Well before Senator Elizabeth Warren swept onstage in a high school gymnasium in Storm Lake, Iowa, the farmers in attendance had reached peak levels of anticipation. Make no mistake—this wasn’t a Warren campaign rally. Rather, it was the Family Farm Action Rally, where farmers from Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri, North Carolina and beyond spent the day cheering the need to fix a food system, that for decades has been working for fewer and fewer of the people who produce our food.
Waving signs that read, “Farmer’s rights are human rights” and “We have a right to rural opportunity,” the group of more than 150 represented a (relatively) broad cross-section of American food producers. According to the USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture, 87 percent of farmers in this country are men and the average age is 58. But that demographic fails to capture the growing number of young people and the long-standing role of women involved in production agriculture.
The crowd that gathered in the gym included a woman who runs a 350-cow dairy farm in Wisconsin, another whose family operation plants 1,200 acres of corn, soybeans, and alfalfa each year, and a cattleman who raises 150 cows and calves in Northeast Missouri with his son and father. One young couple brought their five-month-old son to the event.
At times, the mood could get a bit heated. Speakers railed against mergers they say drive down the price of the meat and grain they produce and criticized the checkoff and industry groups they said serve corporate interests while professing support for farmers and ranchers. They also advocated for changes in country-of-origin labeling laws, which currently allow beef grown in Brazil to be labeled “Product of USA.”
The rally was scheduled in advance of of a much larger gathering across town at Buena Vista University, where four 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls would gather to discuss their vision for the country at the Heartland Forum.
But before Senator Warren addressed broader issues facing America at the forum, she took the stage at Storm Lake High School and indicted the federal government as complicit in keeping American farmers down.
“Washington is just doing a fabulous job,” Warren said with a wry smile. “It is working just great for giant agribusiness, just not for farmers who work the land.”
Big ag consolidation
At the Heartland Forum, one popular topic from the farmers’ rally was tackled by nearly every candidate: corporate consolidation and antitrust enforcement.
In the last decade, several mega-mergers have concentrated much of the agriculture industry into the hands of just a few corporations. In row crops, farmers witnessed the controversial merger of mega-corporations Bayer Corporation and Monsanto, as well as Dow Chemical and DuPont merging to create DowDupont. In livestock, JBS S.A., a Brazilian beef company, bought poultry producer Pilgrim’s Pride, while Brazilian-owned Marfrig Global Foods S.A. acquired a majority share in National Beef Packing Company.
Both Senator Warren and former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack mentioned that farmers are receiving only $0.15 of every food dollar spent in the U.S., down from $0.37 a generation ago. Warren says this doesn’t add up when compared to the rising profits of big ag companies.
John Delaney, former Maryland congressman and current presidential candidate, said that, if elected, he would “create an antitrust framework that works for this country.” He had released his “Heartland Fair Deal” on March 29, in which he broadly outlined his agriculture policy, including a plan to “redesign antitrust regulations to address concentration of power in the agriculture economy.”
Not all candidates agreed on how they would handle the issue of corporate consolidation. When asked about calls for a moratorium on mergers in the agriculture sector, Amy Klobuchar, U.S. Senator from Minnesota, said she preferred empowering the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice to better enforce existing antitrust laws.
“I would like to look at each merger on its own. You could have a small merger in the agriculture area,” she said. Klobuchar nonetheless agreed it was clear that some recent mergers were hurting farmers. “When you look at some of the mergers that were approved recently, like the DowDupont and the Monsanto proposal, I just think we’re getting to the point where you know you’re not going to be able to get a fair deal, because of less and less competition,” she said.
In an emailed response, Charla Lord, spokesperson for Bayer, countered that the merger with Monsanto offered more choices for farmers, not fewer. “Agriculture is a complex and highly competitive industry, and there are hundreds of companies driving innovation and competing for farmers’ business,” Lord said.
The day’s most forceful statements against big agriculture corporations were issued by Senator Warren.
“You’ve got these giant corporations that are making bigger and bigger profits for themselves, for their executives, for their investors, and they’re putting the squeeze on small family farms,” she said. “They’re doing it on the buy end, they’re doing it on the sell end, they’re doing it through vertical integration. I’ve called for the breakup of these agribusinesses.”
Jim Monroe, senior director of communications for the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), disagreed with the premise that antimerger policy would help U.S. farmers. He said NPPC would prefer candidates look for opportunities to grow international markets for U.S. pork and other commodities.
“The U.S. pork production system is the envy of the world,” Monroe wrote in an email. “It is a highly competitive, free-market system characterized by continuous innovation and opportunity for all who care to invest and assume risk.”
Earlier, at the Family Farm Action Rally, former Iowa House candidate J.D. Scholten said these consolidations are taking wealth from rural America and turning them into ever-growing profits for company executives. He said while his district is the second largest producer of agricultural products in the country, food insecurity is at an all-time high.
“Especially in the rural communities, free and reduced lunches are skyrocketing,” he said. “Farmers aren’t making a profit. The people who are making a profit aren’t local.”
