· By Alan Guebert, Ag columnist
A joke bouncing around the ag grapevine shines more light on where rural America’s politics are than where its funny bone actually is. The abridged version goes like this:
My dog sleeps 20 hours out of 24, eats free food prepared for him every day, gets free medical care, free housing, and never cleans up any mess he makes. Thinking about this it suddenly hit me: my dog is either a Democrat or a congressman!
Funnier than the joke, perhaps, is that just a week or so ago the cowboys who sent it were flooding rural email boxes with flaming denouncements of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue after he killed the GIPSA rule, a complicated but crucial market reform aimed at leveling the meatpacker-dominated livestock and poultry markets.
Independent ranchers, hog farmers, and poultry growers had spent years fighting for the rule, administered by the Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration, or GIPSA. All were “infuriated,” reported USA Today, when Perdue, traveling in Spain, officially “withdrew” – read dumped – it.
Their anger is understandable. The rule was the last best chance they had to protect what little market independence remains in today’s packer-controlled livestock and poultry markets. Perdue threw that chance on the bone pile without looking back – or forward.
The angry cowboys shouldn’t have been surprised. Big Meat, Big Ag, and Congressional Republicans spent almost 10 years delaying the rule after Democrats pushed it as a key element of the 2008 Farm Bill. In mid-2015, however, Congress allowed it out of the bureaucratic dog house as part of a broader budget deal. Tom Vilsack, Perdue’s predecessor, quickly moved to publish an “interim” rule.
But on Oct. 17, the day before the rule was to become “final,” Perdue tossed it.
Strangely, just a week later, those GIPSA-hot, Perdue-angered ranchers had all but forgotten that the secretary had crushed their hopes for market reform and now were busy comparing a lazy dog to Democrats or worse, members of Congress.
Really? A Republican secretary of agriculture for a stridently Republican White House kills a desperately needed market reform that was promoted, passed, and protected by Congressional and White House Democrats (and a brave Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa) for nearly a decade, and these protectors are now freeloading dogs?
Wow. Little wonder Perdue and the Trump administration tossed the rule; they knew it wouldn’t cost them one ounce of political support in beet-red rural America.
And even if it had cost them, were working farmers and ranchers who, according to some estimates, voted for Trump by a staggering 4-to-1 margin, going to cry foul? Democrats in farm and ranch country these days are, after all, as rare as profitable prices.
And yet, despite his anti-farmer/rancher GIPSA action, Secretary Sonny can’t escape Big Meat’s ugly truth. Two stories published Oct. 30 by meatingplace.com showed where some of these loosely regulated giants now are.
The first story reports that “A class-action lawsuit filed last week in Benton County, Ark., Circuit Court accuses two rehabilitation programs of violating Arkansas law prohibiting slavery by forcing drug addicts to work for free at chicken processing plants and a plastic manufacturing facility under threat of incarceration.”
The second story, again set in a poultry processing facility, notes “Authorities in Alabama are investigating the death of a work release inmate yesterday while he was working at a Koch Foods poultry plant in Ashland…”
Are we as a nation, let alone as farmers and eaters, so blinded by ever-lower costs and ever-higher profits that we now have a system that allows drug addicts to be allegedly enslaved and low-cost prison inmates killed in our livestock slaughtering plants?
These aren’t market failures; they’re human failures. Our food, farms, customers, and communities won’t get better unless we demand better.
And, lazy dogs or not, Perdue’s killing of the GIPSA makes all of us worse, not better.