During his 2016 campaign, U.S. President Donald Trump emphasized economic revival in rural communities, appealing to rural voters by promising more jobs and economic opportunity. And it worked- 75% of the rural Farm Belt voted for Trump. Speaking to members of the American Farm Bureau Federation, Trump stated, “Oh, are you happy you voted for me. You are so lucky that I gave you that privilege”.
Many small farmers thought this signaled an administration which would back the efforts and interests of rural farming communities. This was critical given the immense economic disenfranchisement experienced in many of these regions- 71% of small contract poultry farmers live beneath the federal poverty level, and farm income has dropped significantly since 2013 as prices for wheat, dairy, beef, and other products have fallen. As a result, fewer than half of farm households have any kind of retirement account. Lacking job availability and stagnant wages led to counties with less than 100,000 residents accounting for zero percent of net U.S. business creation during the 2010-2014 recovery.
Against the backdrop of these grim economic prospects, the Trump Administration has worked against the interests of rural farmers. The administration attempted to stop the implementation of the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rules, which tightened animal welfare standards for organic livestock production and upheld the integrity of the “organic” label. Trump’s anti-immigration policies compounded the shortage of farmworkers (as many as 70% of farmworkers are undocumented). He proposed to shrink the USDA budget by 21%.
Even proposals Trump claimed would help rural communities fell short. The estate tax which he claimed would be advantageous to small farmers impacted only about 80 small farms and businesses in 2017. He insisted he would expand broadband internet access, which many rural communities do not have access to, but the critical obstacle was funding, which the executive order does not provide.
Another issue for small farmers is the increasing corporate consolidation of large agribusiness companies, which is correlated to negative economic trends including less private investment, stagnant wages, and fewer new businesses. Farmers are forced to accept the prices set by corporations, and some have alleged that companies like Tyson Foods and Pilgrim’s Pride require chicken and pork producers to enter into contracts with incredibly small compensation which leads to debt.
Currently, only four companies control 90% of the world’s grain and four processors control 80% of the U.S. beef, 60% of hog, and 50% of poultry. Recent mergers by Dow and Dupont, Syngenta and ChemChina, and Bayer and Monsanto have only further consolidated power in the agricultural market. Trump supported the merger of Bayer and Monsanto, which is projected to raise aggregate seed prices for small farmers by 5-20% based on the seed. These companies are supported by an extensive agribusiness lobby which includes the American Farm Bureau Federation where President Trump spoke. The Farm Bureau is not only a lobby group but also a multi-billion dollar network of insurance companies financially invested in the outcome of agribusiness, and millions of its members are not farmers but insurance customers. The Farm Bureau tends to favor the interests of major agribusiness firms over small farmers, and the Trump Administration is doing the same, especially in the case of the Farmer Fair Practices Rule (also known as the GIPSA rule).
GIPSA was created to promote fair practices in the industry, stating that packers had to provide transparent and fair compensation, and could not make sudden and unwarranted breaches of contract with small farms or retaliate to lawful action. Large meatpackers, backed by lobby groups like the National Chicken Council and National Pork Producers Council, argued that lowering the bar would allow for frivolous lawsuits that would add over $1 billion in costs and result in higher prices for consumers. But without GIPSA, courts interpreted the law to mean that farmers had to effectively show that the entire US market was negatively impacted by the corporation, creating an almost insurmountable burden of proof. The Trump Administration recently rolled back the GIPSA rule, stripping small farmers of those legal protections. GIPSA’s function would be given to the USDA’s agricultural marketing services, the very agency that negotiates deals with those brokers, fast-food restaurants, and grocery chains.
In response, Democracy Forward is representing the Organization for Competitive Markets, a small farmers think tank, and three farmer plaintiffs in a lawsuit that has been filed concerning exploitation by the meatpacking companies they supply. It argues that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue ignored thousands of comments made in public hearings and writing, and sidestepped directives in the 2008 Farm Bill mandating that the rules be implemented.
Small farmers and their lobbyists have been forced to turn to the judicial system for help after having their interests ignored by both the president and Congress, which has been equally unhelpful in advocating for farmers. In 2011, when GIPSA was being finalized, conservatives in Congress blocked the USDA from finishing progress and continued to block it annually until eventually allowing it to be finalized in 2016. In 2013, they even attempted to use the Farm Bill to permanently repeal the rules. The 2018 House Farm Bill does nothing to challenge consolidation and disproportionately benefits large agricultural farms. The top one percent of farm households received 70-80% of the benefits in the latest Republican tax bill, and USDA economists found that the bill raised the tax burden for the lowest-earning 20% of family farms. In addition, about 3.8 billion is projected to be cut from programs which support conservation efforts, small-town infrastructure, and new farmer assistance.
Ifyou are interested in helping small farmers, consider supporting organizations which advocate for ethical farm practices and treatment of farmers including Farm Aid, the Farmers’ Legal Action Group, the National Family Farm Coalition, FamilyFarmed, and Rural Advancement Foundation International.
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