As Americans, we are fortunate to be able to rely on a very small percentage of our fellow citizens to raise the food that we eat, freeing up the rest of us to devote our time to other pursuits. The availability, affordability and variety of nutritious food available to us is astonishing, especially when you consider how few people are farmers. The last census of agriculture in 2012 found that 3.2 million farmers operated 2.1 million farms. That's about 1 percent of the U.S. population that is able to generate food, fuel and fiber for Americans and people around the world.
The people who raise the food you and I eat will tell you it takes hard work, long hours and a high tolerance for risk. You worry about the weather, about getting a fair price and if there will be a next generation behind you to keep farming. It seems only fair that the people who feed us receive fair treatment and the opportunity to earn a living in return for what they take on to feed our country.
This is not always the case for many farmers who raise the chickens, turkeys, hogs and cattle that are then sold to processors who package the meat to ship to stores. Because the largest four processors in each of these sectors control more than half of the market for that sector, poultry farmers often only have one or two processors in their state they can contract with to provide grower services. Processors can wield market power over the growers, treating them unfairly, suppressing how much they are paid, or pitting them against each other.
For example, if a chicken grower attempts to organize other chicken growers to bargain for better pay or publicly expresses unhappiness with the way they are treated by a processor, they can suffer retaliation. Processors can require growers to make investments that are not economically justifiable for the grower or can terminate contracts with little notice. In contract growing, the processors own the birds and provide inputs like feed, so they can choose to provide poultry growers with bad feed or sickly birds that have a higher mortality rate, which cuts deeply into a grower's opportunity to earn income on those birds. Without much of a choice of which company to grow birds for, poultry growers often have to put up with the unfair behavior, take a pay cut or take their case to court.
The Farmer Fair Practices Rules announced by USDA this week specifically target some of the worst practices in the poultry sector. These new regulations aim to restore fairness to the way poultry farmers are paid for their work and create common sense protections and reasonable reforms that balance the burden on poultry and livestock farmers seeking justice under the Packers and Stockyards Act. Ensuring a fair marketplace and a level playing field is vital for family farms and an important step to ensure the benefits for all Americans that result from strong, stable farms producing enough poultry, turkey, pork and beef to feed the rest of us.
USDA's Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration received more than 60,000 comments in 2010 including feedback from field hearings in farming communities. These helped inform options for drafting these rules, and GIPSA is also providing the public with additional opportunities to weigh in before the agency finalizes these changes. This important public feedback helped the agency to drop a half-dozen issues from previous versions and only focus on the most damaging unfair practices that family farms face.
These rules are part of President Obama's initiative to create a level playing field for consumers and workers, such as initiatives for pay equality and improving workplace health and safety. The American economy is not a zero sum game, and we can promote fairness and equity for those who grow livestock and poultry and still remain competitive. Today's actions will bring greater protections to our farmers, allowing them to continue to make a fair living off farming and allowing us all to enjoy a bountiful food supply.
This commentary initially appeared in the Clarion-Ledger