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While Meatpacking Companies Reap Big Profits, Cattle Ranchers Struggle

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Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

Grocery store beef prices are rising. The rancher’s share is falling. And the companies that dominate the highly-concentrated meatpacking industry are making a killing.

Shad Sullivan has stopped paying for cable TV, yearly vacations and trips to movie theaters. He’s contemplated ending his health insurance, even though he needs it for his chronic bone marrow cancer.

A rancher in Olney, Texas, Sullivan, 47, has cut costs as producers like him have felt squeezed by the beef market. While consumers pay high beef prices at the grocery store, very little has trickled down to ranchers?—?in fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the gap between the retail price for beef and the price producers receive is the largest it’s ever been.

In interviews, eight ranchers in seven states agreed their profits have stagnated or even decreased, while the meatpacking companies?—?which buy the animals for slaughter, then package the meat to be sold at grocery stores?—?have benefited.


“We have to choose now. It’s either us or it’s a whole new system.” – Rancher Shad Sullivan

Iowa rancher Eric Nelson said he’s heard people say he’s probably experiencing a windfall based on grocery store prices.

“I tell them, ?‘No, we’re not getting any of it,’” the 59-year-old said. ?“We’re getting less and the consumers are having to pay more.”

Most ranchers agreed the culprit is market concentration. Four companies?—?Brazil-based JBS, Tyson Foods, Cargill and National Beef?—?slaughtered about 85% of the cattle in the U.S. in 2018, according to the most recent USDA data. Another school of thought placed the blame on limited capacity?—?not having enough slaughter plants to process all the beef produced.

Either way, since 2017, the price consumers have paid for beef and veal has increased each year. In 2020, the cost increased by about 10% from 2019, the sixth highest year-to-year increase in four decades.

In turn, the companies’ profits have skyrocketed. From 2010 to 2020, both Tyson and JBS saw an increase in revenue from their cattle operations, 34% and 66% respectively, according to the companies’ annual reports.

But, at the same time, the farmers’ cut has decreased. Between 2010 and 2020, the farmers’ share?—?beef’s value to the rancher divided by its retail value?—?decreased by about 9%.

JBS, Cargill and National Beef did not reply to a request for comment. A Tyson Foods spokesperson said to contact the North American Meat Institute, the industry’s lobbying arm. The institute declined to comment and pointed to its testimony from a June 23 U.S. Senate hearing.

“The members of the Meat Institute – and their livestock suppliers – benefit from, and depend on, a fair, transparent and competitive market,” the testimony reads.

The situation has drawn the attention of President Biden, Congress and organizations alike.

Biden signed an executive order July 9 to promote competition in the economy, and one section addressed consolidation in agriculture, specifically in the beef market. The order directs the USDA to consider new rules under the Packers and Stockyards Act that would make it easier for farmers to win claims.

The same day the executive order was signed, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the USDA would spend half a billion dollars to encourage building more meatpacking plants closer to producers, according to the Associated Press.

Bill Bullard, CEO of the organization R?CALF USA, said he is hopeful the developments will eventually alleviate pressures on farmers and ranchers, but he is doubtful that anything will change dramatically in the next year.

“We’ve been trying to get the administrations to do this for two decades,” he said. ?“It’s a very positive step, but it’s only one of many steps that need to be taken.”

Sullivan agreed.

“(Issues from concentration) did not come about overnight,” he said, ?“and they’re not going to be fixed overnight.”

One bill introduced in the U.S. Senate would create a unit within the USDA that would investigate anticompetitive practices, and another one would require at least 50% of a meatpacker’s weekly volume be purchased on the open market. Meatpackers having to negotiate prices each week is expected to increase competitive bidding prices – instead of the commonly used formula contracts, which are sometimes made months in advance to ensure supply to the packer and leave the price unknown to the producer.

“Too many people think food comes from supermarkets,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R?Iowa, the bills’ cosponsor. ?“They don’t realize it comes from farms.”

The situation has also spurred lawsuits. R?CALF USA?—?which only represents ranchers, unlike the more well-known National Cattlemen’s Beef Association whose membership also includes meatpacking companies?—?sued the four companies in 2019. The case is ongoing, and the National Farmers Union has joined as a plaintiff. (The NCBA did not respond to a request for comment.)

Without large-scale changes, Bullard said, cattle production is at risk of becoming vertically integrated like the poultry and hog industries, meaning companies control the supply chain.

For instance, while poultry producers are technically independent farmers, meatpacking companies provide the chicks and feed. Everything else, such as maintaining the chicken houses, is the producers’ financial responsibility. The arrangement often leads to financial burden, even bankruptcy, according to previous Investigate Midwest reporting.

(Biden’s executive order includes language about ?“stopping processors from exploiting and underpaying chicken farmers.”)

Bullard worries what the ramifications of the same arrangement in the cattle industry would mean for ranchers.

“As an organization,” he said, ?“we are fighting aggressively for congressional and administration and judicial reforms that will block the multinational meatpackers from capturing control of our industry away from independent producers.”

‘A very defeating feeling’

On the ranchers’ side, fewer companies bidding for their beef means a smaller sale. With few choices, ranchers often have to settle with the price they’re offered.

Mackenzie Johnston, 32, a fifth-generation cattle producer near Brewster, Nebraska, said she thinks the industry is spiraling out of control.

“It’s just the mere fact that the little guy can’t make it because of the way the markets are,” she said.

Ranching is a demanding business, she said. It’s a year-long operation of moving pasture, fixing fences and fighting the elements to produce the best product. Ranchers also have to update equipment and, if they don’t grow it themselves, buy feed for cattle.

