Organic Consumers Association

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For Once, Developments in Washington Could Make Things Better on the Farm

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's USDA Watch page.

I write on Grist about my small farm, but my day job is different. I'm an organizer for the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs (CFRA). One of the things we do at CFRA is try to tweak federal farm policies in ways that help rural farm communities thrive. And this past week, I've been thinking a lot about developments in Washington that affect both new farmers and rural communities in general.

Recently, White House phone lines have been ringing off the hook as thousands of consumers responded to a coordinated action alert by farm groups, calling to express their support for the Fair Livestock Competition rule. Also known as the "proposed GIPSA rule" [PDF], the goal is to create active competition in the livestock marketplace, so that meat processors can't unfairly manipulate prices. The USDA has written a fairly strong rule, and industry pressure has caused delays in the roll out of the new rule.

Meanwhile, President Obama released his budget this week, which included farm payment cuts to wealthy farmers and land owners, saving an estimated $2.5 billion dollars over 10 years. The idea to bar people over a certain income from receiving any farm payments caught hold in the last farm bill debate. This new proposal would cut off farm payments to individuals making more than $500,000 instead of $750,000 in on-farm income, and limit off-farm income to $250,000 instead of $500,000.

Let's examine the Fair Livestock Competition rule first. In the not-so-distant past, meatpackers and processors had to compete with each other to buy livestock. Sale barns dotted the countryside, and a farmer or rancher could often call a handful of nearby processors to see who would give him the best price on that day. Beginning farmers and ranchers could make a decent living with livestock when markets were competitive. Now, because of the consolidation of the meatpacking industry, most independent farmers have only once place they can sell, and the meatpackers control the price they pay.

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