In Nebraska, cattle ranchers rally against big agribusiness
AP Photo/Nati Harnik
AP Photo/Nati Harnik
On Wednesday, 500 ranchers, cowboys, and feedlot owners from around the country filled the ballroom of the Ramada Inn in Omaha, Nebraska, for a “Rally To Stop the Stealin’”—an event that amounted to a fiery protest against corporate consolidation in agriculture. Hosted by the Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM), a nonprofit group that lobbies for antitrust reform, and sponsored by nearly two dozen other farm advocacy groups, the rally had two linked goals: To publicize the groups’ view that agribusiness monopolies have brought U.S. ranchers to the verge of extinction, and to beg President Donald Trump to intervene.
Participants joined together to call for six demands from Trump and his agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue—measures they say would immediately improve market conditions and benefit ranchers, without requiring action from Congress. These demands, organized under two of the president’s sub-themes, “Buy American” and “Drain the Swamp of Corporate Monopoly Power,” included the restoration of Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) laws, and the closure of a loophole that allows foreign meat to be labeled “Product of U.S.A.” Other demands included stronger enforcement of producer protection safeguards, as well as reinstating the Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA), a now-shuttered government agency responsible for antitrust enforcement in the meatpacking industry.
To hear participants tell it, U.S. cattle ranching is in a state of national emergency. Four beef packers control over 80 percent of the domestic beef market. That power, some critics say, allows them to engage in predatory and unfair pricing practices that have driven down the number of independent cattle ranchers at a rate of 17,000 per year—a loss of about 40 percent since the 1980s. Today, just over 700,000 remain, though they make an average of 90 percent of their income off the farm. But even in this context, 2019 has been an especially rough year.
In August, a major Tyson Foods plant in Holcomb, Kansas caught fire, limiting the region’s slaughter capacity, and leaving many ranchers desperate to sell their animals. The incident capped off several years of declining prices and producer losses, and resulting financial woes have provoked a new, somewhat more existential fear: According to Secretary Perdue, the United States Department of Agriculture [USDA] is currently investigating whether the Holcomb fire betrayed any “evidence of price manipulation, collusion, restrictions of competition or other unfair practices.” Then, shortly before the rally began, Perdue, the event’s ostensible savior, became the subject of its ire. On Monday, speaking at a Wisconsin dairy, he suggested that farmers should “get bigger” or “go out,” a remark some of those present construed as a lack of support for family farmers. By the time the “Rally to Stop the Stealin’” started, some groups in attendance were already calling for his firing.
While the ballroom was packed and the rally’s attendance surpassed the expectations of the organizers, the crowd—many dressed in cowboy hats, plaid, and denim—was placid. Attendees watched while leaders of the organizations spoke at length, recounting the intricacies of the alleged market manipulation, abuse of “checkoff program” dollars, and denouncement of Secretary Perdue’s dismissive comments from the previous days, with much mention of an insensitive joke he made about farmers late this summer.
The secretary was addressed directly by OCM board member David Wright. “You need to get out of bed with the folks you are supposed to regulate—the packers—and get back on the side you’re supposed to support,” he said, “or your boss should say those famous words: ‘You’re fired.’” Even that pointed remark failed to elicit a loud response from those gathered. Several speakers tried to rouse the crowd, noting the muted atmosphere of an event convened to “raise hell.” One suggested:
“If you wanna say, ‘yeah,’ or ‘hell yeah . . .’ We’re at a rally, aren’t we?”
Yup. @SecretarySonny can, should, must act TODAY to establish #FairCattleMarkets. If he doesn’t, we have a rally of farm and ranch families here with this message: @realDonaldTrump say those famous words to USDA @SecretarySonny
“YOU’RE FIRED!” https://t.co/F0ec5so9Db
— Competitive Markets (@OCM_tweets) October 2, 2019
Organizers trained farmers to use the hashtag #FairCattleMarkets in an effort to flood the president’s Twitter feed, hoping to communicate with him directly via his platform of choice. Despite anger at Perdue’s comments and the administration in general, the ranchers and feeders present seemed to hold firm on their loyalty to President Trump. “We’re not here to cuss Trump, are we?” asked Corbitt Wall, a cattle market analyst and internet personality. “I’m not or I wouldn’t have showed up.” Wall credited the president for the fact that beef exports have recently risen. “He’s trying to get something done. He can’t do it all,” Wall said. “We’re looking for government intervention here. How sad is that?”
During Wall’s talk, which lasted about 45 minutes, his loyalty to the president came into even sharper relief during a brief digression that included insensitive comments bordering on racist and transphobic. Those few short minutes grabbed more attention than any speech the entire afternoon. Wall likened the logo of Beyond Meat, the alternative protein company, to “a steer head dressed in drag,” and suggested that the people of China need to eat more U.S. beef to grow above shoulder height and “win at the Olympics at something that’s not ping-pong.”
