CNN: What an Oklahoma rancher wants you to know about America’s broken food supply system

“If you can’t feed your own people, you can’t feed your own armies, it’s a huge national security issue, and I think we’re seeing that today. It’s just an absolute breakdown of the whole food system, and it’s scary.”

Opinion: America has plenty of cattle. This is why you still can’t find beef in stores.

W. Kamau Bell: What an Oklahoma rancher wants you to know about America’s broken food supply system

By W. Kamau Bell, CNN

Fri April 24, 2020

W. Kamau Bell is a sociopolitical comedian who is the host and executive producer of the Emmy Award-winning CNN Original Series "United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell." The views expressed here are his; read more opinion on CNN.

I first met Scott Blubaugh, the president of the Oklahoma Farmers Union, last year when I was filming an episode on family farms for this summer’s season of "United Shades of America." There’s a lot of talk in this country of farmers as the backbone of America, and we were trying to separate the facts from the pickup truck commercial.

Scott and his family own the Blubaugh Angus Ranch in Tonkawa, Oklahoma, a town of just over 3,000 people. While cattle is their primary business, they also grow several crops, including wheat and soybeans. The farm has been in Scott’s family for six generations; it is the classic tale of an American farm passed down from father to son again, and again, and way more agains.

In fact, his son Zane is preparing to take it over. But currently, it’s in Scott’s hands. Every early frost; every drop in price for his crops; every politician’s promise that doesn’t deliver; every stud bull that doesn’t want to stud … it’s all on him. Scott has the easy manner of a person who has the weight of the world on his shoulders but wouldn’t have it any other way.

Scott Blubaugh (left) and W. Kamau Bell during filming for "United Shades of America."

There’s another classic part of this story — but it’s one that Americans don’t like to discuss as much. We often like to think of farming as a local enterprise, but as Scott explained to me, it is really an international business. And worse, he said, the farmers who grow the commodities for the processors don’t set their own prices for what they grow. This allows the processors and the corporate farms to maximize their profits, while independent family farms like Scott’s struggle.

On a normal day, that would be an interesting story to tell. But we all know that because of Covid-19, for the foreseeable future, "normal days" are behind us. And the issues farmers face during this pandemic put a huge spotlight on what is wrong with the way our country handles food production and distribution.

I wanted to know how these issues were affecting farmers like Scott, so I checked in with him via a (Zoom) video call.

The following Q&A has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

W. Kamau Bell: Before we get started Scott, just how are you doing?

Scott: We’re doing fine. Our health in our family has been good. We’re quarantinedlike everybody else around the country, but it’s a little different because we still get out to feed the cows, birth the calves, plant the crops, and do everything. It’s just you don’t see anybody else. It’s kind of a lonely time right now for us.

WKB: There’s a lot of news focused on major cities; I think there’s not enough talk about what’s going on in places like where you are, where it’s pretty rural, right?

Scott: Yeah, it’s very rural here, it’s sparsely populated. So it probably helps a little bit with the virus, because we’re naturally far apart. The biggest thing is the food system and our markets, how they’re being affected and how the supply of food, even in the grocery stores here, is limited.

In many cases, they’ve run out of beef, they’ve run out of milk, bread, eggs — all the things that you’re having trouble seeing on supermarket shelves in the big cities, we’re also seeing that very same thing out here in rural areas because it’s really the way the structure of our food system is today.

WKB: Yeah, when I was with you, you educated me to the idea that you’re not really creating food, you’re creating commodities.

Scott: We have plenty of cattle, pigs, chickens, wheat, corn, soy beans. The problem that we’re seeing right now is the processing industry has consolidated at a tremendous rate over the last 40 years.

So while we have plenty of commodities out here on the farm, when the processors’ workers get sick and they’re not able to come to work, we’re seeing these plants close down that process the food. Then you can’t get the shelves restocked. The virus has really exposed the flaws of our food system, and how vulnerable it is.

