JULY/AUGUST 2000 VOLUME 21 NUMBER 7 & 8


CORPORATE PIGS AND OTHER TALES OF AGRIBUSINESS

 
Taking on Corporate Pork
An Interview with Bryce Oates
 

Bryce Oates is the director of communications for the Missouri Rural Crisis Center in Columbia, Missouri, an organizational member of the Campaign for Family Farms.

Multinational Monitor: What is the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC)?
Bryce Oates:
NPPC is a commodity group that is supposed to speak for pork producers in the United States. They are based in Des Moines, Iowa, and have affiliates in more than 40 states. In Missouri we have the Missouri State Pork Producers Association (MSPPA). MSPPA says they have about a thousand members. The bulk of the membership of these state affiliates and therefore NPPC are not farmers but people who sell goods such as feed, antibiotics and growth hormones to farmers.

MM: How is NPPC funded?
Oates:
NPPC is funded largely through what is called the pork check-off, which is a tax collected by the National Pork Board on every hog sold in the country. Every time a farmer sells a hog, there's a tax on it. If you sell $1000, you are supposed to then send a check for $4.50 to the National Pork Board, which divvies up the money to the NPPC, state affiliates and anyone else who has a contract with them.

The National Pork Board is supposed to promote pork. It gives the vast majority of their contracts to the NPPC and state affiliates. The National Pork Board is a quasi-governmental task force appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture. Their whole purpose is to collect the check-off money and decide where it goes.

The Pork Board has been controlled by corporate interests for a long time. Some family farmers are still trying to get on the Pork Board, but that hasn't been a very successful strategy, so we decided that the best thing was to go after the NPPC's funding. NPPC also gets membership dues and corporate donations, but the check-off money is about 75 percent of their budget.

MM: What does the NPPC use the money for?
Oates:
The pork check-off was voted into existence in 1986. Since that time, NPPC has pushed the interests of corporate pork. They've pushed neo-liberal, free trade policies in Washington, D.C. in the name of family farmers, when in fact the policies they support have been part of what's driving family farmers out of business.

NPPC supports deregulating corporate factory farms, including by cutting back the requirements of the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. These laws can benefit small family farmers because family farmers for the most part are not operating large, confined animal feeding operations.

NPPC also supported the Freedom to Farm Act, which has hurt family farmers in a number of ways. They were part of the major coalition that wrote the bill and then pushed it through Congress. That farm bill has been disastrous for the rural economy. It mostly deals with grain. But as the saying goes, "cheap grain has a long tail:" cheap grain leads to cheap livestock prices paid to family farmers.

A year and a half after that bill was put into place, the price of hogs paid to farmers was 8 cents per pound, the lowest price ever.

Al Tank, the CEO of NPPC, said that producers should use that opportunity to seize market share and expand. Eight cents a pound is not much of an opportunity for family farmers, because it costs farmers between 40 and 43 cents a pound to produce hogs.

But vertically integrated corporations are immune to the market price. They bought up hogs from the farmers who went out of business.

We had a long price drought after that as well. In 1998 and 1999, the two-year average was about 28 cents, which is still below the cost of production.

According to the last USDA count, there are about 95,000 hog farmers in the United States. That's down from nearly 375,000 hog farmers in 1987.

MM: How active is NPPC on trade issues?
Oates:
They supported NAFTA, the creation of the WTO and just about every position of the U.S. Trade Representative on agriculture. They also participate in many of the corporate free trade alliances related to agriculture.

NPPC also supported PNTR for China. This was supposed to benefit American hog farmers by opening China to American pork. But we're not convinced that will happen. China is exporting pork right now. We're a much higher cost producer than China and Chinese pork is cheaper.

MM: What is the check-off campaign?
Oates:
This is a campaign organized by hog farmers who object to NPPC's promotion of corporate control of the food industry while claiming to speak in the best interest of family farmers in the U.S. Hog farmers organized a petition drive, gathering more than 19,000 hog farmer signatures -- well over the 15 percent required to call for a vote to repeal the check-off. We turned them in to the USDA and spent more than a year attempting to force them to have this vote. USDA Secretary Dan Glickman has said the vote will be held September 19, 20 and 21. Now we're organizing with hog farmers across the country to win the vote.

Even though the vote hasn't yet happened, NPPC has already become more tight-lipped. Now that it's coming up for a vote, they have been getting more money from the biggest pork producing corporations in the United States -- including Smithfield, Premium Standard Farms, Continental Grain and Seaboard. The check-off money is supposed to be used only to promote pork and not to support the check-off program itself. So the corporations are organizing a $4 million "grassroots" campaign against us. They're working through the state affiliates to get hog producers to vote for them.

MM: How are the remaining smaller farmers still surviving?
Oates:
There are some innovative projects helping farmers get a fair price for sustainably raised pork. For instance, Patchwork Family Farms in Missouri is a coalition of 12 independent family hog farmers that raise their hogs the old-fashioned way on pasture and with fresh air and sunshine. They're paid no less than 43 cents per pound through direct marketing and cooperative efforts. If the market price goes above 43 cents a pound, they are paid 15 percent above that. This is one way that farmers can do direct marketing and try to rebuild the system for themselves and consumers.

Since the check-off has been in place, the hog farmer share of the retail dollar has dropped from 46 cents to 20 cents. Seventy-five percent of the hog farmers have gone out of business, and we've had concentration in the industry. So it hasn't been a very good deal for hog farmers.

MM: Are there any laws that could reverse this trend?
Oates:
It used to be illegal for the same corporations who processed livestock to own and raise livestock. There's been legislation in the last couple of sessions to try to make it illegal for pork packers and beef packers to own the livestock that they slaughter. In states like Iowa and South Dakota, those laws exist. They don't exist in Missouri or at the national level.

A lot of the midwestern states have laws that restrict corporations from owning land, so they can't produce livestock. But there are a lot of ways they can get around that, such as contract farming. If we had a national policy, it would go a long way towards ensuring that farmers got a fair price for what they produced.

MM: How has NPPC reacted to efforts to organize this kind of legislation?
Oates:
Large-scale corporate factory farms started to come into existence in the early 1990s in the Midwest. Groups like ours started to organize the communities targeted by these multinationals. In 1995, we had a large rally in northern Missouri with Willie Nelson and others. It was called the Lincoln Township Rally. Farmers from all around the country, as well as anti-corporate activists and environmentalists, came together to speak out against Premium Standard Farms and corporate control of the food supply.  

After that, the Campaign For Family Farms and the Environment came together, which is a coalition of family farmers that ran the pork check-off campaign.

Seeing that they were facing strong opposition from family farmers, NPPC started an investigation of the groups involved in the rally and with the campaign for family farms. That included the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, the Land Stewardship Project for Minnesota, the Animal Welfare Institute, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and the Illinois Stewardship Alliance.

NPPC used check-off money to investigate these groups. Hog farmers were outraged, because they were attempting to paint groups like ours as unreasonable environmentalists who were militant vegetarians. This was a complete joke. We are a family farm organization, and most of our members raise livestock on their farms.

We were outraged when we found out what was going on. They were using check-off money to distribute information to the agricultural press and the media at large to discredit us.

Once we found out what was going on, we took it to the Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS), which administers the check-off campaign for the USDA, and AMS acted quickly to say that it was a misuse of check-off funds. So that money had to be refunded to the check-off and the family farmers that pay it.