The Justice Department said it wanted to hear from farmers and ranchers about antitrust in agriculture. Out of 23 speakers, however, there is exactly one person on the schedule who makes a living on the land.
Lawyers with the Department of Justice pleaded with farmers and ranchers assembled in St. Louis last August to testify at hearings the Obama administration planned to hold on possible violations of antitrust laws in the agriculture business.
Philip Weiser, a top antitrust attorney at the DOJ, said the Obama Administration was eager to hear from people who raised hogs and corn, who bought and sold seed and who sold their meat in the cattle and hog markets. And Weiser said that increasing concentration in who controlled seed production, meat markets and food sales was a deep concern of the Obama Justice Department.
The workshops, according to the Department of Justice, were being held so that producers could “openly discuss legal and economic issues associated with competition in the agriculture industry.” The federal attorneys wanted real stories from real people who see how markets really work on farms and ranches.
That was last August. Now we have the rest of the story: All that good stuff the Department of Justice wanted to hear from farmers and ranchers will be stuffed into to one hour coming at the hind end of a full day “workshop.”
The first DOJ session on competition in the agriculture industry will be held in Ankeny, Iowa, on March 12. The Department of Justice has released a schedule for the event (the Iowa Independent also has a rundown here). And it is clear that the main work in this workshop will be staying awake.
The DOJ’s lineup looks to be as predictable as the tides. The first couple of hours will be taken up with speeches from politicians. Then there are three, one-hour “panels.” These panels are populated with representatives of organizations (Monsanto, the American Antitrust Institute, the American Soybean Association), universities (Iowa State, Minnesota, UC Davis) and government (Montana, Ohio, USDA, DOJ). All of these people have talked about competition in the ag sector for years. Their positions are all well known and well honed.
There is exactly ONE farmer on the schedule: Chuck Wirtz, a pork producer. Wirtz is the only person among the 23 listed who makes his living growing crops or raising livestock.
At the end of the day — if anyone is still around to listen — the DOJ has set aside one hour (from 4:15 to 5:15) for “an opportunity for those in the audience to make comments in an open forum.”
Last August, when Weiser talked to the meeting of the Organization for Competitive Markets in St. Louis, the DOJ was encouraging farmers and ranchers to give testimony. Between sessions and over lunch at the OCM meeting, federal officials were saying that the stories from individual farmers and ranchers were exactly the kind of material the DOJ needed to make a case. Government attorneys said they would be more than willing to take testimony in private. (Many farmers and ranchers fear retaliation from the large companies they do business with.)
“We recognize this is a very important sector,” Weiser said of the department’s interest in agriculture. He said antitrust chief Christine Varney “has put a huge emphasis on” the ag sector and has set no preconditions on the inquiry. “We can say we’re really committed to learning and hearing from as many people as we can,” Weiser said, adding, “I can’t go much deeper.”
(A copy of Weiser’s official speech at OCM is here.)
Now we know that “as many people as we can” means “the same people who have been talking about this issue for years.” There’s no telling how “much deeper” the Department of Justice will go with this. When Weiser spoke last August, he seemed serious about acting, so we’ll see.
He and the other federal officials who attended the OCM meeting in St. Louis were also serious about these workshops. They said they wanted to hear from producers, from the people who carved out a living in the agricultural markets we have today.
Those people have been shunted to a single hour at the end of the afternoon.
The session in Ankeny has been turned into a daylong press conference. Instead of hearing from people who deal with these markets every day, the federal government has decided to listen to politicians, paid advocates and academics.
This is not what was promised last August and it is not an exercise that is likely to add much to anyone’s understanding of the markets that control seeds or food.