Farmers and workers vs. Big Food

Stopping environmental destruction and setting fair wages and fair prices

December 7, 2022 6:45 am
Michael Monthey, an apprentice in the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship program, moves a herd of grazing cows to a new grazing area on Scott Mericka's farm in Dodgeville.

Michael Monthey, an apprentice in the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship program, moves a herd of grazing cows to a new grazing area on Scott Mericka’s farm in Dodgeville.

During a Tuesday forum sponsored by a coalition of farmers, community leaders and sustainable agriculture experts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dennis Olson, a researcher with the United Food & Commercial Workers union, laid out a vision for changes to our food system that would address the needs of farmers, workers and everyone concerned about the fate of the planet and the safety of their food.

It was a timely presentation, given this week’s news about criminal charges filed against the giant Wakker Dairy in Kewaunee County that allegedly lied about dumping a massive quantity of manure into local waterways. The farm is accused of falsifying documents while dumping so much manure into local streams that the waterways registered more than 100 times the level of E coli bacteria that would trigger the closure of swimming beaches.

All that manure is seeping into Wisconsin drinking water, as giant Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) like Wakker Dairy or Kinnard Farmes, an 8,000-cow operation in Kewaunee, continue to grow.

The Wakker Dairy pollution scandal is just the tip of the iceberg — or cow pie.

More than half of family farms have disappeared from the Wisconsin landscape since the early 2000s, dropping from about 16,000 in 2004 to less than 7,000 in 2021. Our state has the worst rate of farm bankruptcy in the nation. Yet the number of cows — about 1.2 million — has remained the same. The cows have just moved inside, into larger and larger indoor facilities on bigger and bigger farms. That’s bad news for the thousands of farmers who have given up farming and sold the land that was in their families for generations. It’s also bad news for Wisconsinites who live near giant, polluting factory farms. And it should worry everyone who cares about a clean, reliable food and water supply.

What was really interesting about Olson’s presentation, sponsored by the UW-affiliated group Grassland 2.0, was how it brought together seemingly disparate concerns — the survival of the family farm, fair wages and working conditions for food production workers, land use, environmental sustainability and our continued safe access to food.

Olson described the drought of 2011 and 2012 as “where we really kind of got hit between the eyes with climate change.”

Cattle herds throughout the United States — especially in Texas — plummeted to their lowest levels since World War II. Meat packing plants closed down. Meatpacking unions held an emergency meeting in Chicago to discuss the crisis. One of the reasons farmers and meatpacking workers alike were so vulnerable when the drought struck, Olson said, was NAFTA, which did away with the last vestiges of New Deal-era protections for farmers and “opened the floodgates” to competition from Mexico and Canada.

After NAFTA, cattle imports went from supplying 7% of the US domestic demand to 20% today, he noted.

Another contributor to farmer and worker vulnerability was the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act, which stripped out the last remnants of the New Deal supply management system. Freedom to Farm did away with price floors,  which set the lowest price that could be paid for a commodity and functioned like a minimum wage. It also eliminated the strategic grain reserve, which allowed farmers who produced too much grain to set some aside until they were ready to sell it and kept a government grain reserve that could be used in case of emergency — a supply management system that also kept prices from bottoming out.

“It just jettisoned all of that stuff and unleashed overproduction,” Olson said of Freedom to Farm. 

A 2007 Tufts University study titled “Feeding at the Trough” shows how feed grains fell from 15% to 25% below the cost of production after 1996, creating a $35 billion indirect subsidy to industrial-scale producers, who profited from the low cost of feed.

“A lot of people don’t like confined animal feedlot operations and we need to regulate them and do things to try to curtail them,” said Olson, whose main concern is the plight of meatpacking workers, but whose points are equally applicable to other ag sectors, including dairy. “And so far, nothing’s curtailed them and they continue to expand… I would argue that this is the economic driver — this indirect feed subsidy because feed prices are the single biggest cost in a pound of meat, any pound of meat, whether it’s chicken, beef, or pork.”

Another oppressive force bearing down on farmers and workers is the monopoly of big food companies that can keep prices low. Farmers don’t have anywhere to turn since there is so little competition.

One bright spot is the growing demand for healthier, antibiotic-free, organic, grass-fed and free-range food, for which consumers have shown they are willing to pay more at the grocery store.

Unfortunately, thanks to industry pressure to kill country-of-origin labeling on food products, a lot of the market for those products is being satisfied from other countries — so U.S. farmers are not reaping the benefits of increasing consumer consciousness. 

While Congress has caved to big ag by abandoning country of origin labeling, farm activists are pushing for a bill that would bring back the old New Deal supply management system. The National Farmers Union helped craft a bill that would reestablish the strategic grain reserve, set a price floor for farmers and also provide a price ceiling for consumers.

Given the volatility of the world economy, the climate crisis, and the vulnerability of supply chains, now is a good time to think about restoring local food economies.

“We’ve never really had shortages before,” Olson said, “but what the drought and COVID and the Ukrainian war have shown is now we’re facing shortages. So I think those developments make the case for at least putting supply management back on the table and having some more discussion about it.”

The United Food & Commercial Workers, the Wisconsin Farmers Union and other groups have been in discussion for the last decade about the need to rekindle that old farmer/labor alliance from the New Deal era — and to expand it to include people who care about climate change. 

“These family farm feeding operations … there’s no way that their dairy and their meat can compete with CAFOs,” said Olson. “And so what did they do? They sold those cattle off, plowed up those sustainable pasture rotations, which only exacerbated the overproduction problem and made it worse.”

“And from a climate perspective, it was an unmitigated disaster,” Olson added, “because what it did is it moved millions of head of cattle off of millions of acres of sustainable pasture rotations.”

To make matters worse, U.S. demand for beef is increasingly fed by Brazil, where cattle ranches are expanding into the rainforest and accelerating deforestation. Brazil recently expanded from supplying  2% of the U.S. beef import market to supplying 15%.

The hope, says Olson, is that pivoting back to a supply-management system in the U.S. and reviving country of origin labeling could help move cattle back into sustainable pasture rotations, rebuilding soil health and fixing carbon. 

“Not only would it curtail the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, it would make the countryside more resilient to climate volatility … floods and droughts, if you had pasture rotation,” he says.

Biden’s Ag secretary, Tom Vilsack, agrees. In reaction to the pandemic, which exposed the fragility of our far-flung food supply chain when the few remaining meat packing plants shut down and farmers were left to euthanize their animals in the field even as grocery store shelves stood empty, Vilsack announced a $2 billion initiative to create more meatpacking plants and has promoted antitrust enforcement against Big Food.

“Between the big packers and the big retailers, they have a lock on market access,” says Olson. “Antitrust is one way to pry open market access.”

Another way is through supply management. Another is by calling attention to and rewarding fair labor and environmental practices.

That’s the gist of the effort to overcome the race to the bottom in our cheap food economy. It’s a battle with deep roots in Wisconsin history and a lot of urgency right now.


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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.