In the ?“make-or-break deal” of high input costs and low reward, Johnston has started to rely more on her second income after almost 10 years of dedicated ranching, she said.

“It’s a very defeating feeling,” she said.

Johnston works in the cow-calf production sector, which raises cattle for slaughter. Her counterparts in the cattle feeding sector, which brings the cattle to the proper weight for sale, have also faced tough times.

Lee Reichmuth, 41, feeds a herd of about 2,500 to 3,500 at his feedlot in the small town of Lindsay, Nebraska, and he sells to all four major meatpacking companies. But he isn’t sure how much longer he will be able to stay in the industry. 

“I’ve got the lowest inventory I’ve had for years and I don’t know when I will step back into the market,” he said. ?“We can’t continue to buy cattle and produce food for the consumer and lose money doing it.”

‘The packers have all the leverage’

For some, concentration isn’t the market’s major issue. Instead, capacity limitations and black swan events posed a greater threat to the industry, they said.

Montana rancher John Grande, 58, has struggled with profitability. He said he thought risk would be reduced if there were more plants, even if the major companies owned them.

“The prices we don’t like (are) due to the fact that right now the packers have all the leverage because there’s a limited amount of packing capacity chasing a large amount of cattle,” he said.

James Mitchell, a University of Arkansas assistant professor and livestock economist, said he believes the existing companies are bidding as aggressively as they can.

“Right now it’s really just an issue of leverage where we’ve got a lot of animals,” he said. ?“We’re hitting the upper threshold of what we can process on a daily basis.”

Capacity limits at meatpacking plants cause low demand for cattle, which results in low sales prices for ranchers, he said. Although the market is seen as concentrated, it ?“has allowed us to enjoy levels of efficiency that we haven’t seen,” he said.

However, efficiency is not the answer Mike Stranz, the National Farmers Union vice president of advocacy, is looking for. Instead, he’s sought resiliency, he said.

He said the food industry has been endangered by a few black swan events in recent years.

First, in 2019, a fire damaged a Tyson’s plant in Holcomb, Kansas. It forced the four-month shut down of the plant, which slaughtered about 5% of the country’s cattle, according to the USDA.

Then, the coronavirus pandemic struck. Plants closed as tens of thousands of workers fell ill and hundreds died. The closures meant packers bought fewer cattle, which likely caused lower bid prices, according to the USDA. 

Some ranchers were forced to hold onto their cattle longer than they normally would, putting the cattle at risk of becoming overweight and harder to sell. Prices rose in the grocery store as restaurants closed and people ate at home, driving demand for beef.

“The disruption of meatpacking plants reduced production of meat destined for retail outlets and created a backlog of livestock destined for the closed plants,” according to a USDA report.

The most recent black swan event was the ransomware attack on JBS earlier this year. The attack on the company, which processes nearly one-quarter of U.S. beef, forced plants to shut down for several days, according to Reuters. JBS paid $11 million to reclaim control of its systems.

For ranchers, these events and the market in general have them worried about what the future holds. Sullivan, the Texas rancher, said he’s not sure he wants his children to stay in the industry.

“We have to choose now,” he said. ?“It’s either us or it’s a whole new system.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 23, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Mary Hennigan is a recent journalism graduate from the University of Arkansas and an intern at the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.


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Historic heat wave highlights the need for farmworker protections

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Wage theft is a huge problem that requires a creative solution, this week  in the war on workers | Today's Workplace

Summer heat is a danger for farmworkers every year, with heat deaths happening steadily. But with climate change and heat waves like the one that hit the Pacific Northwest in recent weeks becoming more frequent, the need for legal protections for farmworkers is becoming more urgent. At least one worker died during that heat wave.

California farmworkers have a right to shade when the temperature reaches 80 degrees (though enforcement remains an issue), and farmworkers are winning legislative victories in the states, including Colorado recently and Washington state, gaining minimum wage and overtime protections. But nationally, farmworkers lack protections and enforcement, and heat is an annual danger. The Pacific Northwest’s record-shattering June heat wave drew renewed attention to that—even as some coverage of agriculture in the heat wave talked entirely about the danger to crops and never even mentioned workers.

The workers picking cherries and blueberries in temperatures over 100 degrees included children as young as 12 and adults in their 70s, with some employers not even supplying water, let alone shade.

“There’s no shade where I work,” a cherry picker in Yakima County, Washington, told Motherboard. “A lot of people who don’t feel well keep working so as not to lose money for lunch or rent. People endure a lot to finish. They give more than they are able to.” Elizabeth Strater, strategic campaigns director for the United Farm Workers of America, told Motherboard’s Lauren Kaori Gurley that “There is a perverse incentive to work as fast as you can not to hydrate to the extent that you’d need bathroom breaks,” because so many workers are paid piece rates.

Workers also often work in heavy clothes to protect themselves from chemicals used on crops, as they do unbelievably grueling, skilled work in dangerous heat. This is already a workplace safety issue that demands national policymaking—and it’s only going to get worse thanks to climate change.

This blog originally appeared at DailyKos on July, 5 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and a full-time staff since 2011, currently acting as assistant managing editor.


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How the Covid Land Rush Is Hurting New Farmers

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Profile photo of Sadie Morris

The pandemic has inspired city dwellers and investors to buy land in rural areas. That’s driving up farmland prices and pushing some beginning farmers out of the market.

Abel Dowden, age 20, grew up on his family’s beef farm in the Missouri Ozarks. He just got married and is ready to start his own farm. Dowden had his eye on a neighboring place but he is a day late and a dollar short. Over the span of the last year, the price of the adjoining property has tripled. Since Dowden can’t afford the new price, the landowner decided to hold on to it until the right buyer comes along.

What caused this rapid spike in land value? Who will the right buyer be?

