Crackdown on consolidation, corporate control sparks hope in farm country

Joe Maxwell abd Darin Von Ruden

Advocates for family farmers and ranchers have encountered a fair number of roadblocks over the past 40 years. We’ve seen protections for producers stripped away as corporations continue to consolidate, insulating their abusive practices with wealth and political power. But the past few weeks have produced signs that the tide may be turning against those corporate monopolies that for too long have extracted wealth from our food system at the expense of farmers, ranchers, rural communities, and consumers.

It started in June, when the USDA committed to changing the Packers and Stockyards Act’s competitive injury clause, which would lift an unfair burden on producers to prove harm to the entire industry before bringing a claim of abuse to a corporation. Then, on July first, the FTC passed a rule requiring all meat and meat products with a “Made in USA” label to be 100% “born, raised, and slaughtered” in the U.S.; mere hours later, the USDA announced it would review its “Product of USA” label. The two agencies, which share jurisdiction over food labeling rules, have thus committed to protecting honest companies and consumers from the misleading practices of meatpacking companies.

And then on July 9th, the Biden administration truly set the wheels of change in motion by issuing a sweeping Executive Order intended to increase competition across the entire U.S. economy. For independent farmers and advocacy groups, the Order contained a treasure-trove of protections that should yield a more fair and competitive agricultural economy. For starters, the USDA has been directed to strengthen the Packers and Stockyards Act, clarify “Product of the USA” label standards, and invest in local and regional meat processing capabilities. The Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have been told to keep a firmer hand on mergers guidelines, thus preventing even worse consolidation, and the FTC is expected to regulate Right to Repair rules in such a way as to allow farmers to fix their own equipment. Finally, the Order requires some investigations: the USDA must issue a report on the impact of market concentration in seeds, and the FTC and USDA must jointly issue a report on the impact of concentration on the retail grocery sector.

It’s worth noting that the bulk of encouraging developments for independent farmers and ranchers have emerged from the Biden Administration and the regulatory agencies under its purview, and we want to take a moment to thank Biden for standing up for family farmers. For so long, family farmers have watched multiple administrations, both Democratic and Republican, fail to act on their behalf. In fact, not since Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt has a President taken such legacy-making action to banish corporate control over the economy and allow smaller businesses, farms, and ranches to flourish.

On one hand, we recognize that executive orders can be reversed by the next administration. We also acknowledge that the regulatory processes at USDA and FTC will require lengthy comment periods, and may even trigger some legal battles. However, unlike the last time we saw a spate of family farm-friendly executive orders, this one was issued at the beginning of Biden’s term. This means that, now that the Order has set in motion a process to create important and more permanent regulatory protections, we have time to finalize and implement these rules. Agencies will, of course, need to take action by enforcing the existing rules outlined in the Order, and getting the rulemaking processes all the way through to their conclusion.

On the other hand, countless farmers and farm advocates have put in decades of grueling work to get to this point, and are truly pleased to find that there’s a friend of farmers in the White House. We are confident that the regulatory measures outlined in the Order will help realize a more fair and accessible food system. We look forward to working with these agencies throughout the rulemaking process (and we also look forward to working with members of Congress to enshrine competition in our nation’s laws!). Meanwhile, we’re happy to have these reasons to hope and celebrate  — while we roll up our sleeves for what’s next.

Darin Von Ruden is president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union
Joe Maxwell

Joe Maxwell is president of Family Farm Action Alliance while Darin Von Ruden is president of Wisconsin Farmers Union