The annual meeting of the Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM) opened with a prayer this week, with Brother David Andrews asking for divine guidance including 'open and transparent markets' for farmers everywhere.
Many in agriculture believe prayer is about the best chance for seeing those wishes come true.
The OCM is a public policy research organization focused on food and agriculture headquartered in Lincoln, Neb. Its mission is simple: fight against anti-competitive, anti-transparent policies. In agriculture, that means they're fighting uphill on about five different fronts, so the odds are pretty tough. From fertilizer cartels to meatpackers to biotech seed companies, rapid consolidation has taken a lot of choice out of farming in the past 20 years.
"When fewer and fewer individuals make more of the decisions, the result is anti-competition, which is inefficient and harmful to society as a whole," says Fred Stokes, OCM executive director. "This is fundamental to the mission of OCM. We believe that concentration conveys market power to those who merge and to the concentrated entities, and invariably that market power is abused to our detriment."
The sparse crowd – there are more empty chairs than full ones here in the Ballroom of the Doubletree in downtown Omaha – suggest few farmers have much faith that OCM can make a difference. Yet, I for one would not want to count them out.
There's a passion here – perhaps it is divine intervention – that you don't see at every farm meeting. OCM may be small and relatively new to the farm organization scene, but it is brimming with people determined to have their voices heard. Between taking shots at corporate greed and calls to protect the farm and ranch way of life, speakers like Auburn economist Bob Taylor and Iowa State Ag economist Neil Harl drove home compelling cases why rules for fertilizer, seed and meatpacking must be reformed.
From my first impression you don't just join OCM; you're baptized into the movement. And they want more farmers to join their populist mission.
"I'm getting weary talking to people who say we like what you're doing, but I don't want my name involved," says Stokes. "People who have a dog in the fight have to come up and get involved."
Changing direction? It's no secret that the Bush administration did nothing to push back against merger and consolidation trends during its tenure. But President Obama, to his credit, has reversed that tide in many sectors, including agriculture. That was made clear when USDA and the Department of Justice – for the first time ever - began holding workshops on anti-competitive Ag practices earlier this year. Another workshop is set for Ft. Collins, Colo., in a few weeks, with the spotlight on the livestock industry.
If OCM needed another sign their prayers were being heard they got it a few weeks ago when USDA announced it wanted to reform rules for the meatpacking industry, which OCM's Stokes believes are "rigged." USDA came out with a proposal to tighten Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Act (GIPSA) regulations, in effect putting more power in the hands of growers contracting with big livestock integrators.
This instantly got the attention of the powerful American Meat Institute, a lobbying arm for the meatpacking industry. The GIPSA proposal also set off alarms from 'farm' groups – the National Pork Producers Council and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, to name two. NCBA and retailers like Tyson warned the new rules would hurt progressive farmers and reward inefficient ones.
GIPSA put out a fact sheet to assure otherwise, but the groups managed to get a 90-day extension on the comment period, ample time for any lobbying group to put their full influence to work on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile groups like R-CALF USA (Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America) and National Farmers Union support the reforms.
"The packers have had a license to rape and pillage for some time now, and this change in the packers and stockyards act may change that," says Stokes. "We believe we're at that crucial moment in history when we have an opportunity to make a difference, and I pray this wont be bogged down in politics."
In Ft. Collins, OCM will find itself in a position to not just preach to the choir but lead the chorus of voices calling for more transparent markets.
It will take more than prayer to bust up Big Ag, but you gotta love a group with this much faith.