The data is still being analyzed but already agricultural economists across the country have noticed a marked increase in agricultural land value caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. In this new market, locals looking for their retirement property and out-of-staters looking for some peaceful country living or an easy investment compete with, and often out-compete, new farmers.”When newcomers move in and take that land out of production, they actually threaten rather than boost the rural economy.”

During the pandemic, federal stimulus money has poured into rural communities in the form of small business assistance, farm aid, unemployment benefits and income-based payments. While the money has helped some scrape by this year, it has left others with cash on hand they wouldn’t otherwise have. Levi McDaris, a commercial banker in the Missouri Ozarks, says that in his area many people are turning around and putting that money into land, driving up demand and prices.

At the same time, the uncertainty of Covid-19 prompted investors to seek out stable investments in an otherwise turbulent market. Ag land?—?known for steady, reliable returns?—?has long been a go-to investment for large firms but this last year also saw new people investing in land, says Ray Massey. Massey is an ag economist at the University of Missouri Extension which conducts an annual survey of the ag-land market. Moreover, the Federal Reserve has kept interest rates low to encourage investment, which has made land purchases easier for individuals and investors.

Those individuals are not only rural people. As Covid-19 has redefined the limits of modern work, urban people have reconsidered city living. Nearly 40% of U.S. adults living in urban areas would consider moving to rural areas according to an April 2020 Harris Poll. Rural housing markets around the country have been blown apart by this sudden demand. In parts of rural California, for example, housing prices have increased by an average of 25% since the start of the pandemic. In the small city of Springfield, Missouri, about an hour West of where Dowden lives, housing prices have increased about 11% since May 2020. This demand extended to ag land, especially into what might be called recreational ag land: often hunting grounds or small 40-or-less-acre lots used for lifestyle farming. While the demand has mostly increased within an hour and a half of larger urban areas, this has also pushed up the value of ag land farther out. 

Since people looking for lifestyle or recreational properties ?“are willing to pay more than the agricultural value,” explains Wyatt Fraas, the farm and community assistant director at the Center for Rural Affairs, ?“all the surrounding ag land gets an increase in value.” The phenomenon has pushed up cropland prices across the U.S. in places like IowaOhio, and Missouri.

Not only has the demand for lifestyle properties pushed up the price of ag land, but non-farming people moving into rural areas have also quickened the development of ag land into smaller, lifestyle plots around rural towns. When media outlets hasten to characterize the flight to the country as a revitalization of rural America, they miss this important part of the picture. ?“When newcomers move in and take that land out of production, they actually threaten rather than boost the rural economy,” says Julia Freedgood, co-author of the American Farmland Trust’s Farms Under Threat report.

Small towns afflicted by the real crisis of business and youth-flight can benefit from the arrival of newcomers, but only when the influx does not come at the cost of ?“ag land being split up” and new farmers being driven out of the land market, says Fraas. He explains that while rural towns do need more families?—?for healthy schools, businesses, and communities?—?land developed outside of town is an economic hardship for small towns because it increases demand for services but not tax revenue. Farmland on the other hand, he said, ?“provides a lot of tax income as well as other economic income. Every farm is essentially a small factory that buys lots of goods and services.”

Moreover, in a world flailing in the fight against climate change, low-density rural development is significantly more energy and greenhouse gas intensive than high-density urban core development, Freedgood explains. This is on top of the direct environmental destruction caused by such development, which breaks up animal habitats, damages watersheds and native ecosystems and, ironically, contributes to the spread of infectious disease.

Despite the economic and environmental costs to local communities, the Farms Under Threat report finds that between 2001 and 2016, nearly 7 million acres of farmland were converted to low-density residential (lifestyle) land use. 

And, of course, conversion into housing developments takes ag land out of the market and drives up land prices. The surging price may be good for landowners but it’s ultimately changing who can afford to become a landowner. Abel Dowden’s neighbor saw his property value triple, but this means Dowden, the new farmer, is unlikely to be able to buy his farm. 

Some of the factors driving up farmland prices?—?such as low interest rates and federal stimulus money?—?probably won’t last. The newfound interest in rural living, however, may stick around or even increase. Currently, about 42 million people—mostly in rural America—are without access to broadband internet. Businesses and families alike view poor broadband access as a major detractor of rural living; thus, broadband access is arguably a major factor limiting rural growth. In response, Biden’s American Jobs Plan includes $100 billion for broadband infrastructure. As rural broadband access increases, more people may want to move to rural areas, buy land and build homes, further limiting the availability of affordable farmland. “The future of farming is not farm ownership because the cost of farm ownership is just getting too high.”

Land access is the number one challenge that young farmers and ranchers face, according to the National Young Farmers Coalition, a network of young farmers fighting for the future of agriculture. As traditional farms and ranches continue to struggle with profitability, fewer and fewer retiring farmers are passing their land onto their children. Instead, their land enters the ag-land market, where it is difficult for new farmers to compete with industrial ag operations, investors, and developers. As prices go up, the imbalance of purchasing power intensifies. The Covid-19 uptick in prices and corresponding rise in investment and non-farming purchases is accelerating this long-running trend. Sadly, says McDaris, a banker who often works with farmers on getting loans, ?“the future of farming is not farm ownership because the cost of farm ownership is just getting too high.”

Independent family farms are the ?“key to maintaining a resilient farm sector and healthy rural communities,” reads one of the National Young Farmers Coalition guiding principles. In fact, small-scale farms are vital not only for rural communities but America’s food system at large. The pandemic made this point all too clear as industrial ag produced piles of pig corpses while people waited in line for hours in food bank lines where supplies were running short. The Young Farmers Coalition finds that not only is farmland overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of older farmers (according to the USDA, the average age of farmers is 57.5), 98% of farmland is owned by white people; it is imperative that new, young, diverse farmers replace aging farmers, not industrial ag behemoths. 

