Trump’s USDA revoked protections for contract farmers. A new lawsuit says: Not so fast.
On Wednesday, the Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM), a Nebraska-based think tank that focuses on agriculture and trust policy, announced it had filed a lawsuit to reinstate the Farmer Fair Practices rules. Also known as the GIPSA rules, they were withdrawn by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in October before they ever went into effect. The move was celebrated by big meat industry players, who said they feared the rules would lead to more lawsuits. It also sparked widespread outcry from advocacy groups, who said they had hoped the Trump administration would protect independent farmers from corporate interests. OCM is being represented by Democracy Forward, a foundation that uses litigation to challenge the Executive Branch.
OCM’s complaint challenges USDA’s decision, claiming in the lawsuit that the agency “re-stacked the deck for multinational meat packing corporations at the expense of independent farmers.”
The lawsuit makes three arguments against the agency’s reversal: First, it says the agency misinterpreted the legal precedent set by four circuit courts on farmers’ rights to sue meat companies. Second, it disputes USDA’s claim that the public didn’t get enough chances to comment on the rules—in fact, it says, they were published following a 61,000-comment process and drew almost 2,000 more comments after they were published.
The lawsuit’s third argument is the easiest to understand: “USDA entirely failed to account for the fact that parts of those rules were statutorily mandated by the 2008 Farm Bill.” By withdrawing the rules, the agency essentially said, “eh, not going to happen.”
The lawsuit is a “petition for review,” meaning its purpose is to prompt the court—in this case the U.S. Court of Appeals in the Eighth Circuit—to look at USDA’s decision and decide whether or not the agency followed the rules.
As I reported last month, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue recently eliminated GIPSA as a standalone agency. It will now be housed under the Agricultural Marketing Service. Advocates worry that nesting it under a marketing agency, rather than a regulatory agency, will further weaken the entity’s support for small and independent farmers.