They Came to Fort Collins

Over 2,000 people came to Fort Collins last week to attend a hearing on the livestock business. They came to listen to federal officials and to tell what is happening today in their communities.

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Editor’s Note: The final count had 2,000 people attending the hearing last Friday in Fort Collins, CO. That’s not a Glenn Beck crowd, maybe, but it was a sizeable gathering nonetheless.

The purpose of the gathering was to talk to federal officials about competition in the livestock business. Do packers control prices through their domination of the markets? Should there be a new interpretation of the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921. We have stories about that discussion elsewhere on this page.

This was also a rural reunion, of sorts, as people from Washington State to North Carolina met, talked and compared stories about cattle, land and community.

Colorado-based reporter Jamie Folsom mingled with this incredible cross-section of rural Americans last Thursday and Friday. She came back with these photos and interviews.

I.B. “Barney” Chapman, II, hails from the Chapman Family Ranch, Clarkesville, Texas. He and his brother operate several cow/calf ranches in Texas. The family has been in ranching since 1844. Barney is a member of R-CALF because he believes the organization represents the regular ranchers in an honest way. He said he came to Ft. Colllins here to support Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) and the Packers and Stockyard Act of 1921.

Chapman: You’ll find the ranchers are environmentalists because they have to be environmentalists to pass their ranches along to their families in the future.

It’s getting to where it’s not profitable and the little man doesn’t have a prayer.

Although we did fairly well this year, we need rain. It’s dry and it’s going to be an extremely hard winter for us.

Jamie Folsom
Skip and Vanna Waters, from northeast Wyoming
Skip and Vanna Waters own a cow-calf-yearling and grass/hay operation in northeast Wyoming, in the foothills of the Black Hills. They are active in R-CALF, the Independent Cattlemen of Wyoming, and other groups. Their sons, Wade and Vince, were back at the ranch.

Waterses: The Secretary of Agriculture and the Attorney General are going to be here tomorrow and we’re hoping to get their ear on these problems and maybe they’ll do something about them.

We had a good year weather-wise; we had rain and grass and we had about 10 years of drought and that almost broke us there between that and the market structure.

We can’t do anything about the weather, but the market structure and the manipulation that’s going on in the market today by the consolidated packing segment… we can’t compete against that. And it’s illegal — it has been illegal since the PSA of 1921 — but (because of) politics, government and big money… it hasn’t been enforced.

People in this country don’t realize where their food supply comes from and how fragile that structure is, and the domestic producers are run out of business here. And people are going to see much higher prices and probably a lot less consistent quality in their food. It’s been in the news this last week all of this recall of eggs, salmonella. That’s from corporate farming.

Were just trying to make a living. We always used to be able to make a living until the packing/processing companies got so big and so manipulative.

Jamie Folsom
Gilles Stockton, from central Montana.

Gilles Stockton is a cow/calf and sheep rancher in central Montana. He says he has been involved in efforts to get the USDA to enforce regulations that have been on the books since the 1920s, such as the Packers and Stockyards Act.

Stockton: Well, I have a pretty good off-farm job, so in some ways, you know, my ranching operation…I can subsidize my ranching operations.

I really feel sorry for any young kids who can’t get started if their parents can’t back them up 100 percent. It’s not possible anymore.

The wages we can afford to pay our hired help, if we can find any hired help, are simply not enough to make a living.

Jamie Folsom
Arkansas ranchers Eddie Yancey, left, Claude “Tubby” Smith, right, Buck Gunnet, center, and Adam McClung.
Ranchers came from all over the country to Fort Collins. This is a contingent from Arkansas. From the left we have Eddie Yancey, who is talking shop with Buck Gunnet, Adam McClung and Claude “Tubby” Smith.

Yancey: What I’d like to be able to do is to sell my animals where I want, to whom I want, for a fair, American price. Nothing tickles me more than to be in the sale barn selling my calves and there’s just one person there buying ‘em – 350-lb. calves – and then this guy gets on the phone, he gets a phone call saying he’s got another client that wants 350-lb. calves also, and that gives me two bidders for my calves. And I believe that even though this one guy is buying for one client, that he ought to be able to buy for more than one client. I simply think that freedom to sell our animals where we wish would be the way to go.

Gunnet: I’m here today just to hear what the panel has to say. [This is] my opportunity to get in front of Secretary Vilsack and some of the committee members, and I just want to make my feelings felt, and make sure that I have a voice in this regulatory process. When I elect someone, I expect them to write our laws and not some regulatory agency. If we have a law or if we have a regulation, I’d like to be very specific and not vague so that nobody can misconstrue it and maybe get it into a court situation that certainly doesn’t help me as a businessman. 

Jamie Folsom
Lynn Hayes, from St. Paul, Minnesota.
Lynn Hayes is an attorney, co-founder and program director of Farmers Legal Action Group out of St. Paul, Minnesota. She has been working on the issues of competition and pricing in the ranch industry for the last 20 years.

Hayes: We started this because there was a need.

One of the biggest stories that I’m hearing now is how there is essentially no competitive bidding for slaughter-ready cattle, fat cattle. The packers have essentially the entire market in some form of control. And if they are buying on the direct market, there is still some kind of direct-negotiated kind of sale rather than any kind of bidding, so of all the groups I represent, their goal is to get some competitiveness back into the livestock sector.

The consumer is still paying vastly more, and I believe it’s both packer-concentrated market power as well as retailer concentration. And the consumer is getting hit from both of those.

The biggest barrier is the fact that you have so few buyers that you don’t have the competition for the livestock that’s coming up through the thousands and thousands of the cow-calf operators. Beef is sold virtually to four packers across the country, so you have to funnel all of that through.

What that does is that it gives them incredible market power, and we believe they’re exercising that market power through their use of captive supply, through their use of procurement methods, either by owning cattle outright, or by controlling the livestock 14 days in front of the agreement through marketing agreements and forward contracts.

We don’t disagree with marketing agreements and forwarding contracts. We think those are fine. But they just have to competitively bid them, so we get some real valuation based on market competition to those forward marketing and agreements. We don’t oppose them. We just think they have to competitively bid them. 

We just haven’t had an administration that has the political will to enforce that structure on federal policy. Right now… the industry is so broken that it will necessitate structure-wide change. The only way we’re going to (get this) is to write some rules. 

I think the Obama administration is very much trying, and I think that what this meeting is what this is all about – the Obama administration trying to figure out what do we need to change.

We just need to speed up the action.

Jamie Folsom
Tim Nordell, from Sedan, Kansas.
Tim Nordell operates a small cow/calf operation in Sedan, Kansas. He says he is a member of R-CALF because it represents the producers

Nordell: The prices, I feel, are being manipulated, so with these hearings, I hope they go ahead and enforce the Stockyards Act. It hasn’t been enforced in decades.

It was fair (this year), prices a little better than in the near past, but it should have been a lot better. If we get rid of some of the concentration of packing and get more people out bidding on pens of cattle, it would bring the price up where it belongs.

Jamie Folsom
Holly Waddell, of Shadehill, South Dakota.
Holly Waddell of Shadehill, South Dakota, was reporting on the Fort Collins hearing for Dakota Rural Action. She is a member.

Waddell and her family sold the last of their cattle to neighbors this spring, as well as their ranch and 90 acres. It is a bittersweet experience for her at this gathering, where young faces are few and uncertainty is high.

Waddell: We’ve lost the next two generations already… Where DO we go from here? That’s a good question.