Some states have policies meant to address farmland development and encourage transition to new generations of farmers. These policies can protect agricultural viability and use zoning laws to control low-density sprawl. For instance, under some state programs?—?which are fairly limited in Missouri but more prevalent in other parts of the United States?—?Dowden might be able to sell an agricultural conservation easement on the land in order to make up part of the higher price. This would help him with the purchase now and ensure that the land is not developed even after he is done farming. Some states have also implemented Farm Link programs that connect land seekers with landowners who want their land to stay in agriculture. If such a program was established in Missouri, it might help young farmers like Dowden gain access to farmland.

According to Freedgood, of the American Farmland Trust, there’s a lot of important work to be done on the local level. ?“Good rural planning is incredibly important,” she says. ?“Not just land use planning but comprehensive planning that supports agriculture and rural economies. If done well, not only will it protect the working landscape, it will enhance community resiliency and food security in the face of climate change.”

For now, beginning farmers like Dowden continue to face an uphill battle, only exacerbated by the Covid storm. McDaris, the Ozark banker, reflects?“It’s not that people wanted it to become this way, I think it’s just the unintended consequences of who we are and what we’ve done.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 14, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sadie Morris is a former In These Times editorial intern. She is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Culture and Politics at Georgetown University with a focus on political economy and the environment.


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Why Climate Plans Must Include Farmers of Color

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Hadassah Patterson on Muck Rack

Proposed legislation would give farms resources to fight climate change. Will farmers of color get equal access?

Marvin Frink looks out at his Black Angus cattle farm as the sun is coming up and ponders what’s on the horizon. He and his wife Tanisha started Briarwood Cattle Farm in Raeford, N.C. 10 years ago after Marvin was honorably discharged from the Army, where he served for 15 years, including on a Patriot missile crew. He recovered from service-related injuries and post-traumatic stress issues, and the Frinks purchased their first cattle in 2015 with a grant from the Farmer Veteran Coalition. Now their farm grows beef, pork and chicken available for delivery across the state.

Last year, the Frinks planned to purchase land to expand their cattle operation and incorporate regenerative grazing, a practice that involves frequently rotating grazing animals from pasture to pasture. Marvin Frink knows from his work that overgrazing the same land can be detrimental to the farm and the larger environment. “Regenerative grazing takes bad soil farmers can’t use and turns it back into reusable and sustainable land by having the cattle massage the soil and fertilize it,” he explains.

Regenerative grazing keeps the land and the animals healthy, prevents soil depletion, sequesters carbon, and cuts down on chemical inputs and greenhouse gas emissions. That’s important, because agriculture directly contributes 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and the food system as a whole is responsible for as much as 57% of global emissions.

To implement regenerative grazing, the Frinks needed access to more land and applied for loans to buy it. But they were denied a loan, twice. 

“Our credit wasn’t bad, and we had our cattle and farm (value) that superseded the loan,” says Marvin. “We were told we didn’t have enough equity yet.”

Like many farmers of color, the Frinks struggle to get access to farmable land. According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, Black-owned farmland has shrunk from 15 million acres in 1920 to 4.7 million acres today—only .5% of all farmland in the United States. Unethical rural lenders, biased auction practices and exorbitant tax valuations have eaten into lands owned by farmers of color. Farmers of color also lack access to the capital needed to buy land and equipment, and timely resources for sustainability – such as severe weather insurance processing. This lack of access, and a history of outright discrimination at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), has left many farmers of color without the resources they need to make their operations more sustainable or to mitigate the effects of climate change on their land.

Existing carbon markets, which pay farmers for environmental contributions, offer a revenue opportunity for farmers of color to harmonize cultural, financial, and sustainability goals. But to participate fully, these farmers need to know these opportunities exist, which is too often not the case, and be empowered to participate equally. If farmers of color are struggling to maintain day to day operations, higher-level concerns such as rebates and credits can sometimes fall by the wayside. Right now, some farmers may even have to pay for third-party help to navigate certifications for carbon markets. For this reason, outreach programming is essential to plans that aim to ensure equal access to resources for farmers of color.

Marvin Frink hopes the Biden administration and Congress will address these problems. To start, he wants to see better access to resources for farmers of color and more equity so they can purchase land and equipment.

The Biden administration has made agriculture central to its campaign against climate change and Biden himself has said he envisions U.S. farmers being the first in the world to achieve net-zero carbon emissions. Meanwhile, Congress is debating a range of climate change legislation that would set clean energy standards and provide farmers the funding and tools to reduce emissions and engage with carbon markets for credit of their good work. But some senators are concerned the bills won’t help farmers of all backgrounds participate equally.

Among the over 100 proposed measures pertaining to the environment is the Growing Climate Solutions Act, reintroduced on April 20 by Sen. Mike Braun (R-I.N.), Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-M.I.), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). The act offers a certification program for farmers, and would empower them to participate in carbon capture and soil improvement practices with provisions like technical assistance. It also provides a credit market rewarding “climate-smart practices” for producers. The U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry advanced the bill to the Senate floor with broad bipartisan support from at least 49 senators and over 80 commercial and environmental organizations.

However, Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-G.A.) questioned whether the legislation adequately addresses the needs of farmers of color, who were hit particularly hard as the pandemic squeezed small farms and rattled agricultural markets. During a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing about the proposed legislation, Warnock put it this way: “Many of these farmers of color and their communities were disproportionately impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, with less than .1% of the nearly $26 billion allocated for USDA Covid relief ending up in their pockets. As we work to address climate change and generate new revenue streams for our farmers, we must include farmers of color and their communities in these conversations. It is a matter of equity and justice. They cannot be left behind. They cannot be an afterthought.”

