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Farmers gearing up to take on big business

A farmer-driven, anti-corporate campaign to counter consolidation among suppliers is up and running, and sure to gain consumers’ support if it’s connected to keeping food costs in check.

The movement, called Fairness for Farmers, has been launched in the U.S. by the National Farmers Union. It’s the second largest farm organization there, claiming it advocates for 200,000 American farm families and their communities.

Consolidation is not solely a U.S. phenomenon. The sentiment behind Fairness for Farmers is percolating on both sides of the border, and likely abroad, in agricultural economies where consolidation has taken place.

Many Canadian farmers feel costs for inputs such as seed, crop protection products and fertilizer have risen unfairly because of consolidation, and they too want something done about it.

The question is: what?

In the U.S., the group is siding up with anti-trust advocates to advance its cause. It thinks President Joe Biden’s Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the Marketplace signals a commitment from his administration to restore fairness to the economy.

Indeed, Biden’s talked the talk about this issue. He’s said that when big agriculture operations consolidate, “they put a squeeze on small and family farms, making them pay more for seed and paying them less for what they produce… and raising prices on what you pay for your groceries.”
Collectively, the movement wants to build national coalitions to support lawmakers and regulators who sympathize with its cause and strengthen pro-competition laws and regulations. It calls the American food system “broken” and claims that it allows monopolies “to cheat farmers and ranchers.”

They also say consolidated ownership of grocery chains results in consumers paying higher prices at the till, which is where this movement might get public support.

NFU president Rob Larew is gearing up for a fight.

“The giants who dominate our food and agriculture industry are not going to be toppled without a struggle,” he says, “but Farmers Union members… are not afraid of a fight and are ready to stand up for fairness.”

Their main beef is with companies that are vertically integrated, those that have their fingers in all aspects of the supply chain. They point to the U.S. chicken industry as the “most egregious example.” As the Fairness for Farmers group explains, large-scale chicken producers who want to deal with some major buyers must sign a contract with an associated company that provides the birds, feed, medication and processing. They claim such companies suppress wages, force expensive upgrades, and even sabotage farmers by providing poorer quality inputs.

Canada’s supply management system, which helps guarantee a fair price to producers, isn’t as vulnerable. But from a consolidation perspective, there’s no question the number of buyers are limited.  

Farm equipment manufacturers are feeling the heat from farmers, too, who are kicking back in the U.S. and in Canada over companies’ approaches to repairs. Some companies require farmers to have key repairs done through their dealership networks, which the Fairness for Farmers groups says results in lengthy repair delays and inflated repair costs.

Major manufacturers are well aware of farmers’ uneasiness over consolidation. This campaign will likely result in them spending more resources on explaining their value to farmers, and to farming overall. Where are they spending their profits? Some of them are extremely benevolent, sometimes obviously, sometimes not.

Finally, a key question is what’s the alternative? Can small business provide the same services as big business? It’s unfair to paint all companies involved in consolidation the same. But in the current climate of surly moods and heightened anger, this movement could have a better chance than ever of gaining steam.

A little more local for your inbox.

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