacks.”

The pandemic increased awareness of food supply chain issues—a fact that Edelburg said has elevated concentration in agriculture to a level of national discourse. Now, more than ever, people want to know where their food comes from, which puts NFU and this storytelling campaign in a strong position to create change.

Consolidation has run rampant in agriculture, limiting options for farmers and putting them at the mercy of powerful corporations. Just two companies control almost 80% of the corn seed market, and four companies have more than 75% of the soybean seed market. Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, antitrust enforcement champion, notes that between 1995 and 2011, the cost of purchasing seed to plant one acre of soybeans and corn increased 325% (soybeans) and 259% (corn).

“When it comes to selling their crops or livestock, farmers and ranchers have ever fewer options as they struggle to get a fair price from giant processors that dominate the markets,” Sen. Klobuchar said.

Meanwhile “The Big 4” meatpackers control 85% of meat processing in the United States, which in turn has led to accusations of price-fixing and a lack of market transparency.

The trends toward consolidation aren’t solely affecting the agricultural sphere. Pet food, online travel, and even casket manufacturers are controlled by only two companies in each of their respective industries, Klobuchar said.

In a rousing State of the Farmers Union address on February 28th at the 120th Annual National Farmers Union Convention in Denver, NFU President Rob Larew committed to continue to push for fair, transparent markets for farmers.

“Time and time again over Farmers Union history, when faced with challenges, we rise to the task and we get it done,” he said. “Farmers Union is strong and we are steadfastly in the fight.”

Patty Edelburg, left, joined National Farmers Union staff in a trip around the greater Midwest to collect Fairness for Farmers stories. Photo Credit: National Farmers Union/Abby Perdue.

A Shifting Narrative
Though taking on corporate greed and monopoly power is a daunting task, NFU is shifting the narrative.

When President Biden signed an Executive Order on “Promoting Competition in the American Economy” in 2021, Farmers Union policies were included. When the National Economic Council held a White House press briefing on problems with consumer food prices, they talked about NFU policy priorities of expanding local and regional processing capacity and investigating the big packers and integrators. When USDA announced a $500 million investment to increase local and regional livestock processing capacity, NFU leadership was present for the announcement of the investment.

“We’re being heard and we are making an impact, but we know more needs to be done,” Edelburg said. “We’re not going to stop until we have economic justice for family farmers, ranchers, consumers, and rural communities.”

But NFU needs farmers and local food advocates to help to keep the momentum going, she added. “We know that we are in for a fight. The giants that dominate the agriculture industry aren’t going to be toppled without a struggle.”

National Farmers Union members from across the country have been stepping forward to share their story. Photo Credit: National Farmers Union/Abby Perdue.

Time to Get ‘Loud’
In solidarity with the Fairness for Farmers push, Wisconsin Farmers Union (WFU) released a short film that digs in on these issues. “Get Loud: The Fight for the Soul of Agriculture’’ features voices from WFU, alongside antitrust researcher and author Austin Frerick. The core question at the heart of the film is “what kind of food system do we want?”

“There’s a concentration crisis in America,” notes Frerick, Deputy Director of the Thurman Arnold Project on competition policy and antitrust enforcement at Yale University. “We’ve seen the collapse of a lot of family farmers, first in hogs, then in dairy, and now it’s happening in beef.”

“Farmers are being both squeezed on the input and output side,” Frerick adds. “When they buy their seeds and when they buy their fertilizer, both of which are super concentrated, they’re paying monopoly prices for it. Then when they go to sell, they are selling to monopolies. So not only are they overpaying but then they’re getting underpaid.”

As Dunn County sheep farmer and WFU Special Projects Director Lauren Langworthy points out in the film, farmer movements helped usher in Progressive Era trustbusting and economic reforms. “There was this massive amount of consolidation and the people rose up and they said no more of this,” Langworthy said. “We’re in that moment again and we have this huge opportunity. We have the laws we need on the books. We just need to be enforcing them.”

The current food system is not serving farmers, laborers in the supply chain, or consumers. Instead, it’s serving a handful of powerful monopolies who control nearly every aspect of the food supply chain and incentivize consolidation and concentration. We are at this fork in the road where we can either restore vibrancy to rural America or continue down the path we’re on.

If you’re a farmer or foodie who cares about the future of our food system, I hope you’ll join us in speaking up about the value of strong local food systems and join the fight for Fairness for Farmers. Learn more about the fight for a fair and just food system, view the film, and find out how and how WFU can amplify your voice on rural issues at wisconsinfarmersunion.com/monopolypower. Follow #FairnessforFarmers on social media and learn more at nfu.org/fairness-for-farmers.

This article was originally published in the March/April 2022 issue of our bi-monthly newsletter, The Morsel. If you’d like to read more stories like this one and stay up to date on the latest co-op news and events, pick up a print copy in-store on your next grocery run or find more news on our website here.

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