Asked about Warnock’s concerns, Stabenow spokesperson Patrick Delaney said, “the bill provides resources for smaller and medium-sized farmers to help them scale up the good work they’re doing and make sense of carbon markets.” Following Warnock’s comments, he said, “we made important improvements to ensure the new program, as well as the voluntary markets it supports, will address the unique needs of limited resource, historically underserved, and socially disadvantaged farmers, ranchers, and foresters.” 

The Growing Climate Solutions Act will be considered by the full Senate once added to the calendar. 

In February, Warnock himself introduced the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act, which was referred to the Senate Agriculture Committee, where it remains. The bill would require the Secretary of Agriculture to provide assistance for socially disadvantaged farmers, ranchers and other groups.

Another upcoming piece of climate and farming legislation is the bicameral Agriculture Resilience Act, authored by Rep. Chellie Marie Pingree (D-M.E.) and introduced with 16 of her House colleagues. It was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.). The bill focuses on giving farmers tools to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. It also includes specific provisions, such as reserving 30% of land conservation funds for new and socially disadvantaged farmers, including farmers of color.

“Congress must ensure any resources provided to U.S. agriculture to fight climate change are accessible to farmers of color, particularly given past treatment by USDA,” Pingree told Rural America In These Times. “In the Agriculture Resilience Act, I propose policies to ensure farmers of color can benefit from these initiatives and are offered priority or lower matching requirements for grants and other incentives to adopt climate-smart farming practices.” 

The bill also specifies that the plan should improve public health, resilience, and environmental impact in communities of color and tribal areas. The Agriculture Resilience Act was referred to the House Agriculture Committee.

This focus on racial equity in climate change legislation comes as USDA is grappling with a history of discrimination that has steadily decreased the numbers of Black farmers and robbed them of family farms for generations. Congress and the Biden administration took a step to address this history by setting aside $4 billion of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan for debt relief for farmers of color, and an additional $1 billion to improve land access and retention.

Asked what USDA, which oversees the distribution of funds and informational programming, is doing to ensure equitable access, USDA Communications Director Matt Herrick said the debt relief in the American Rescue Plan offered immediate aid to farmers of color, to help them to sustain regular operations. Herrick also said that the new leadership at USDA is revising the agency’s approach to ensure more equitable access to all funding and programs, including creating the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR). The agencies recently established an independent Racial Equity Commission to examine USDA programs and services for accountability within the department, and to empower socially disadvantaged producers to take full advantage of programs. 

USDA is “committed to follow through with actions led from the top by the Secretary [Tom Vilsack], the Senior Advisor for Racial Equity [Dewayne Goldmon], and OASCR,” Herrick said. “We see the upcoming Farm Bill [in 2023] as a perfect opportunity to work with Congress to address structural barriers found in the statutes that authorize critical USDA programs and activities.”

The Frinks are determined to see their farm grow sustainably, and have specific goals to get there. “I’m in need of $50,000 now to purchase land,” said Marvin Frink. But they’re willing to learn more about incentive programs. When asked what makes them so determined, he stated, “creating generational wealth and leaving a legacy standing on God’s faith.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 29, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Hadassah Patterson has written for news outlets for over a decade, with seven years contributing for local online news and 15 years of commercial copywriting experience. She currently covers politics, business, social justice, culture, food and wellness.


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Judge tosses Trump-era pork processing speed-up, this week in the war on workers

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Line speeds in meat processing plants are a classic example of something that’s simultaneously a worker safety issue and a consumer safety issue. And this week, both workers and consumers got a major victory when a federal judge threw out a Trump-era rule allowing pork processing plants to operate at higher speeds.

According to U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen, the U.S. Department of Agriculture “expressly identified worker safety as an important consideration and requested public comment on whether increasing line speeds would harm workers. Then, after receiving many comments raising worker safety concerns, FSIS rejected the comments and eliminated line speed limits without considering worker safety.” Faster line speeds lead to increased harm to workers, from repetitive motion injuries to knife injuries. And while the Trump rule allowing pork plants to increase line speeds as much as they wanted included a nod to cleanliness … realistically that’s going to suffer too, and the speed increase came as many government inspections were replaced by company-run inspections, with predictable results.

”An agency can’t put its hands over its ears and refuse to consider facts that cut against its policy preferences, as USDA did here in ignoring workers and public health advocates, and blindly following industry’s wishes,” said Public Citizen’s Adam Pulver, who represented workers from the United Food and Commercial Workers.

The Biden administration has already withdrawn a similar speed-up for poultry processing plants that hadn’t yet gone into effect.

A decade ago, the bill got little attention. But last year in September, it passed the House with bipartisan support, with every Democrat voting in favor and 103 Republican joining them. It has gained the support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and 30 states across the country have already adopted their own versions — including Southern states like Kentucky, Tennessee and South Carolina. The pandemic and the election derailed a Senate vote last fall, but this year, advocates think the bill is finally poised to pass. It has 19 Republican cosponsors in the House.

Unions, after all, are simply made up of workers; bills that are good for the former tend to be good for the latter. Workers who face racial and gender discrimination on the job could benefit the most from the PRO Act’s provisions. In unions, said Celine McNicholas of the Economic Policy Institute, “workers of color are not experiencing the same sort of wage suppression that they are in other, non-unionized settings.” Union membership thus correlates to lower racial wealth gaps. “The PRO Act promotes greater racial economic justice because unions allow for collective bargaining, essentially shrinks Black-white wage gaps, and brings greater fairness in terms of hiring opportunities,” she added.