We don’t have big food reserves. People might think we do, but we don’t. Here in my hometown, they limit milk to a one gallon purchase per customer. Bread, it’s one loaf per customer.

We’re rationing those food products, and at the same time we’re dumping milk on the ground because the processors can’t handle [processing and distributing] it. We’re seeing these big, corporate-owned facilities have to euthanize animals because their barns are all full and they have new [animals] born every day.

One of the advantages we have in the beef business is a lot of those cattle that are market-ready but there’s no market for them — again, because the processors are shutting down because they don’t have workers — is that we can always open the gates, herd them back out, and let them graze. Thank goodness we’re in the springtime and there’s green grass coming, so we don’t have to euthanize.

WKB: I think it’s going to be hard for people to understand that you, who are in the place where people are basically milking the cows and growing the wheat, can’t get more than one loaf of bread at a time and can’t get all the milk you want. And then to also hear that milk is being thrown away. I think your average American thinks, ‘If you can’t get it and you’re making the stuff, how are we supposed to get it in a few weeks?’

Scott: We’re at a very critical situation. I’ve been saying for years, Congress needs to step in and regulate these huge, multinational processors. We have just ignored all of our antitrust laws for many, many years, allowed all of this consolidation and mergers to happen, and even foreign ownership now.

The government’s just let this happen over a long period of time. We need to break up the monopoly of the processing, and go back to a more regional-style or local-style of processing.

That way, when you do have a problem, sick workers or any type of an issue, you don’t shut the whole nation’s food system down. It’s just a small piece of it, and then you can plug in others. But the way our system’s set up today, we are very vulnerable for any type of thing like this that would put a rock in the cogs.

On our big grain elevator here, it says, "The wheat heart of Tonkawa, Oklahoma." This is kind of the bread basket of the country; there’s plenty of wheat in those grain storage elevators. But you have to get it processed, you have to get it made into bread, and you have to get it onto the supermarket shelves.

And that’s the problem right now with sick workers — processors aren’t able to keep these plants open, or they’re running at a lesser capacity.

Scott Blubaugh’s farm has been in the family for six generations.

WKB: We think of a family farm as, ‘A farmer grows carrots, and then they take their carrots to the supermarket, and the supermarket sells them.’ Most of us aren’t thinking about a food processing plant being the key part of that. And how that company treats its workers and the farmers they’re working with really affects our ability to get food.

Scott: It really does. The other thing that we’re seeing that’s going to have long-term implications [is] we’re seeing the price of cattle absolutely crater. The value of our cattle went down over 35% just since the virus hit.

They were already not very good prices to start with, and now they’ve declined. I get calls every single day from ranchers in our state who tell me they’re losing $300 to $400 a head on every [cow] that they sell right now. And at the end of the day, they’re $300 or $400 a head short, and owe the banks money. It’s a terrible situation.

Our farmers-ranchers are losing money like crazy, and at the very same time, the processors are making absolutely windfall profits. And when they’re making $500, $600 a head on every one that they process, and the rancher loses $300 or $400 a head on every one that he sells to them, the system is broke. So the consumer is paying more money, as you well know — go to the store, you’re paying a lot more money for your beef there at the supermarket. But as ranchers, we’re receiving the lowest we’ve ever received for it.

I’ve written letters to Secretary [of Agriculture] Perdue, President Trump, I’ve talked to many United States senators, many United States congressmen. We’re doing everything we can to get their attention, to put some rules in place and enforce our antitrust laws. I’ve asked the Justice Department if they would investigate this price manipulation that’s going on and these antitrust issues that are going on.

And so we’re hopeful that the public will rise up and will demand these investigations by the Justice Department as well. We’ve got to put rules back in place that prohibit

this type of bad behavior from a few foreign corporations.

WKB: One thing you said that’s so prescient now is that food is a national security issue.

Scott: If you can’t feed your own people, you can’t feed your own armies, it’s a huge national security issue, and I think we’re seeing that today. It’s just an absolute breakdown of the whole food system, and it’s scary.

