I know what it’s like to have the boot of big agribusiness on your neck and how the deck is stacked against the producer. In the 1970s, I moved to St. Francis, Kan., from Colorado to start my own farming and ranching business.
That’s when the market began to change. One by one, the meatpackers I sold to merged, shut down or were sold to foreign conglomerates. Eventually, the cattle industry became dominated by only four major buyers: JBS, Tyson, Cargill and National Beef. This consolidation tilted the playing field to the big companies, sapping the bargaining power of cattle producers, making it impossible to get a fair price and creating enormous openings for abuse and exploitation. According to the USDA census, the cattle-producer population has dropped by nearly 40 percent in the past 40 years.
I refused to ignore this abusive market power, and I began speaking out about these unfair business practices. That’s when I learned firsthand how big agribusinesses use their power to punish critics. By 1998, all four of the big meatpackers blackballed my feedlot, refusing to buy my cattle. They forced me out of the cattle-feeding business. I was left with no remedy, because too many courts have held that for farmers to hold agribusiness accountable for abusive practices, we have to show that the unfair practice affected the entire industry — a virtually impossible standard to meet.
In 2016, after a multiyear process and with input from producers around the country, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued the Farmer Fair Practices Rules, which would have made it easier to bring unfair practice claims without proving marketwide distortions. The rules would have provided much-needed relief to independent and contract producers.
On the campaign trail, Trump spoke to farmers in Iowa and acknowledged that “family farms are the backbone of this country” and vowed that if he won, “we are going to end this war on the American farmer.” Farmers voted for Trump by a nearly 55 percent margin. But despite Trump’s promises, his Department of Agriculture yanked protections that would help the farmers that he said are America’s backbone.
At the time, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said livestock producers should simply put their trust in agribusiness conglomerates to “treat everyone fairly and not in a predatory fashion.” He described unfair practices in the industry as “moral actions” that, in his view, regulation can’t solve.
But as my experience and the experiences of millions of other farmers and ranchers across America have shown, independent producers can’t just put their faith in the benevolence of big corporations, with vastly more bargaining power than we have, to treat us fairly. Moreover, killing the rules wasn’t just harmful to America’s small livestock producers — it was also illegal. The department defied Congress’s mandate in the 2008 farm bill and failed to explain why helping farmers and ranchers protect themselves against agribusiness is no longer good policy.
That’s why in December, the Organization for Competitive Markets — a farmers and ranchers group that I help lead — and some of its members sued the Trump administration for unlawfully rolling back the rules. We are seeking reinstatement of these critical protections. If Trump won’t keep his promises to us, we have to ask the courts to step in. Our lives and our livelihoods are at stake.
American family farmers and ranchers are becoming an endangered species, squeezed by the forces of globalization and the immense leverage of gigantic corporations. We hoped that Trump would be our champion and side with us against the multinational corporations that are threatening our future and our nation’s ability to feed itself. But we’ve been let down. If the American farmer is to survive, we must be treated fairly. There is still time for Trump and Perdue to reverse course. We hope they seize this opportunity.
But if Trump won’t fight for us, we will bring the fight to him.