“In the at-will employment system, workers are treated as disposable,” said Sophia Zaman, executive director of Raise the Floor.

The act would require employers to provide a written reason for terminations and progressive discipline to allow workers to improve. It would ban actions designed to force workers to quit, such as reducing hours, and would prevent companies from using electronic monitoring as evidence in employee discipline.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on April 3, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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US to Workers Killed on Small Farms: We Don’t Care

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Some workers’ lives are worth more than others, according to Congress.

If you’re killed in a factory or construction site due to blatantly unsafe conditions allowed by your employer, OSHA will investigate and likely issue citations and fine the employer if violations of OSHA standards are identified.

But if you’re an employee in a small farm (under 11 employees), and clear violations of OSHA standards lead to your untimely death, Congress has told OSHA “hands off!”

Language in OSHA’s appropriations bill since the 1970’s has prohibited OSHA from conducting any enforcement activities on small farms (as long as they don’t also maintain a temporary labor camp). That means OSHA can’t investigate deaths on small farms, much less issue citations or fine an employer. And it doesn’t matter if it’s just one death, or 10 deaths. OSHA Is not allowed to set foot on the premises.

Congress has a similar prohibition against OSHA enforcement of safety violations in certain small businesses. But in this case, there is an exemption to the exemption.  OSHA is allowed to investigate and cite in the event of a worker complaint or a fatality.  But not even a worker complaint or a bunch of dead workers will get OSHA onto a small farm.

Maurice Kellogg had the bad fortune of getting himself killed on a “farm” that employed fewer than 11 employees.  Although OSHA has a grain facilities standard since the late 1980s that has been remarkably successful in preventing deadly grain facility explosions, the agency “dropped its investigation in late June after learning the privately-owned elevator had too few employees to fall within its jurisdiction.”

And just to add insult to injury, the facility is “also exempt from regular inspections by the Nebraska State Fire Marshal’s Office.”

So, no inspection, no investigation, no findings of why the explosion happened, who was at fault or how to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

Background

Now I don’t know anything about this specific case that I haven’t read in the newspaper, but I do have extensive experience working with the powerful agriculture lobby which gets incensed that the federal government would ever think of meddling in small farms’ right to kill its employees without the interference of government bureaucrats.

After OSHA mistakenly cited a farm that fell under the agriculture exemption in 2012, the agency re-wrote guidance defining where the agency was and was not allowed to enforce in small agricultural facilities.  It turns out that figuring out exactly what a “farm” is isn’t easy. OSHA determined that a farm is where you grow stuff, but what about other processes that exist on a farm — such as processing of products (like apples into juice in machines that might crush hands or electrocute workers) or storage of agricultural products (like grain in grain silos that might explode).

OSHA determined in a “policy clarification” issued in 2014 that operation such as ” storing, fumigating, and drying crops grown on the farm” were exempt as long as they stored or processed their own grain or other products. But if the facility performs activities

that are not related to farming operations and are not necessary to gain economic value from products produced on the farm, those activities are not exempt from OSHA enforcement. For example, if an exempt small farm maintains a grain handling operation storing and selling grain grown on other farms, the grain handling operation would not be exempt from OSHA enforcement under the appropriations rider.

So, we are forced to assume in this case, that Andersen Farms, Inc. was only storing its own grain in the elevator that exploded, killing Maurice Kellogg.  But we will never learn why the facility exploded, what safe work practices were violated, or how future incidents could be prevented.

Because, according to Congress and the agriculture lobby, the official policy of the United States is “We don’t care.”

What Is To Be Done?

Fighting the powerful agriculture lobby (especially if you’re allegedly affecting “small family farms”) is a fools errand. It’s the so-called “third rail” of regulation.

We did make attempts during the Obama administration to soften the exemption — to at least allow OSHA to investigate a fatality, without actually issuing citations. At least in that case, valuable lessons might be learned.

But no dice.  Not even workers’ lives can get in the way of free enterprise on small farm.

This article was originally published at Confined Space on July 24, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and I spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).


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Overtime for farmworkers passes California legislature, heads to governor’s desk

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LauraClawson

The California legislature has passed a bill that would give farmworkers the same overtime protections as other workers. Now the question is whether Gov. Jerry Brown, who has not taken a position on the proposal, will sign the expansion from the state’s current law, which requires employers to pay time-and-a-half after farmworkers put in 10 hours in a day or 60 hours in a week. Other workers get, and farmworkers stand to get, overtime pay after eight hours in a day or 40 in a week.

 
Getting this bill passed required serious legislative maneuvering by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez:

The Assembly rejected the proposal in June, when eight Democrats opposed it and another six refused to vote. In what Gonzalez has described as an unprecedented move to revive the bill, she worked around the Legislature’s rules and reinserted the proposal in another bill, angering Republicans who objected to the breach in procedure.

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Gonzalez waged a social media campaign to pressure her Democratic colleagues to back AB1066; agreed to compromises to win votes, including giving small farms an extra three years to pay more overtime; and led a squad of Democratic allies in a 24-hour fast paying homage to the weeks long fast that legendary farmworker activist Cesar Chavez staged when the “Salad Bowl” strike of 1970 initially failed.

 

 

Federal law excludes agricultural workers from overtime protections, so California is already ahead—but these workers deserve the same protections and rights as everyone else.

This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on August 24, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.


