A year or so ago, I decided to experience firsthand the difference between the local, regional, self-sufficient food system, and the industrial, commodity, corporate one. We had a set of cows that needed to be moved on from the farm. A few we would butcher, but a few we would sell.
I decided to take two of them to the local auction house, to see firsthand what my neighbors’ farm lives were like. This was partly motivated by my growing friendship with a number of multigenerational farmers in our area. Many had been on their lands longer than my family had been in America, beef farming from father to son for six or more generations. A few cow escapes make good neighbors, and seeing our cows—their good health, lack of pesticide ear tags, and the like—was enough to spark some curiosity from this seasoned crew. It also created some invitations to join in to some of the local farming life, and few things define the older generation of beef farmers in our area like the sale barn.
Just two generations ago, farmers had many options for how and where to sell their cattle. Direct to consumer, custom, multiple stockyards and more were all on the table. But today, in our little rural land, my neighbors have just one: the local sale barn. So I found myself one Saturday sitting up in the stands watching sets of cows move through, as the auctioneer babbled and the old folk grumbled. This was back during the high cattle prices of a year or so ago, but even then, my neighbors were not seeing much bounty from this boon.
Only one buyer was in attendance. It was a curious thing—how does an auction work with one buyer and fifty sellers, instead of a few sellers and fifty buyers?
As I sat all morning, asking questions of my elders, it was enlightening and infuriating. I heard, in true country fashion, a story of misfortune and woe. As the beef industry consolidated, not only were stockyards and similar operations lost, along with local butchering and sales options, but the commodity system, which promised farmers competitive, fair prices for their farming, collapsed on itself, cutting them out once it realized that they had no real choice anymore what they were paid and who paid them. The farmers, cut off by crashing prices and crushing regulations, had little chance to protect themselves. Many of the organizations that historically had worked or claimed to work to benefit family farms sold them under the buses that they themselves had special reserved seating on, or worse, were now driving to the farmers’ demise.
So years ago, multiple buyers would show up to bid against each other for cows, and the farmers would at least stand a chance at a fair price. But now, the buyers and companies have it all worked out. They don’t compete against each other any longer. One buyer goes to each sales barn and stockyard. One buyer gets to bid on all the cows. It is a great deal for the companies. Not so much for our rural economies or farmers. You can either take x cents per pound for your animal, or you can load them back up, after having lost an entire day already, take them home, only to bring them back a few weeks later to be bid on by the same buyer.
This sorry state of affairs is the end result of government regulation, especially the Wholesome Meat Act of 1967. Instead of bringing us safer food and strong farms, it has robbed us of both, and robbed two generations of American farmers of their communities, economic viability, and dignity. How big is the robbery? At a Slow Food conference a year or so back, a speaker talked about the cow to truck ratio. Back in the early 70s or so, it took just seven cull cows to purchase a brand new truck. Today? Thirty, forty, or more. Farmers have faced fifty years of significantly increasing costs coupled with rapidly dropping prices for their wares. They can only take so much; indeed, in states like Kentucky, some parts of the agricultural sector have seen farm losses and closures of over 90%. Think about that: nine out of every ten of a type of farm closed over the past few decades, economically choked into nonexistence, with no options to sell otherwise.
It is long overdue that we give these farmers back their freedom. It is time for the PRIME Act, for the repeal of the Interstate Ban on Raw Milk, and similar measures to secure our nation’s food security, our farmers’ economic viability, and our personal food freedom.
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