For years, the agricultural industry has followed a trajectory that has led to the mass production of beef, pork, poultry, etc. It is not uncommon to see an operation that contains hundreds to thousands of animals. We find it to be the norm that the average farm size increases while the number of farms decreased. Moreover, smaller farms struggle to compete with more extensive operations as the meatpacking industry monopolizes the agricultural sector. To address this issue, lawmakers and agricultural activists have drafted the Farm Systems Reform Act (FSRA).
Introduced January 21 by US Senator Cory Booker, the FSRA would eliminate large concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, by the year 2040. CAFOs would include operations that raise a minimum of 700 dairy cows, 1,000 beef cattle, 2,500 pigs over 55 pounds, 10,000 pigs under 55 pounds, 500 horses, 10,000 sheep or lambs and 55,000 turkeys.
At first, I thought this bill’s introduction would be a direct attack on the agricultural industry. Working at Summit Farms this past summer allowed me to appreciate beef production in a confinement setting. The employees are treated well along with the cows. I was also skeptical of the resolution due to many animal rights activist groups supporting the bill. Even US Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders began to co-sponsor the bill during the summer. To avoid judging this bill at face-value, I began to do more research on the bill.
Through my research, I had the opportunity to speak with Joe Maxwell. Joe is a former lieutenant Governor of Missouri. He also raises pigs with his brother in Missouri. Furthermore, he is the co-founder of the Family Farm Action Alliance. This non-profit organization works to preserve the rights and benefits of farmers and ranchers across the country. His organization worked with Sen. Booker to help author the FSRA.
When I asked him about the bill’s objective, he explained how the agricultural industry has become a monopoly. With the market control monitored by the four largest meatpackers (JBS SA, Cargill, Tyson Foods and National Beef), farmers and ranchers are at a disadvantage.
“The premise of the bill works to do two things,” Maxwell said, “[It tries] to bust up the monopolies [and] begins to give alternatives to farmers to get off the treadmill.”
The treadmills Maxwell was referring to the subsidies that farmers depend on to be guaranteed a paycheck for the year. American taxpayers currently pay about $22 billion per year to fund agricultural subsidies, with most of the funds going towards corn and soybeans. The bill’s goal is to provide farmers with the tools to become more profitable without the help from the American taxpayer. Though the bill’s original drafting appears alarming to many producers, Maxwell believes that the resolution is a step forward in helping small farmers.
“The farmer is not the enemy. The farmer is stuck. All the profit is going to the big packers, and the taxpayers and bankers are bankrolling it,” he said.
I also spoke with Ricardo Salvador. He runs the Food Safety and Environment Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists, one of the activist groups that support the FRSA. If it passes, he also sees the bill as a feasible way to benefit smaller farming operations after its implementation.
“It is worth pursuing to see less concentrated benefits,” he said. “It is about finding points of agreement. We want to see farmers doing better than what they are already doing. Parents are telling children not to go into the business. If you want to reverse that effect and want more families to afford that, the system needs to change.”
Over the years, more and more family farms have ceased operations due to incapacity to compete with large competitors. If we avoid legislature that would strictly regulate the agriculture sector, we would have to see family farms band together to prove they belong in the marketplace. Since COVID-19 hit, we have seen an increase in demand for local meat products. Small producers are having the opportunity to connect with consumers and market their products.
Additionally, the bill would not be a stand-alone resolution. It is the first draft of a series of policies that aim to help producers transition and provide more benefits to small farms. There is more work that has to be done in order for this bill to work for all sides.
“One potential problem can be, if we don’t simultaneously address the replacement, this would not improve things and put people at a loss,” said Salvador, “This is work we need to [continuously] do. It is about finding points of agreement. We want to see farmers doing better than what they are already doing.”
With the mass production of meat products, consumers do have the benefit of having access to cheaper products. If this bill were to pass, and large confinements were banned, we would see an increase in the price of meat due to higher inputs for production. It would be ideal to see the quality of meat increase as well.
While I value and respect large producers. I would find it beneficial to have discussions that provide more benefits to small producers. As our economy is structured around capitalism, it is promising that small companies have the opportunity to expand, and we do not want to disincentive growth. It would be beneficial to see lawmakers working with large producers as well to find common ground. We want small farms to have all the tools necessary to succeed, but we do not want it to come at the expense of the nation’s food supply.
Over the months, we have seen meat processors benefit and profit substantially while livestock markets struggle for farmers and ranchers. Groups like Family Farm Action Alliance work diligently with lawmakers while attempting to use existing rules and regulations to give small farmers more leverage. While the bill would not hinder the number of animals raised, if passed, it would undoubtedly change the trajectory of American agriculture.