Improving the Picture for Independent Farmers
Over the past 50 years, animal agriculture has been transformed.
The industry has undergone dramatic consolidation—and now most farmers and ranchers struggle to compete in a system controlled by large corporations. As a result, these farmers are often unable to make independent decisions on a number of issues, including when they want to raise animals in more environmentally sustainable ways or under more humane conditions.
Click on the images below to read stories from farmers and ranchers across the U.S. who are fighting to reform the current industrial animal agriculture system.
Mabel Dobbs grew up in rural Oklahoma and worked in commercial banking before she moved to Idaho with her rancher husband. She began advocating for fair cattle prices many years ago and today is urging the Obama administration to finalize promised regulations to control unfair practices by meat packers. “Today, I am in this fight as a grandmother, still wanting fair prices so my twin granddaughters can hopefully continue to ranch.” Listen to Dobbs and other farmers at a news conference supporting the GIPSA rule.
J. Craig Watts (father of two young children) has been raising chickens in North Carolina long enough to see more than one poultry processing facility abruptly close, affecting the lives and livelihoods of friends and neighbors. In this business, Watts says, “short-term contracts and minimal compensation are exchanged for long-term debt, lack of independence, and a close check on ingenuity.” In an appeal to his state's U.S. senators, Watts says, “We need the GIPSA rule yesterday.”
Garry Staples (left), an Alabama poultry grower, appealed to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (third from right) for new farmer protections. Like others, Staples expressed fear of retaliation by poultry companies. In 2006, USDA reported that fear of retaliation was a recurring concern among growers and said that regulations would be revised to provide more transparency in contract deliberations. Some growers worry that public support of proposed new rules will result in contract cancellations. Watch a video of testimony before USDA.
Steve and Marie Diebele raise Berkshire pigs, cattle, and horses near the Sheboygan River in Wisconsin. They use rotational grazing and operate on a modest scale to help protect the environment in their rural community. The Diebeles know that small and midsize farms face increasing pressure, and they have joined with other farmers in their state to support adoption of proposed GIPSA rules that could help level the playing field for family farmers. “Farmers need this rule now,” reads a September letter to Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.).
Third-generation farmer Kay Doby, like other chicken growers, took on major debt to get into the business. One year into her 10-year contract, the processor insisted on a new agreement—with no guarantees for placement of chickens. When the North Carolina grower resisted demands for additional, expensive upgrades without long-term commitments, her processor dropped her. Few poultry growers have the chance to consider contract offers from multiple companies. Doby has appealed to Congress and the administration for new rules to bring fairness to poultry contracting. Watch a video of her testimony.
Judy McCullough traveled from Wyoming to Washington to talk about why USDA should finalize rules to end behind-the-scenes, secret deals by packers that affect the prices earned by independent cattle producers. McCullough, who runs 400 cow-calf pairs, argues that the current system hurts individual producers and rural communities. “This isn't competition. It is manipulation,” she says.
Jonathan Buttram, president of the Alabama Contract Poultry Growers Association, (pictured with son Zack) runs a large operation, but even he has felt pressure from the poultry processors: Delivery of chickens was delayed after he raised complaints with his processor. The association he heads has been vocal in support of new rules that would allow USDA to enforce provisions of the Packers and Stockyards Act that prohibit unfair, discriminatory, and deceptive practices in the industry.
Gilles Stockton has a long history of raising cattle and advocating for more competition in the livestock markets. The Montana rancher who took over the family operation in 1975 argues for a diverse food system that allows small farms to compete on equal footing with their larger counterparts. He's worried about the future and pressing for the new USDA rules: “I don't see how anyone can look at what happened to the poultry producers and independent hog producers and not wonder how long independent cattle ranchers can last.”