Letter from Langdon: Tournament Time
"Tournament" sounds like an all-American competition where everyone has a fair chance at coming out on top. But in the chicken-raising game, corporations win every time. Where's the ref when you need him?
The experiences that farmers learned from shaped farm politics in the early part of the 20th century. That’s when, following passage of the Capper-Volstead Act, besieged farmers banded together to form cooperatives enabling them to pool their resources so they could compete more effectively against corporate trusts and plain old bad luck.
Not all farmer owned cooperatives have survived. One of the biggest to fail was Kansas City-based Farmland Industries. Forced into bankruptcy, Farmland’s diverse holdings were split among buyers with its pork business going lock, stock, and barrel to Smithfield Foods, now owned by the Chinese-government-backed corporation, Shuangui Limited. Its fertilizer business was acquired by Koch Industries.
Noted afterward was the fact that Farmland’s assets were worth many times more than their debt. They simply lacked cash needed to operate.
The other side is of the coin is one of agriculture’s biggest success stories, CHS, Inc (Cenex Harvest States). It’s the largest co-op in America and 10th largest in the world, on Forbes’ 100 list of largest American companies.
Perhaps best known to consumers is the cranberry-famous farmer owned co-op, Ocean Spray.
Other agricultural cooperatives have succeeded beyond their founders’ wildest dreams. With 33,000 employees, Ohio Farm Bureau Mutual is one of those. Now known as Nationwide Insurance, it has a value of over $153 billion.
Co-ops like these may not resemble the first startups sponsored by their founding farmers. But they point out the successes farmers can have when they are allowed to compete.
They also show the power, prestige, and money involved in competition … or lack of it.
How did farmers lose their say in hogs and poultry? It’s simple. Our government stopped enforcing the law. Now the income those markets produce are under the sole control of a handful of big corporations who don’t share the wealth the way farmer owned co-ops do.
That wealth can be passed around in more ways than one.
Not all farmers receive patronage dividends from their co-ops. Even if they don’t get a check in the mail, cooperatives give farmers the opportunity to compete against other businesses many times their size. When antitrust enforcement at USDA and the Department of Justice became obsolete, family farmers were set on a dusty shelf alongside laws meant to protect their livelihood.
Now corporations in control use part of their wealth to lobby Congress for even greater power.
But the money they use to influence government isn’t theirs.
It’s money family farmers don’t receive for doing their job.
Richard Oswald, a fifth generation farmer, lives in Langdon, Missouri, and is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.