The elephant in the room destroying family farms, rural communities and our democracy
I love farming and have done it all my life, but I told my kids not to go back to farming because there is no future in it. It’s the sad truth.
Over the past year on Capitol Hill there have been several hearings and bills and even an executive order to settle what is happening here in rural America, but little or nothing is being done. Over the past three decades, about 40 U.S. family cattle farms have gone out of business every day. It’s time to end the talks and the campaigns and fix the problem.
I am 66 years old and a 4th generation cattle and grain rancher from southwestern Missouri. Although it can be hard and dangerous work at times, I have always enjoyed raising livestock and crops and making the land better for the next generation – and better for my children and grandchildren to return to. .
But, things have changed, and not for the better. They do not change due to inevitability or technological efficiency. There is a very big “elephant in the room” that makes the situation worse for all of us.
The prevailing agricultural system in which I currently work has been intentionally set against me and current and future generations of farmers. Today’s corporate-controlled system is bad for farmers, bad for consumers, bad for rural and urban communities and economies, bad for our environment and climate, and bad for democracy.
We are in this position because the rules (laws, policies and regulations) were written, and lobbied and paid for by special corporate interests. We are in this position because of bad corporate written Farm Bills and bad trade deals (the main drivers of our agriculture and food system).
We are here because many of our elected “representatives” do not truly represent us, their constituents, or the vast majority of Americans. We are here because we have a democratic process controlled by this “elephant in the room” – billion dollar multinational corporations.
They plan and implement our disappearance. It’s their business model. Without competition, they can push everyone out of the market, then they win and take all the wealth (and land).
Some of the results: In 30 years, the United States has 25% fewer cattle farmers and Missouri, 27% fewer. In 30 years, almost 90% of American pig farmers have been put out of business. And the average age of a farmer is approaching 60.
We import billions of pounds of beef from around the world, and consumers are paying record prices, while cattle producers are struggling. In 2021, the United States imported 3.35 billion pounds (with a “b”) of beef and 1.8 million live cattle.
Here are some glaring results of commercial agriculture’s stranglehold on farmers, consumers, our food system, our economies and our democratic process: In 2021, the net sales of JBS (a Brazilian company and the largest packer of meat in the world) was $71 billion and its U.S. beef division had net revenues of $27.18 billion; Tyson posted net income of $3.05 billion, up $1 billion from 2020; Cargill posted its biggest profit in its 156-year history, nearly $5 billion; WH Group, the Chinese company that owns Smithfield Foods, reported revenue of $27.29 billion, up 6.7%.
The fact is that in these difficult and unprecedented times, the few corporations that control our food system are raking in record profits. Consumers are paying record prices, inflation is raging, family farmers are struggling to stay in business, and our economies (urban and rural) are becoming increasingly impoverished.
What can we do? We must demand that our elected representatives and our democracy represent us and not corporate vested interests.
Within our food system, we must demand laws that: decentralize control of our food, limit the excessive economic and political power of multinational agribusinesses that seek to replace independent family farms with factory farms, strengthen and enforce antitrust laws, prevent public taxpayer dollars from financing factory farms, restore supply management programs, grain reserves and cost-of-production price floors, and prohibit the possession of livestock by meat packers and their use of “captive supplies”.
A food system controlled by us, farmers and consumers, would not put corporate profits ahead of people, the environment and our national security. We would be able to react and help when the going gets tough, instead of seeing pandemics and war as opportunities for corporations to get rich.
We can and must do better — for farmers, rural communities, consumers and our country.
Darvin Bentlage is a fourth-generation cattle and grain farmer from Barton County, Missouri, and a regular contributor to the Missouri Independent, which first published this essay.