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Heat kills California farmworkers, but the state won’t always admit it

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LauraClawsonAgricultural workers have fewer job protections than most other workers even as they do physically grueling labor for low pay. It’s a vicious circle—most of the people who work in the fields come from vulnerable groups, and the low wages and lack of protections keep them vulnerable. California’s heat is one significant source of illness and even death for farmworkers. But you might not know that from the state’s official statistics:

While the agency investigated 55 agriculture deaths between 2008 and 2014, it categorized six as heat related, according to data obtained by The Desert Sun. Of the 209 farmworker illnesses investigated in the same period, Cal/OSHA confirmed 97 as heat related.

Farmworker fatalities peaked at 15 in 2014. However, Cal/OSHA found that none of those fatalities were heat related. At least 13 of those farmworkers did not belong to a union, including a man who died in 109-degree heat after picking lemons Sept. 2 in a Mecca field. […]

Although California passed the groundbreaking Heat Illness Prevention act in 2005, Cal/OSHA confirms only 13 farmworkers have died in the decade since then from heat-related deaths. The confirmed deaths represent just a fraction of the total, according to the United Farm Workers union’s recently settled lawsuit, which pegs the number of deaths due to heat in just the six years from 2005-2011 at more than double the 10-year number claimed by Cal/OSHA.

Similarly, the state investigated 209 possibly heat-related illnesses between 2008 and 2014, but only confirmed 97 of them as officially heat-related. Even in cases where, gosh, the worker was definitely sick (or dead) after working in hot weather, and had the symptoms of heat-related illness, Cal/OSHA’s standards are sometimes just too high. And if an illness or death wasn’t officially related to heat, the employer doesn’t get cited for it. Funny how that works.

But despite the low number of illnesses and deaths officially attributed to heat, we do know that, in California, the agriculture industry has more heat-related illnesses and deaths than any other industry involving outdoor work, like construction. Which gets us back to the weak legal protections for agriculture workers.

This blog was originally posted on Daily Kos on November 20, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006  and Labor editor since 2011.


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N.M. Field and Dairy Laborers Win Right To Workers’ Comp—Court Calls Exemption ‘Absurd’

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The New Mexico Court of Appeals ruled in June that excluding field and ranch workers from workers’ comp protection is unconstitutional. It was the second victory for New Mexico’s farmworkers in less than a year—and that’s big news in a low-wage sector made up primarily of immigrant workers, where victories tend to be few and far between.

The first victory came last August when farmworkers finally started getting paid the correct minimum wage. Farmworkers were routinely, and incorrectly, paid the federal minimum when they were entitled to the New Mexican minimum wage, which is 25 cents per hour higher. It only amounts to $8 or $10 a week, but it is significant for these workers, who are among the poorest in the United States.

And now, after six years of legal battles, the state Court of Appeals has upheld a District Court ruling that New Mexico’s farmworkers are not to be excluded from workers’ comp protection.

Farm work is among the most dangerous jobs in the United States, consistently ranking in the top 10 for injuries and death. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that 167 agricultural workers are injured every day. Despite this, only 12 states require full workers’ comp for farmworkers (13 now, including New Mexico); it’s optional in 16 states and required but limited in 21 others. Until the Court of Appeals’ decision, workers’ comp wasn’t required for New Mexico’s field workers or for ranch employees who worked directly with animals. That meant that on a dairy, for example, truck drivers and bookkeepers were covered, but milkers and workers moving the cows weren’t.

As In These Times reported in December 2014, on-the-job injuries are the rule, not the exception, in New Meixco’s dairy industry, and the lack of workers’ comp left some workers in dire economic straits:

Working with large animals poses a real risk of injury. In 2012, attorney Tess Wilkes was part of a team at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (NMCLP) that interviewed about 60 workers from various dairies in the state. Almost 80 percent of the workers said they had never received any safety training.

Most of the cows are docile, but not all. “The younger ones are dangerous,” says Antonio Jiménez, who worked in a dairy outside of Roswell during high school. “They don’t know how to be milked and [they] kick. Sometimes the ones that have just given birth [are dangerous], too.” The NMCLP survey found that 53 percent of the workers interviewed had been injured on the job, often more than once, and sometimes seriously.

In March, Matías Soto was working as a milker at a dairy in southeastern New Mexico. Somehow, a bull had gotten mixed in with the cows and stuck in one of the milking parlor gates. As Soto was trying to free the bull, he says, “It lowered its head and attacked me, lifting me 6 or 7 feet in the air. I hit my head on the concrete floor.” His skull fractured. But, he says, he wasn’t taken to the ER in Artesia, about 40 miles away, for three hours. He then had to be airlifted to a hospital capable of handling his injury. The cost of the helicopter alone was more than $60,000, and Soto’s hospital bills were in “the tens of thousands of dollars,” says María Martínez Sánchez, a former attorney at the NMCLP who worked with Soto. And the dairy had no workers’ compensation insurance.

Its medical insurance covered Soto’s medical bills, but not all of the helicopter costs. Instead, says Martínez Sánchez, Soto went into debt, borrowing from friends and relatives, although he eventually received a small amount of money in a settlement with the dairy.

In 2009 NMCLP filed suit challenging the exclusion on behalf of three injured workers who had been denied workers’ comp based solely on the exclusion. Attorneys from the organization argued that excluding farm and ranch workers violated the state constitution’s equal protection clause.

In 2011, 2nd District Court Judge Valerie Huling ruled that the exclusion is, in fact, unconstitutional. The New Mexico Workers’ Comp Administration (WCA) appealed that decision, stating that the District Court had overstepped its jurisdiction. The WCA lost that appeal, and the three workers in the lawsuit had their cases heard and were awarded workers’ comp benefits. But the WCA argued that the District Court ruling applied only to those three workers. Employers took that as a cue to continue routinely denying coverage to all other farmworkers.

