By Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union.
From this last election, the country was reminded that rural America has a voice. It is time to make sure the voices of family farmers are heard as well.
Moments after the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a long-awaited regulation, which aims to protect individual poultry growers and livestock producers from the relentlessly unfair practices in the meat packing sector, those representing the packing industry lashed out; even going so far as to suggest the rule was the Obama Administration’s attempt to “stick it to” rural Americans for electing President-elect Trump.
Ironically, family farmers have been waiting for these protections since Congress included them in the 2008 Farm Bill. This is a very targeted approach to the direction from Congress to promulgate rules for the Packers and Stockyards Act, an act that was passed specifically to address abuse by major poultry companies and meat packers against farmers and consumers.
The Farmer Fair Practices Rules, formerly known as the GIPSA rule (short for the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration), that were released by USDA include an interim final rule dealing with competitive injury disputes for contract growers.
Currently, contract poultry growers have to prove harm for the entire $48 billion chicken industry rather than harm to themselves when seeking relief from poultry companies for abusive contract practices. This is an outrageous interpretation of the Packers and Stockyards Act.
This rule will eliminate that burden so that farmers who have been wronged can sue for harm only to themselves, rather than the entire industry. While this won’t substantially change the industry, it will make sure that packers and poultry companies who violate the law are held accountable for their actions by providing greater clarity and desired consistency across the industry. Granting family famers these legal rights is not designed to encourage lawsuits, in fact it will likely result in a more transparent and business-like relationship between farmers and the meat and poultry processing giants.
In 2015, John Oliver famously drew attention to the burdens growers face on his HBO show “Last Week Tonight.” Yet, the packing industry continues to play the victim.
Opponents of the rule have subscribed to the idea that this regulation would increase costs to packers and cause a trickle down impact to producers, who would see their costs dramatically increase. I would challenge that the record profits touted by large packers could offset any incurred costs of commonsense protection for their growers.
Meanwhile, more and more family farmers are losing their farms because the massively concentrated livestock and poultry sectors have placed all of the power in the hands of a few. The integrators can pick winners and losers every time they deliver a flock or feed to individual growers.
And, if growers choose to speak out about unfair practices, they’ll likely land themselves on the losing end. There are always inferior chicks, but the facts show some growers have been consistently targeted as the ones who will receive the poor chicks, either because they chose to speak out about the industry or refused to re-mortgage their farm (more deeply tying them to this industry) for unnecessary capital investments.
These are the instances when transparency and individual rights and protections for growers are needed when reporting violations of the Packers and Stockyards Act. By releasing these rules, USDA is simply reaffirming that the act is about individual farmers. Far from the suggested attack on rural Americans, this effort empowers rural Americans.
The massive consolidation in the livestock and poultry industries has led to consolidation among farms and rural America. Lack of competition doesn’t leave poultry farmers with any other options.
Two proposed rules that are included in the Farmer Fair Practice Rules are subject to an open public comment period. We know the meat packing industry will invest substantial resources towards opposing to these rules, but blocking these rules would not be in the best interests of family farmers and rural America.
Just as rural Americans came out full force for Trump on Election Day, they will be expecting him to stand up for them throughout his administration. The President-elect can start by supporting the Farmer Fair Practices Rules.
About the Author: Roger Johnson is president of the nearly 200,000 family farmer and rancher-led National Farmers Union.
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