We have workers who are getting sick and dying to do our processing work for us. I mean, they’re really heroes, just right along with our medical professionals, because they’re out working in really tough conditions where these viruses spread very easily, because they’re working very close to each other, almost elbow-to-elbow in these plants.

They’re paid a barely livable wage, and they live under poor conditions. Mostly, we’re talking about a lot of immigrant workers; they’re not paid very well, and they’re sure not paid enough to take the risk that they’re having to take.

WKB: If we do this for another year where we’re really sheltering in place and practicing social distancing, what does our food supply look like in a year?

Scott: I think our farmers and ranchers will continue to do the work out here in the country and grow the commodities. But can the processors keep their workforce healthy and keep their plants open? That’s the huge issue, and I don’t know if they will or not, and I don’t know how long this is going to last.

I think in the next two or three weeks consumers are going to see this quite a bit in the grocery stores because some of the food that is highly processed [and] goes through these processing channels, they’re going to be in short supply for a while.

The US has plenty of commodities, Blubaugh says, but not enough local and regional processors.

I believe that’ll be chicken, that will be pork, ham, bacon, sausage, that will be beef — you’ve already seen it in milk, and we may see it at some point in time in some of the other processed foods as well. Where it takes a lot of labor to process, we’re really in dangerous territory. We don’t have very many small, regional processors, and that’s the problem. If we had more small or mid-sized regional processors, we would be in much, much better shape.

WKB: One of the main things I appreciate about you is when you speak about this, it isn’t about political acts; it’s about helping the farmer. No matter what political party a farmer’s in, you’re all pulling in the same direction to try to provide for your family and provide the best product that you can.

Scott: Oh, absolutely. I work on both sides of the aisle and with both parties to try to do the right thing and benefit the consumer and our farmers and ranchers, so they can make a living and stay on the land out here.

WKB: Are there farmers you think who aren’t going to recover from this?

Scott: I’m really, really worried about a lot of my beef farmers, my cattle ranchers. They’re calling me every day, and we’re doing everything we can to help. But when you’re losing that much money per head — and the bigger you are, the more [cattle] you have — your losses are astronomical. We’re waiting on USDA to come out with a program, the coronavirus program, to help offset some of those losses.

But I’m telling you, I’m not very optimistic that it will do a lot for us. The numbers that I have seen so far are far below the actual losses that we’re receiving out here. The amount of money that they appropriated for this is not even close to enough money to make the ranchers whole, or back where they were in February.

I think we’re going to lose a lot of our ranches in the country in the next six months.

WKB: As we’re talking about this, I have CNN on in the background. They say food banks have a lack of stock on their shelves, that their supplies are low.

Scott: Yeah, it doesn’t matter if you have money to buy the food or not. It makes no difference what it costs or if you have all the money in the world to buy it, if there’s not any on the supermarket shelf to buy, that’s the issue, and it’s the same way with the food banks: They can’t get it. Even if it was free, they can’t get it because of the processing problem that we have.

WKB: If you could fix it so that when we came out of this it would be a sustainable system, and a system where people doing the work could thrive and not just merely survive, how would you fix all this?

Scott: Simple: Start enforcing antitrust laws that we used to have on the books. We put them in place around the turn of the century. Theodore Roosevelt, he put them in place, he busted up these monopolies. We need to bust them up again and have regional and local processors process the food. We need to get away from this huge corporate control and international corporations controlling our food system.

If we could do that, the American farmer-rancher … can produce plenty of food and great quality food for the consumer. But we can’t do it with our hands tied behind our back, fighting these international companies that are processing. We’re in a fight for, really, our future as independent farmers and ranchers right now.

WKB: I think the sooner the rest of America knows we’re in the fight with you and we don’t wait until it gets to our doorstep, the better we all are.

Scott Blubaugh’s story will be featured in the next season of "United Shades of America," coming to CNN this summer.