In February of this year, NMCLP attorney Tim Davis challenged that interpretation in a suit on behalf of two injured workers who had been denied workers’ comp benefits. Noe Rodriguez suffered a head injury when he was attacked by a bull at the dairy farm at which he worked and Maria Angélica Aguierre broke her arm when she slipped and fell in a chile field. The New Mexico Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the District Court’s ruling that the exclusion was unconstitutional . The court stated, “Our review of the history of workers’ compensation statutes back to 1929 has not revealed an articulable purpose for the exclusion” and that the exclusion was “without purpose or reason and leads to absurd results.”

The ruling doesn’t mean that Rodriquez and Aguierre will automatically receive workers’ comp benefits, bu it means that their claims, and the claims of other injured farmworkers, can now be heard.

Maria Martínez Sánchez, one of the lead attorneys on the 2009 case, says she is “very happy” with the appellate opinion. “This ruling finally tells agricultural employers that they … must care for their workers in the same way all other employers in New Mexico are required to do,” she says.

While advocates are heartened by the Court of Appeals ruling, they’re also realistic. Farmworkers in New Mexico and across the United States continue to work under harsh conditions for little pay. The majority of states don’t offer farmworkers full workers’ comp benefits; most deny them overtime pay and the right to collective bargaining. Wage theft is rampant, as is sexual harassment and abuse. As Martínez Sánchez says, “There’s still much work to be done.”

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on July 20, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Joseph Sorrentino. Joseph Sorrentino is a writer and photographer. He has been documenting the lives of agricultural workers on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border for 12 years.


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Citing ‘Tradition,’ Big Ag Fights Reforms for Child Farmworkers

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Michelle ChenAdvocates push for stronger protections during National Farmworker Awareness Week

“[When I was 12] they gave me my first knife. Week after week I was cutting myself. Every week I had a new scar. My hands have a lot of stories.”

–17-year-old boy who started working at age 11 in Michigan (Human Rights Watch)

America’s farm workers have always had it tough, toiling for endless hours in the fields under brutal conditions. But those workers do benefit from a unique income subsidy in the country’s industrial farming system: children.

In every region of the country, bountiful harvests are regularly gathered by the tender hands of child poverty: several hundred thousand kids work on farms, typically to help their families survive. Those children who deliver crisp peppers and sweet grapes to the mouths of other kids every day represent the devastating social toll of the dysfunctional food industry.

The Child Labor Coalition, which advocates for the rights of exploited children around the world, documents a cornupcopia of abuses in the backyard of a global superpower:

  • More children die in agriculture than in any other industry.
  • According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), between 1995 and 2002, an estimated 907 youth died on American farms—that’s well over 100 preventable deaths of youth per year.
  • In 2011, 12 of the 16 children under the age of 16 who suffered fatal occupational injuries worked in crop production, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • When you include older children, more than half of all workers under age 18 who died from work-related injuries worked in crop production.

Advocates have for months been pressing the Labor Department to finalize a rule change that would help shield child farm workers from some of the most severe occupational hazards, such as handling pesticides and dangerous farm equipment, and would beef up protections for workers under age 16 (currently, children as young as 12 can legally work on farms, thanks to a loophole in federal labor law, and many younger ones work illegally).

The reforms would largely impact youth in the migrant communities that fuel the agricultural labor force, filled with poor and Latino workers who are extremely vulnerable to abuse.

Under the banner of National Farmworker Awareness Week (March 25-31, consumer and labor groups are working to educate communities about egregious conditions on farms. Now that organizations like the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers have begun to rattle the food industry with colorful worker- and consumer-driven campaigns, Washington should be ripe for long-overdue reforms to curb the worst forms of child labor.

But common decency has again been overshadowed by a well-oiled campaign by the agricultural industry lobby, which has pushed to block the rule changes by claiming that child labor reflects good old American values.

The “Preserving America’s Family Farms Act,” proposed by Rep. Tom Latham of Iowa, targets the pending reforms as a threat to a time-honored “tradition” of child farm labor. Evoking an imaginary pastoral ideal of the American homestead, the bill argues that the strengthening child labor protections would “adversely impact the long standing tradition of youth working on farms to gain valuable skills and lessons on hard work, character, and leadership” and would hurt their opportunities to “gain experiential learning and hands-on skills.”

Apparently, a great way to build kids’ character is pushing them into backbreaking, dangerous labor—rather than going to school or otherwise developing themselves in a way that’s less profitable for agribusiness. You might wonder how many of the bill’s sponsors regularly send their children to pick produce all day to cultivate “leadership” skills.

The saddest aspect of this political debate around farm labor is that the most systemic abuses would not be stopped by just tightening child regulations—not even by enacting the stronger restrictions on child labor that lawmakers have previously proposed in the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment. Whatever the law says, the marginalization of the farm workforce makes comprehensive enforcement nearly impossible.

Justin Feldman of Public Citizen told In These Times, “People are afraid because of immigration status, because of limited English ability, because of poverty and all sorts of issues. They’re afraid to come forward to authorities and report.”

In The Atlantic, restaurant industry veteran Helene York cites the underlying the economic dilemma: “Migrant families will lose their children’s wages and would be unable to move with available work. What’s needed is more income paid to laborers for the really hard work.”

Feldman noted, “one of the reasons that we have children and whole families working on farms is to subsidize the underpayment of the workers…. Looking at it holistically, we need to broaden immigrant rights and workers rights, and not much can change until that happens.”

Child labor is a symptom of a monstrous blight across the food system: consumers relish cheap prices and companies reap profits, and workers pay the human cost. Maybe that is an American value, of sorts.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on March 28, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times. She is a regular contributor to the labor rights blog Working In These TimesColorlines.com, and Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has also appeared in The Nation, Alternet, Ms. Magazine, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen@ inthesetimes.com.


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