Jeff Hauser and Eleanor Eagan
Washington Monthly, October 19, 2019
Times are tough for American farmers. Everything from corporate consolidation to falling commodity prices is making it harder to get by. Strange, then, that the person most responsible for safeguarding their wellbeing, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, brought the following message to a gathering of Wisconsin dairy farmers: “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out. I don’t think in America we, for any small business, we have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability.” In other words, he was telling the farmers: you’re probably screwed and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Contrary to Perdue’s claims, the deaths of small farms are not a result of natural forces. They are a consequence of explicit policy choices that have allowed for the rampant consolidation and disinvestment that are crushing rural communities. Only two decades ago, there were 600 companies that sold seed. Today, there are only four. It’s no wonder that the cost of seeds and plant corn has risen 329 percent in that time period, with similar increases for other crops.
Perdue hasn’t just failed to recognize the root causes of farmers’ pain; he has actively aided the forces responsible for it. From his first days in office, he has turned the full power of the USDA against farmers and rural communities on behalf of Big Agriculture, betraying one of the constituencies most vital to Trump’s 2016 win.
None of this should surprise anyone. What should be genuinely shocking, however, is that Congressman Collin Peterson, a Democrat from Minnesota and the chair of the House Agriculture Committee, has been practically silent about these attacks. Over the past nine months, he has only convened one full committee hearing. And while his panel heard testimony from Perdue in February, Peterson has yet to call him back despite his committing numerous transgressions since, including his continued efforts to impose work requirements on access to food stamps and pressing ahead to relocate the department’s research wing out of D.C.
Peterson, who declined our request for comment, has failed to fulfill his obligation to protect farmers and rural communities. That is not only bad on the substance, but it is a missed opportunity for Democrats to win back support among American farmers, who overwhelmingly pulled the lever for Trump in 2016.
In recent years, consolidated agribusinesses have translated their rising profits into formidable political power. They have successfully weakened or killed many measures that would have limited their control over farmers’ lives and livelihoods, including fighting laws that would give farmers the right to repair their own equipment, something that overzealous copyright protections have prevented them from doing. When these and other nasty practices get too much attention, Big Ag wields its considerable weight to silence critics, whether that means getting a newspaper cartoonist fired or suing the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to close a public comment period on a proposed merger.
Over the past few decades, Democrats have too often either supported the policies that got us here, or fallen short in resisting them. In 2008, Barack Obama made fighting consolidation a feature of his agricultural policy platform. But once in power, he failed to act decisively on those promises. His administration hesitated to enact proposed regulations that would have made it easier for contract farmers to sue packing and processing companies for unfair practices. Then, it found itself unable to move forward once Republicans took the House in 2010.
As with most things, however, the Trump administration has taken a bad problem and made it worse. Earlier this year, the Department of Justice approved a merger between two agricultural industry giants, Monsanto and Bayer, allowing for the creation of a new behemoth. And those Obama-era contracting rules? They were eventually approved in 2016, but Perdue promptly scrapped them after taking power. Worse yet, Perdue’s USDA has walked back enforcement of many of the remaining rules to protect contract farmers.
This is all without mentioning what’s at the forefront of people’s minds when they think about Trump’s impact on farmers: trade policy. Yet as these examples should make clear, the harm this administration is inflicting on farmers goes well beyond trade.
Unfortunately, House Democrats have done little to draw attention to Trump’s deleterious agricultural policies When they do respond by holding a hearing, like over the decision to move the USDA’s Economic Research Service to Kansas City, they fail to confront those responsible for their actions, or take definitive actions to stop them.
Meanwhile, in the same time span that Peterson only convened one full committee hearing, Agriculture’s six subcommittees have held a combined 19 hearings, seven of which involved testimony from USDA officials. The Committee has issued zero subpoenas to corporate or governmental actors.
Peterson should reverse course and start from the top. The USDA is a big department with a diverse set of important responsibilities, ranging from protecting farming and rural economies, to ensuring food safety and administering the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
There have been other ways Perdue has materially hurt farmers and others working in the industry. In addition to cancelling the aforementioned Obama era contracting rules, Perdue announced, in 2018, that the USDA would begin to allow poultry processing plants to increase line speeds, putting already vulnerable workers at even greater risk of injury.
Trump has also failed to nominate an undersecretary of rural development almost three years after taking office, meaning there is no dedicated advocate for rural communities empowered to support rural businesses, utilities, housing, broadband, and more in the federal government.
But that’s not all. The USDA is also making meat more dangerous for consumers by allowing pork processing plants to perform their own inspections. Indeed, the USDA’s chief veterinarian from 2016 to 2018, Pat Basu, refused to sign off on the system and left the agency in protest. Basu recently said, “Look at the FAA. It took a year or so before the crashes happened. This could pass, and everything could be okay for a while, until some disease is missed, and we have an outbreak all over the country.” It seems like Basu might make for an interesting witness at a Agriculture Committee hearing.
Democrats need to perform meaningful oversight of the Trump administration’s assault on American farmers. Impeachment doesn’t obviate the need for skeptical oversight. It underscores it. Oversight is, put simply, a basic fulfillment of Congress’ governing obligations. It can uncover abuse, create pressure for change, and facilitate the development of much needed policy alternatives. And, as an added bonus, the political upside seems clear.
This strategy might seem somewhat unorthodox. It contravenes the gospel that Democrats can only win agricultural districts by espousing a quiet, inoffensive centrism. But that would cede control of the political debate to Trump. If Democrats only play on the president’s terms, the conversation will always shift away from the real issue.
Democrats must therefore redefine the debate on agriculture policy through rigorous oversight. In rural America, they have to demonstrate their willingness to take on political corruption of all shades, and to challenge corporate America’s chokehold over the political process.
Yet Democrats have been surprisingly unwilling to take on one of the most unifying issues across the electorate: how the system is rigged to hurt ordinary people and boost big corporations.
Trump has created an opportunity for Democrats to take up this message in virtually every area of policy, but now especially with farmers. House Democrats have a unique opening to prove to rural voters that they are serious about taking on structural inequities. All they have to do is highlight and push back against the administration’s efforts to enrich corporations at the expense of small farmers. In other words, they have to simply do their jobs.
Jeff Hauser is the founder and executive director of the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Eleanor Eagan is a Research Assistant at the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.