Congressional Appropriators Support a Level Playing Field for Contract Farmers

Congressional Appropriators Support a Level Playing Field for Contract Farmers

March 18, 2016

Photo credit: USDA

Photo credit: USDA

Yesterday, eight Congressional Appropriators signed on to a letter to United States Agriculture Department (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack, thanking him for moving forward with rules to protect contract livestock and poultry producers from unfair and retaliatory practices.

The letter, signed by four Senate and four House agriculture appropriators, comes on the heels of Secretary Vilsack’s recent comments (27:30 mark) to the Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee regarding the USDA’s decision to move forward in finalizing rules in the Packers and Stockyards Act:

“We realize that Congress has lifted the restriction on our ability to work on these issues. I’ve asked the team to take a look at what modifications and changes would be appropriate…The key here is to make sure that the playing field is level between those that are owners and those that are producers, to make sure that there is not an unfair advantage in that relationship, and to make sure that especially in difficult times that those that have invested a lot of hard earned resources and time are treated fairly.”

The day following the delivery of the letter, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Conway asked USDA Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Ed Avalos for more details about the rule making process. USDA’s Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Agency (GIPSA), which is responsible for enforcing the Packers and Stockyards Act, falls within the Marketing and Regulatory Program mission area.

Avalos explained that USDA will be reviewing all of the public comments they received on their 2010 proposed rule and will proceed in a careful and deliberative manner to develop an acceptable set of rules that respond to public comments. The Under Secretary indicated that the rules might be out this summer or by early fall.

The ability of USDA to move forward on the Packers and Stockyards Act is possible only because of a hard fought battle, championed by numerous farm groups, including the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, and several Senators and Representatives, which succeeded in keeping the controversial “GIPSA rider” out of agriculture appropriations spending bills. No doubt defenders of farmers’ rights also owe thanks for this victory to the attention brought to the issue by television news celebrity, John Oliver. Oliver presented an extended exposé on his show, Last Week Tonight.

The GIPSA rider refers to a legislative provision tacked onto the annual agriculture funding bill that severely limited USDA’s ability to protect farmers’ basic rights – like the right to free speech or freedom of association – in their dealings with large meatpacking and poultry companies.

The fiscal year (FY) 2016 omnibus appropriations bill, signed into law last fall, was the first appropriations bill in five years to not contain some version of this rider.

NSAC thanks all the Senators and House Members that supported the removal of the GIPSA rider last year, as well as those who signed the letter to Secretary Vilsack this week.

For background on the GIPSA rider and contract livestock and poultry production, check out our previous blog post.