He also insulted a prominent U.S. congresswoman. “That Ocasio-Cortez lady tells says that cow farts are killing the environment, and people listen to her. That’s scary. She’s a buck-toothed bartender, and that’s it,” he said, speaking of the freshman democratic representative from New York’s 14th district. That line got resounding applause from the otherwise reserved, quiet room.
Three staff present from Family Farm Action, an advocacy organization and PAC founded and led by Joe Maxwell, OCM’s Executive Director, unequivocally condemned the language used by Wall, saying they were “caught off guard” by his comments, and that they were “emphatically not what we stand for.” Despite some vague appeals to unity by a handful of speakers, the resulting friction may now preclude constructing a coalition with other groups that share similar political goals. Among those are the environmental advocacy nonprofit Food and Water Watch, a frequent collaborator of OCM’s, and the Ranchers Cattlemen Action Legal Fund-United Stockgrowers Of America (R-CALF), an organization that advocates on behalf of U.S. ranchers, and cites cultural differences as a barrier to deeper coalition-building.
Muraskin discussed the need for a “cowboy-consumer coalition,” one that consists of cattle ranchers and feeders, who generally tend to skew more politically conservative, and consumer rights advocates, who generally identify with the left. “There is, in fact, another base that can be built. It’s going to take time, and it’s a lot of work,” he said, noting that there is broad consensus about “the core problem.”
Anim Steel, founder of Real Food Generation, a nonprofit that seeks to “tackle corporate power and racism in the food system via the multi-billion dollar cafeteria industry,” and who is on the board of Family Farm Action, also said that cultural differences have weakened the movement.
“Our enemy is not another disadvantaged farmer or group,” he wrote, in an email after the rally. “Corporate agribusiness wins when we’re pointing fingers at immigrants or failing to connect the dots between structural racism and corporate profits. It’s going to take more time and relationships to poke through our respective blinders.”
Still, he see seemed to see signs of progress.
“Less than five years ago, a lot of us in the food justice movement, especially those of us doing youth organizing, weren’t even in contact with the activist white ranchers and their allies. Now we are strategizing together and beginning to build power together. Our pressing concerns and even our worldviews can be pretty different, but we’re still coalescing around a comprehensive vision of really deep transformation.”
Mike Callicrate, another of the rally’s speakers—and the subject of this New Food Economy story on the effort to build an alternative cattle empire—agrees, saying that OCM needs to be proud of its alliance. A founding member of OCM, Callicrate said he was disappointed to hear Wall’s “offensive” language. “Cowboys can’t collaborate worth a damn,” he lamented.
Joe Maxwell, OCM’s CEO, told me that a broad coalition is what’s necessary for meaningful change to arise. “We have to figure out how to get [environmental folks and cowboys] to sit in a room and point the finger on the true enemy,” he said, referring to the packer stranglehold on U.S. ranchers. “Until we do that, corporate power will only grow.”
Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food And Water Watch, said that the immediate pain experienced by ranchers can make constructive communication difficult. “It’s hard to have a conversation when people think they’re going to lose their farm next month,” she said.
While President Trump ran on “drain the swamp” rhetoric, there was no question among rally leaders that a new administration accountable to people, rather than power, is the only hope for a marked change in their realities. “To me, you’ve got a choice between industrial agriculture and family farm agriculture,” Callicrate said. “Concentration in power and wealth is the greatest threat to any free society . . . it’s going to take a break ‘em up administration to fix it.”
That vision may ultimately transcend political parties. Maxwell was emphatic that “it won’t be Democrats or Republicans that resolve this,” adding that rural voters elected both Trump and Obama. What the ranchers he represents want is leadership, he said. “I know poultry farmers in Alabama that are excited about Elizabeth Warren.”
It was a point he underscored on stage, in one of the day’s last speeches.
“Many of your U.S. Senators and members of the House are in bed with Big Ag, JBS, and these transnational corporations,” Maxwell said, referring to the world’s largest meatpacker, with U.S. headquarters in Greeley, Colorado. “We are working hard with members of the Senate and the House in unlikely states like New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont, and California,” adding: “You can overcome the money with volume of people.”
Correction 10/7/2019, 3:27 pm: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Family Farm Action is the political action arm of The Organization for Competitive Markets. While the groups share one staff person, and collaborate often, they are independent organizations with separate leadership. We regret the error.
Correction 10/4/2019, 12:30 pm: This story incorrectly listed Food and Water Watch as a sponsor of the rally.