Wes Shoemyer, a cattle farmer, former Democratic state senator of Missouri, and current advisor for rural advocacy group Family Farm Action, referred to it as a “hollowing out of rural communities.” And he said it’s not just the agribusinesses that are controlling the narrative and keeping farmers from making a profit. He blames industry groups like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and commodity checkoff programs that he says further the mission of agribusiness in Washington D.C., while claiming to represent farmers.
Shoemyer and others in attendance weren’t happy that farmers are forced to pay into the industry groups as part of commodity checkoff programs. “The big packers are on their boards and they’re not fighting for us family farmers and us cattlemen. They’re fighting for the packers,” said Shoemyer.
Senator Warren recently proposed to make farmer and rancher contribution to checkoff programs voluntary. In response, Colin Woodall, senior vice president of government affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), said the decision shouldn’t be in the hands of the President.
“That’s a decision that we believe that the producers need to make. This is the producers’ program—it belongs to them,” Woodall said, “not Senator Warren.”
But Greg Gunthorp, a fourth-generation farmer from LaGrange, Indiana, and a member of the Indiana Farmers Union, said he doesn’t feel like these organizations represent his needs.
“I think a farm organization that doesn’t put the wants, needs, and desires of workers first, is failing in some way. I think 100 percent of the time, the checkoffs, the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, the [National] Pork Producers [Council]—those guys don’t have pig farmers’ best interests at heart,” said Gunthorp.
While the outsized influence of corporate agriculture dominated the conversation in Storm Lake, candidates also touched on other issues affecting farmers. Senator Klobuchar and Julian Castro, former U. S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, both addressed the need for increased environmental regulation. “I would appoint people to the EPA who actually believe in environmental protection. They’ve reduced the budget of the EPA,” said Castro.
Klobuchar was quick to point out that climate change has a greater impact on farmers than “burdensome” regulations do.
“I think farmers are good stewards. But what we have seen in this country is a change in our climate,” said Klobuchar. “We’ve seen it in the floods, we’ve seen it in the wildfires. I actually think it’s important to have a candidate from the Midwest who’s able to talk about these Midwestern issues, as well as what’s going on on the coasts.”
Some farmers wanted more. Denise O’Brien, an organic fruit and vegetable farmer from southwest Iowa, said she wished the candidates had focused more on environmental issues pertinent to rural agriculture.
“I don’t think there was enough talked about soil and climate change,” O’Brien said. Instead of blaming farmers for the lack of environmental stewardship, she faulted a system that encourages lax regulations on big agriculture companies. “It’s not the farmers’ fault, it’s the policy in this country.”
Candidates also touched on the need for better healthcare services for rural Americans to protect them from hospital closures, and more mental health services to address the uptick in farmer suicides. Several also mentioned the need for free two-year college and student debt relief, citing crippling debt as a reason many young people leave rural communities in search of better wages in metropolitan areas.
What comes next?
The advocates who organized the Family Farm Action rally realize there is much work to be done to bring the issues plaguing agrarian America to the forefront of the national conversation. As the audience milled about after the Heartland Forum, a group of Wisconsin producers agreed the conversation had to continue, for both farmers and consumers.
“Farmers have a divided opinion on this stuff. I think we educate people by talking. By having dinner, by having coffee,” said Kriss Marion, a county board supervisor and owner of Circle M Market Farm in Blanchardville, Wisconsin.
Pig farmer Gunthorp said it can’t just be a movement made up of farmers. “It’s going to require an awful lot of work, and grassroots efforts. I firmly 100 percent believe that American people and rural America are behind our efforts,” he said.
Shoemyer said farmers are so busy and focused on actually farming, they don’t realize there might be a better way of doing things.
“Farmers have been taught and conditioned that there is nothing you can do about it. There is something we can do about it,” he said. He pointed to an old saying.
“You’re going to have to go raise more hell, and less corn,” he said.
Just outside of Storm Lake, the same morning that farmers were rallying and Presidential candidates were laying out visions for America, a handful of farmers occupied a few tables in the corner of Sparky’s One Stop—a gas station, breakfast stop and catchall store that is common along Iowa’s highways.
Over coffee and breakfast, the farmers talked about how environmental regulations on water and chemical runoff were an unfair attack on farmers. They voiced skepticism of politicians already vying for their votes, nearly a year before the Iowa caucuses.
The farmers were skeptical, but they were also willing to talk to a reporter— even if off-the-record. Their views hewed closer to Republican (and Farm Bureau) agricultural talking points. The farmers I interviewed at the farmer’s rally and the forum may have been a more progressive, self-selecting bunch.
Gunthorp, for instance, said he thinks the long-term stress of low prices has farmers more open to new ideas.
“If I’m talking to farmers one-on-one, they know this whole system is wrong,” he said. “But I think a lot of them have a feeling of frustration and hopelessness because we’ve never really gotten a lot of meaningful help from the government, and most think we never will. And saying support, I don’t mean financial support, I mean policies that put rural America and farmers first.”
The plight of rural America and the agricultural economy has caught the attention of national politics for the moment. But it is a long way to go until November 2020, and the question is whether or not farmers can continue to drive the conversation.